St Helens 16 Leeds 24: Leeds rejoice with reborn Smith
Monday 06 October 2008
Super League Grand Finals have produced some predictable heroes from the cream of the sport's talent – but never one quite like Lee Smith. The emergency full-back was widely supposed to be Leeds' weakness in their uphill task against St Helens; instead, he turned out to be their great strength. Smith defended brilliantly, took over much of the play-making role left vacant by the injured Brent Webb, scored a try and even produced a crucial 40/20 kick. It was not so much a matter of voting for him for the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match here as of giving it to him by popular acclaim. He also played his way on to the plane to Australia for the World Cup, because he is now a certainty to be in the England squad when it is named tomorrow.
And yet Smith, who scored twice against Wigan last week and escaped suspension for a stray boot to the head, could already have been shown out of the door at Headingley if things had worked out slightly differently. "Earlier in the season, when he wasn't getting in the team, we gave him permission to talk to several clubs, including Wigan," said the Leeds chief executive, Gary Hetherington. The word was that the club was not over-impressed with his attitude and would be willing to let him go. "But he came back and said that he didn't want to go anywhere. He wanted to fight for his place and you saw the result of that on Saturday," Hetherington added. "He's under contract for next season and I can't see him moving anywhere."
It is far more likely that Smith, whose girlfriend is an actress in the soap Emmerdale, will have his new-found leading role recognised with an extended deal. If he had a rival for star status at Old Trafford, it was Kevin Sinfield, whose leadership, organisation and naggingly accurate kicking game made him a major contributor to an unforgettable day for the club. It also made him the first Leeds captain in the club's long history to lead them to back-to-back titles. That is a measure of his stature at Headingley.
"But it's not about me making history," Sinfield said. "There were 17 warriors out there." Leeds did get on top in the physical confrontation between the forwards, with Jamie Jones-Buchanan standing out as another who has almost certainly removed any doubts about his World Cup prospects. His work-rate and ability to break tackles is familiar; the way he got the ball, one-handed, to Smith for his side's first try was a bonus glimpse of outstanding skill.
There should be a special mention as well for Nick Scruton, making his last appearance before moving to arch-rivals Bradford. He missed last year's Grand Final through injury, but opted to play in this one with an injection to dull the pain of a broken bone in his wrist. The whole Leeds team played with a self-belief that was a credit to their coach, Brian McClennan, especially after their thrashing at Knowsley Road two weeks earlier. His first season since taking over from that hard act to follow, Tony Smith, ended in triumph. He had warm words for his Saints counterpart, Daniel Anderson, whose phenomenally successful reign ended with a rare failure – although one that mirrored last year's outcome pretty closely.
What it underlined is how hard it is for any side to be at their best throughout a marathon season. Leeds were just more up for it on the day and the frustration told on the usually calm and controlled Anderson at half-time. Pictures from the St Helens dressing room showed him berating his under-performing troops. There was no volume, but it was clear that he was having an extended Joe Kinnear moment.
It had all started so well, with Saints defying what should have been fiendishly difficult handling conditions to construct a classic try for the Man of Steel, James Graham, after only five minutes. With Sean Long threatening and Matt Gidley being bundled into touch just short of the try line, it looked ominous for the prospects of a close contest, let alone a Leeds win. Yet by half-time the Rhinos were ahead by tries from Smith and his replacement on the wing, Ryan Hall, and Saints' heads were starting to go down. Anderson's half-time blast did some good, because they equalised through Gidley early in the second half.
But two opportunist tries from Danny McGuire – separated by one from Saints' Ade Gardner – kept Leeds on course. McGuire outshone the surprisingly quiet Leon Pryce from start to finish, effectively underlining his World Cup credentials. But then this was an evening when just about everyone in blue and amber played to his best.
St Helens: Wellens; Gardner, Gidley, Talau, Meli; Pryce, Long; Hargreaves, Cunningham, Graham, Gilmour, Wilkin, Flannery. Substitutes used: Roby, Clough, Fozzard, Fa'asavalu
Leeds: Smith; Hall, Ablett, Senior, Donald; McGuire, Burrow; Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ellis, Sinfield. Substitutes used: Lauitiiti, Scruton, Bailey, Kirke.
Referee: A Klein (Keighley).
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