They have an in-joke at Leeds, where they call Ryan Hall ‘WBW’ for World’s Best Winger. You could argue the toss on that, but he must surely rank as the World’s Strongest, after two bulldozing tries that put the Rhinos on their way to the long-awaited Challenge Cup final victory that ends the run of six losing finals that was becoming a collective embarrassment.
“It was freakish what he did today,” said his coach, Brian McDermott. “He did something similar in the semi-final. It’s like the old cliché; you know what he’s going to do, but you’ve still got to stop him.”
Leeds’ captain Kevin Sinfield (pictured right with trophy) was equally fulsome about the multi-talented Hall, who plays the trumpet and the piano in his spare time. “He’s world-class, the best winger in the world,” he said.
If this victory was sweeter for one man than the rest, that would be Sinfield, who captained the Rhinos to five of their heart-breaking defeats. “To lose five was horrible, so to finally get our hands on it is very special,” he said. “It was a victory for persistence.”
There were few complaints from a Castleford side that have been a breath of fresh air in Super League this season. “Leeds were very good and we just weren’t on our game,” said their coach, Daryl Powell.
Castleford were plucky opponents and cut Leeds’ lead to six points for most of the second half, but this was a victory which was as deserved as it was overdue.
The question that had occupied the most column inches during the build-up to the final was answered when the influential Craig Huby was named at prop by Castleford, despite badly dislocating his elbow less than a fortnight ago.
That meant no place in the 17 on duty for the experienced Cup campaigner, Garreth Carvell, leaving Cas with just two players who had previously sampled the unique Wembley atmosphere, Andy Lynch and Weller Hauraki.
Leeds, by contrast, were stuffed with players who had been to a final and lost. Better, surely, to have been there, done that – even without getting to wear the commemorative T-shirt. That know-how was to prove crucial.
There was no holding back from Huby in the opening stages, but within the first five minutes Leeds were ahead. There was an element of luck in it, the Rhinos getting six more tackles to play with when Danny McGuire’s kick was deflected.
They used that extra possession expertly, however, Zak Hardaker coming into the line to make the extra man and Kallum Watkins supplying the scoring pass to Tom Briscoe, with Sinfield landing a difficult conversion.
Castleford’s response was typically tigerish. Almost immediately, Justin Carney barrelled his way over the line, only to be denied because the whistle had already sounded in their favour. There was no doubt about it, though, when Marc Sneyd produced a well-weighted kick for Daryl Clark to touch down, although Sneyd then missed a relatively simple attempt at goal.
Leeds were dictating the tempo of play and their reward was a second converted try after 16 minutes. Cas were wrong-footed by Rob Burrow running and kicking from dummy-half and McGuire had a simple task to catch and force the ball down.
The Rhinos’ third owed much to Hardaker’s long run from deep, but was ultimately the product of Hall’s brute strength on the left wing. Kirk Dixon and Luke Dorn were both in position to stop him, but he went through the pair of them, to put Leeds far enough ahead to suggest that their frustrating wait for this trophy was already as good as over.
Small wonder that the Leeds dressing room looked a relaxed place at half-time. But there was a warning about the premature counting of chickens when the Cas captain, Michael Shenton, skinned his opposite centre, Watkins, and set up a try for Oliver Holmes six minutes into the second half.
For a big slice of that half, it looked as though Cas might fight strongly enough to get back on terms, but they lost a valuable chance when Jamie Ellis’ touch finder was a fraction too long to be a 40/20. Up to the other end went the Rhinos and this time Paul Aiton’s probing run and pass gave Hall his second chance; just the three men between him and the try-line and again they were scattered. That made it inevitable that the winger would win the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match.
Castleford deserved credit for keeping going to the end, but Sinfield’s conversion and McGuire’s drop goal completed a job well – if belatedly – done.