Leeds’ class of the millennium at last achieved what they have always looked destined to but could never quite grasp.
The team the Rhinos started to put together late in the last century finally got their hands on the Challenge Cup by beating Castleford 23-10 at Wembley on Saturday after losing six finals since they had previously won it in 1999. It was not so much a celebration at the final hooter as a collective sigh of relief.
“We’ve been here a few times and come away with second prize, so it’s a relief to take away the Cup,” said Kevin Sinfield, the captain in five of those defeats. “We were really relaxed about this one.”
That was a crucial element in the Rhinos’ win, and Sinfield paid tribute to the Leeds coach, Brian McDermott, for keeping the mood light during the build-up. That was the difference from the years of failure.
Much has been said this season about this Leeds side; the long-serving friends in midfield, the veteran but indestructible props, the three-quarter line ranking alongside the club’s best. McDermott picked out another department, which rarely attracts the plaudits, for special mention – the back row of the pack, whose work-rate was the basis of his game plan.
Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Carl Ablett and Brett Delaney are not the flashiest of players, but they are relentless. The first two are products of Leeds’ wonderful junior system; Delaney, the man his team-mates call “Madness” because of his lack of self-preservation, is a typically well-chosen Australian import.
Between them, they enforced a tempo Castleford could not match. “They were just playing too fast for us,” said the Cas coach, Daryl Powell, who was in the Rhinos’ side when they won the Cup in 1999.
Another key factor was the Tigers’ inability to cope with the England winger Ryan Hall, whose two tries at Wembley were all about raw strength and power, qualities which he has more than any other winger in the game. He was an obvious choice for the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, although Zak Hardaker, at full-back, had a virtually flawless game.
Cas, who last won the Cup in 1986, were light on big-match experience. That was why they were so keen to have the influential Craig Huby on the field, despite him dislocating his elbow two weeks earlier. He came through bravely but lacked some of the presence he can bring to a game at his best,
Under the circumstances, it was surprising that Powell chose to leave out Garreth Carvell, the veteran of four winning finals. Yet, Lee Jewitt, who would probably have been the man to miss out, was Castleford’s best forward when he came on as a substitute.
Cas did not have too much to reproach themselves for. They have been called a breath of fresh air so often this season and still have a top-four place to fight for. They know that it would have taken their best for them to have had a chance of preventing Leeds from fulfilling their destiny. “We would have taken some beating today,” said Rob Burrow. After a decade and a half of striving, it was ultimately just about as simple as that.