If there was a game with which the domestic rugby league season was destined to end, it was surely anothermeeting between St Helens and Leeds at Old Trafford. After all the twists and turns, the two best teams face each other in the Super League Grand Final next Saturday.
Saints were first to qualify a week ago, hammering Leeds at Knowsley Road, only for the Rhinos to seize their second chance with a hard-fought victory over Wigan on Friday night. "I thought Leeds were in control for most of the game," said one interested viewer, the Saints coach, Daniel Anderson.
Anderson claimed he had not been rubbing his hands with glee at how tough it had been for Leeds, although he could hardly fail to be interested in two Rhinos, Lee Smith and Matt Diskin, being placed on report for two of the game's many incidents.
In his matter-of-fact way, Anderson played down the prospect of revenge after last year's Grand Final, in which Leeds caught his team cold. "We've played them enough times since then, so it doesn't faze me at all. As for doing anything different this time, I can't honestly remember what we did last year, but it certainlywasn't the case that we were too relaxed. We'll do what seems right for this team, this time and this group of people. A lot depends on the availability of players, and this year we're very healthy."
Those healthy troops include several of the stand-out players of the Super League season. Saints have two candidates for the game's most prestigious individual award, the Man of Steel, this week, and they represent different facets of what makes the side so formidable.
The Liverpudlian prop James Graham has set the tone in the pack, with his appetite for taking the battle to the opposition. Even more than elder statesmen such as Keiron Cunningham, he establishes the tempo at which Saints play in the forwards, which sweeps aside all but the very best.
Although the wing combination of Matt Gidley and Ade Gardner has been potent and senior citizens such as Sean Long and Paul Wellens have maintained their high standards, the key man in the backs has been Leon Pryce. The Test stand-off has not had an easy year, with off-field assault charges still hanging over him, but his nomination, alongside Graham, to be Man of Steel speaks volumes for his standing among his fellow professionals.
Pryce has reached the level where something is expected to happen every time he gets the ball in his hands. In particular, his knack of bending the defensive line, getting his long arms free and slipping out a killer pass is a torment for teams who think that they have weathered what Saints can throw at them.
Leeds' nominee for the big award is Jamie Peacock, and that is a fair reflection of the standard he has set this season. This will be a big match as well for Gareth Ellis, who will be making his last appearance before embarking on a new career and a new life in Australia.
Ellis is a crucial component in the way that the Leeds coach, Brian McClennan, deploys his second-row resources, using him, Ali Lauitiiti and Jamie Jones-Buchanan to attack defences in different areas.
McClennan will also be hoping that Brent Webb is fully fit after hobbling during part of Friday night's game. Webb has gone a long way towards reinventing the manner in which a rugby league full-back can play. The Rhinos need him up in the line, doing his share of the play-making, if they are to stretch Saints.
There will be a nervous wait until the disciplinary hearing on Smith and Diskin on Tuesday, but the key for Leeds is to freshen up their players by Saturday. Only their very best will be enough to produce a classic confrontation between the game's Big Two.Reuse content