By Rob McHugh @mchughr @TLE_Sport
Super League entered a new era this season with the new slogan Every Minute Matters, and the final weekend of the normal season didn’t disappoint, providing what was the most dramatic finish to a regular season for several years. Entering the final round of fixtures, it was possible for any one of four teams to clinch the league leaders’ shield. Following defeat to Warrington on Thursday night, Saint Helens were no longer in the running, leaving Huddersfield, Leeds and Wigan fighting it out to claim the shield, and along with it, home advantage in the end of season play off semi-finals.
Depending on results on the night, all three teams could top the table. Huddersfield hosted Leeds at the John Smiths Stadium, knowing that only a victory and a favour from Castleford who visited Wigan’s DW Stadium would be enough to win the title. A victory against Leeds would guarantee a second place finish and a home semi-final against Leeds the following week.
For Wigan, they needed to beat Castleford and hope for a Leeds slip up to win the league, with a win guaranteeing then a home draw against Saints or Huddersfield, depending on other results. For Leeds the equation was simple, win and the League Leaders Shield was theirs. Anything other than a win would see them finish anywhere from 1st to 4th.
The Rugby Football League pulled out all the stops with their attempts to build on this drama by chartering a helicopter to deliver the shield to either Huddersfield or Wigan depending on the outcome of the games. On a topsy turvy night which saw no fewer than 6 changes to the destination of the shield, you have to feel for the helicopter pilot.
Wigan played their part in winning their home game against Castleford, comfortably in the end, although a half time deficit meant that Huddersfield were in the reckoning at one point. But the real drama was unfolding at the John Smiths Stadium, where Huddersfield and Leeds were playing out what will surely be remembered as a classic.
England’s Rugby Union team may have been well advised to watch the game at Huddersfield for some game management tips. With minutes to go, Huddersfield, leading 16-14, conceded penalty within kickable range. Captain Kevin Sinfield elected, successfully, to kick for goal and seemingly settle for a draw which would see Leeds finish second behind Wigan. Sinfield could be seen saying, “We get a home game” to the other Leeds players, some of whom were keen to go for the try and the chance to win the match.
The final twist occurred with less than 10 seconds on the clock. To loosely paraphrase George Orwell; every minute matters, but some minutes matter more than others. On the last tackle, with Leeds some distance from goal, the ageless Danny McGuire placed a perfectly executed chip over the top of the Huddersfield line into space in front of Huddersfield full back Scott Grix. As the ball hung in the air, and the helicopter hovered over Wigan with the DW Stadium in sight, three teams’ seasons came down to the bounce of a ball. It could have shot into touch, ending the game. It could have also bounced into the arms of Grix, and with it the league leader’s shield would have been on the way to the northwest. Instead, it skidded forwards off the turf and bounced up into the arms of Leeds winger Ryan Hall. Despite struggling throughout the game, Hall made no mistake as he raced to the line to touchdown, with the jubilant Danny McGuire in view behind him, arms raised in triumph.
The best thing about all of this is? It all starts again next week. The Super League play-offs will be contested with all the intensity and drama of the final weekend and more. Wigan host Huddersfield on the Thursday night, before Leeds face Saint Helens at Headingley Carniege on Friday, with the winners of these two games going head to head in the Super League Grand final on the 10th October at Old Trafford, Manchester. Every minute mattered in the league season – perhaps expect the unexpected would be a more fitting tagline for the play-offs.