Leeds completed the dramatic transformation of their season thanks to stubborn self-belief and the instinctive magic of Rob Burrow. Written off by everyone but themselves weeks ago, trailing by eight points and starved of the ball in the second half here on Saturday night, the Rhinos found the inspiration to bounce back and win their fourth Super League title in five years, condemning St Helens to a heart-breaking fifth successive Grand Final defeat.
Much of that motivation came in the compact shape of Burrow, the long-serving scrum-half who has, contentiously, been confined to substitute duties over the last couple of months. The little man had made such a big impact coming into games late – notably at Wembley in the Challenge Cup final – that it begged the question of what damage he might do if he was on from the start.
That was one of the many things the outside world thought that Brian McDermott had got wrong, but the Rhinos' coach knew exactly what he was doing.
Burrow himself, like any self-respecting rugby player, could be persuaded to admit that he would rather be starting games. There was even baseless talk of him moving to his home-town club, Castleford. On Saturday, however, he showed exactly why McDermott has used him the way he has – and why England should seriously consider doing the same.
Burrow had fidgeted around the dugout area for a first 20-odd minutes of hard physical slog, but within 10 minutes of coming on he had turned the game. His dart caught Scott Moore and Tony Puletua flat-footed in the Saints defensive line and his acceleration did the rest, taking him past a series of tacklers for what was arguably the best individual try in any Grand Final.
Not that there was too much wrong with the one he set up with 10 minutes to play that effectively won the game for Leeds. The scores were level when Burrow burst out of dummy-half, showed the ball to Ryan Hall, pulled it back and eventually delivered it to him with perfect timing. Performed at full speed, it was a glorious piece of skill.
"When he does something like that on the biggest stage, it's jaw-dropping," said McDermott afterwards. As for Burrow, the reluctant bench-warmer stressed, as he has all along, that he would do whatever the team needed from him.
The other area in which Leeds won this invigorating Grand Final, after a mediocre season which saw them finish fifth in the table, was their defence at the start of the second half. Saints attacked non-stop, but the Rhinos' heroic goal-line defence limited them to one try – and it took a rather brilliant one from Tom Makinson to breach it.
"If we'd gone 10, 12, 14 points down, it would have been hard to get back in those conditions," said McDermott. As it was, the Rhinos fell eight points behind before they started their run for the winning post.
It was hard on Saints, whose season ended as it had begun – with injuries playing a big part. Early in the second half they lost the hugely influential Paul Wellens, when the Achilles strain he had started with finally wore him down. Then Michael Shenton, who had been having a particularly strong game at right-centre, dislocated his elbow, an injury which is likely to keep him out of England's squad for the Four Nations. The two departures exposed some defensive frailties in Saints which Leeds were quick to exploit.
The Saints coach, Royce Simmons, was rightly proud of the effort his team had put in, but felt that they had failed to seize the initiative, especially in the first half. "We were trying not to lose a Grand Final, not to win one," was how he put it.
We will never know whether the introduction of Leon Pryce would have galvanised Saints the way Burrow's did with Leeds. Simmons had decided earlier in the week that the nine-times Grand Finalist had not played enough rugby recently to be considered. "He wanted to play, but the other boys had been playing good and that was my decision," he said.
Those "other boys" were the young half-back pairing of Lee Gaskell and Jonny Lomax, who added to their growing reputations without quite being the match-winners they had been in recent weeks.
Apart from the overall high standard of skill in wretched handling conditions, those "boys" encapsulated one of the most refreshing aspects of a fine Grand Final – the number of young British players involved. Both sides had 10 graduates of their own academy systems in their 17 and that is a credit to them.
However, it was a frustrating farewell for one of Saints' best junior products, James Graham, who was playing his last match before joining the Canterbury Bulldogs in Australia. He was plainly furious at being substituted for a spell in the second half. Saints would not have him any other way, but sometimes sitting in the dugout for longer than you would like can be the preparation for something special. Rob Burrow could tell him that.
St Helens Wellens; Makinson, Shenton, Meli, Foster; Gaskell, Lomax; Graham, Roby, Puletua, Wilkin, Soliola, Clough. Substitutes used Moore, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Dixon, Wheeler.
Leeds Webb; Jones-Bishop, Hardaker, Ablett, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Buderus, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Delaney, Clarkson. Substitutes used Burrow, Bailey, Lauitiiti, Kirke.
Referee P.Bentham (Warrington)
Saints' grand despair
This was St Helens' fifth successive Grand Final defeat in five years – for Leeds a fourth title in fiveReuse content