By Rob McHugh @mchughr @TLE_Sport
Remember the date – the 29th August 2015. It may go down in Rugby League history for many reasons. When the final whistle blew at Wembley, confirming Leeds’ 50-0 victory over Hull KR, they not only completed the largest ever victory in the Challenge Cup final, but they also took the first step on the road to joining the pantheon of the greatest English club sides in any sport, let alone Rugby League.
On what was an emotional day for several reasons, Leeds ground a talented if inconsistent Hull KR team into the ground in a ruthless performance which should be remembered for years to come. The scene was set by a wonderful rendition of Abide With Me by Lizzie Jones, the widow of late Keighley Cougars and Wales international, Danny Jones, who tragically died on the pitch a few months ago. The bravery and power of Lizzie’s performance was stunning to witness, and there wasn’t a single person in the stadium that wasn’t moved.
When play got under way, Leeds were simply too good for Hull KR, who seemed to have a few players who struggled to manage their nerves on what was their first Challenge Cup final appearance since 1980. It could have been different for KR on another day; they were missing the influential Terry Campese through injury and their stand out performer on the day, Albert Kelly, was only half fit having only resumed training during the preceding week after picking up an injury in their Challenge Cup semi-final win. Unfortunately for their fans, who travelled in large numbers and were in good voice throughout, they were unable to stop Leeds once they got on a roll.
Leeds’ performance has sent shockwaves through the sport – and sends out an ominous signal to their rivals for the rest of the season. The Rhinos’ star-studded back line flourished off the back of a strong performance by the forwards, with England winger Tom Briscoe breaking the record number of tries scored in a Challenge Cup final, ending the game with 5, including a 90 metre stunner just as Hull KR were exerting some pressure on the Leeds defence. It was moments like this which defined the contest: every time Rovers got good field position, either an unforced error or intense Leeds defence would swing momentum back in Leeds’ favour. The mid-season signing of Mitch Garbutt has added brute force to the Leeds forward pack which was previously missing, and has transformed a team who were guilty previously of being out-muscled on occasion.
There is a steely determination about the Leeds group which suggests this is only the first step towards their goal of completing a treble of trophies. After the final whistle, the players gathered for a huddle on the pitch in which this message was clearly stated. At this point, it is hard to see who can stop this team, who have the added motivation of sending the inspirational trip of Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai off to the next chapters of their lives with the ultimate success.
If the Leeds Rhinos are able to complete a historic treble of trophies this season (League Leader’s Shield, Challenge Cup and the Grand Final), the time has come to re-evaluate how this team is viewed. Many informed pundits scoffed in pre-season when Gary Hetherington, Leeds Rhinos Chief Executive, declared that Leeds had assembled the best squad he had seen in his time at the club, and many wrote Leeds off as also ran’s who would finish no higher than fourth in the Super League table. At this point in the season, one trophy in the bag, four points clear at the top of the table and on an eight match winning streak, it would take a brave pundit who bets against this Leeds team from claiming their rightful place in British sporting history.