Final showdown as Saints' young guns have Rhinos in their sights

 

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The Independent Online

One way of looking at today's Super League Grand Final is as the proven big occasion match-winners of Leeds against the youth and potential of St Helens.

And, if timing your run counts for anything, the Rhinos deserve to stride out as favourites at Old Trafford, where they beat Saints three times in succession from 2007 to 2009.

This has not been a season which looked like ending that way for Leeds. Under their new coach, Brian McDermott, they stuttered through the first half of the campaign, winning only two of their eight games between mid-February and late-April.

The South Stand was calling for his head and even those inclined to give him time to bed-in would have agreed at that stage that missing the play-offs altogether was a likelier outcome than reaching the Grand Final.

Even when Leeds reached the Challenge Cup final, they looked far from convincing. Many of their supporters were so sure that they were destined for a heavy defeat by Wigan that they stayed away in their droves. At 16-0 inside the first quarter of the match, they did not look bad judges. Although the Rhinos fought back that day, they had left themselves too much to do. The defiance which has seen them regroup in the latter stages of the season, however, was forged in the losing dressing-room at Wembley.

They did no socialising with outsiders that day; no interviews, no hanging around for commiserations, or to be told that they had been unlucky. "The emotion of being involved in a final must have triggered something," said scrum-half Rob Burrow.

Burrow is one of a group of players, all around the 30 mark, who have played their whole careers at Leeds. It is no co-incidence that he, Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Jamie Jones-Buchanan have stood out in recent weeks. Throw in the return to full fitness of Jamie Peacock and it is no great mystery as to why Leeds' slow-burner of a season has suddenly caught fire.

Against all this maturity and momentum, Saints' Royce Simmons, partly through choice and partly through necessity, will be pitting many of the younger players who have done such a good job for him.

His young half-backs are well-established now, as is one of the few players in Super League who can match Sinfield as a place-kicker, the nerveless 21-year-old Jamie Foster on the left wing.

Even when Saints look for a lead in the pack, there is a generational difference between them and Leeds, with James Graham and James Roby almost a decade younger than Peacock and the Rhinos' hooker, Danny Buderus.

It is Graham's last game before fulfilling his ambition to play in Australia and he has been more intense than ever this week. Always a player to wear his heart on his sleeve, he could be more explosive than ever this evening.

Buderus is also returning to Australia after this game and he is another example of Leeds' perfect timing. After a slow, injury-hampered start, he has started to show his world-class credentials and his performance against Warrington last weekend was his best yet for the club.

With St Helens finishing third and Leeds fifth, this was not the Grand Final anyone expected. Few would deny Warrington and Wigan were the best sides in the country this year, but the play-off system can make a mockery of that sort of consistency. Instead, we have participants who have sneaked into Old Trafford's air-space "under the radar," as both Simmons and McDermott have put it. Both have the players who can make it a compelling Grand Final, if not the predicted one.

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