Okay, so I haven’t researched the issue in any great depth, and I am writing this in the foggy aftermath of a 3.00am celebration, so just run with me on this one. My judgement may be pickled by an irrational cocktail of Rosé and Kronenburg, and I am prepared for the many suggestions that may be thrown back at me, but at this moment I am quite sure Leeds Rhinos are the greatest sports team the world has ever seen, and here are five good, solid reasons why.
The nonsensical phrase every sports pundit likes to chuck into the mix every now and then. You won’t find a dictionary definition anywhere in the modern world, but most people of a sporting persuasion know what the sentiment is. Leeds Rhinos keep on bouncing back. Be it from maulings at Warrington and St Helens, or depressing defeats at Catalans or in the Challenge Cup Final versus Wigan, Leeds Rhinos have hung in there. Few of their five Super League titles have stemmed from a perfect regular season campaign, and particularly this one in 2011.
The Rhinos have been written off by most respected judges of the game this season, given their aging squad and the general sense of transition surrounding the club. They have even been written off by many of their fans. Coming from fifth place to win the Super League title is unprecedented, and say what you like about a league format that ultimately crowns a team with Leeds’ chequered record in 2011, but that is the system in place and Leeds have won it, simple. The Play-Off structure is rightly weighted in favour of the highest placed teams, and Leeds have benefited from that in the past. This year Leeds have beaten higher placed clubs away from home in Huddersfield and, highly fancied, Warrington (who also chose Leeds as their “Clubcall” opponents for the game) in a true pursuit of glory against the odds.
The Warrington semi-final itself was a lesson in bouncebackability as Leeds let the lead slip twice in an epic encounter, the outcome of which ensured they would be the first team to reach the Grand Final from outside the top three. Leeds never know when they are beaten, and that is the crux of a champion team.
In a sport specifically structured to ensure there is a level playing field amongst all Super League clubs by restricting the wage budgets, Leeds Rhinos dominance is testament to the exceptional aura that surrounds the club. Some of the best foreign players in the game, such as Brent Webb, Ali Lautiti and Danny Buderus and previously Scott Donald could earn considerably more by attaining star player status at other clubs. The fact that they choose to stay at Leeds and earn a salary on an equal footing to other major names such as, England captain, Jamie Peacock and senior professionals Sinfield, McGuire and Burrow demonstrates the unique togetherness the club has fostered. Leeds is a club of integrity and naked ambition, and somehow they have retained the same nucleus of players for five years or more when the fiscal temptations of other clubs and other leagues must be plentiful.
Not for these players is there a desire to accept a mercenary offer with more rewards from another club with room for budgetary manoeuvre. More important to them is winning, achievement, teamwork. Honest sporting endeavour, a fair wage for a fair days work.
The relentless success of the Leeds Rhinos production line suggests there is something in the water down there
Five Grand Final Wins
Sounds obvious, but when you sit down and dissect the special qualities it takes to win the same trophy again and again, you very soon come to the conclusion that here is a very special team. Say what you like about Alex Ferguson, but he knows what it takes to win. He has the hunger to do it, and then do it again, each win as satisfying as the last. Leeds Rhinos have the same appetite; they don’t rest on their laurels, lap up the plaudits, sit back and savour how great they are. They dust themselves down and get ready to do it all again.
The simple fact that they have now beaten St Helens in the Grand Final four times in a row, sums up the mental stealth they possess. To face the same, identical challenge four times and achieve the same outcome requires psychological fortitude of grandiose proportions. Okay, it may be helped by the fact that Saints have the same quality completely in reverse, but Leeds have faced Saints four times at Old Trafford and have rarely been the favourites. To win four times against a team of St Helens strength and quality is something that unfancied teams are not supposed to accomplish. Once is down to the game of sporting chance, the unpredictable combat that we all love, but four times is simply freakish. Leeds first Grand Final win against Bradford in 2004 was in similar circumstances, massively against the odds. It is something that Leeds revel in and one day, god forbid, if the ‘experts’ actually backed them that may very well be their downfall.
Three different coaches
Whilst the spine of Leeds team has remained unchanged for a number of years, they have now won five Super League titles with three different coaches. Sinfield, McGuire and Burrow are the constants in terms of personnel but surely it is the unique essence of the club that has lead to this dominance? Tony Smith won the first two titles in 2004 and 2007 (also losing a final to Bradford in 2005), Brian McClennan won the next two in 2008 and 2009, and now Brian McDermott has taken on the baton and won it again in 2011, in the process becoming the first English coach to win the title since Brian Noble in 2005.
The complex strategies and tactics involved in Rugby League make the game a tinder box of management nous. The game is littered with hasty decisions that have turned a successful group of players very quickly into also-rans. The common denominator at Leeds is Chief Executive Gary Hetherington who, in this role since 1996, can lay claim to being the major influence on the continual success the club is now achieving. From the bottom up the club is doing everything right and that doesn’t just happen by accident. Appointing three different coaches and still coming out top of the pile shows a singular quality that few sporting institutions can claim to posses.
Ask any football fan what they want to see most in their team, and the majority would say ‘local players’. Clearly Rugby League is a game much closer to its’ roots than football, however, it is far from immune to the influx of money, marketing and foreign players. But Leeds are famous for the strength of their desire to nurture players through their academy. The current team has a healthy sprinkling of academy graduates in captain supreme Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow, Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Ryan Hall, Ben Jones-Bishop, Lee Smith, Chris Clarkson and Kallum Watkins; local lads and proud of it. Previous titles have been won with homegrown players who have since departed such as Ritchie Mathers, Chev Walker, Mark Calderwood and Matt Diskin.
An academy that can produce a leader as humble and focussed as Kevin Sinfield, or a half back with the awareness and execution of Danny McGuire has to have a secret ingredient. How do you fit the power and strength of Gareth Chilcott and the pace of Thierry Henry into the 5’ 5” frame of Rob Burrow?
The relentless success of the Leeds Rhinos production line suggests there is something in the water down there, and with some of the squad now reaching the twilight of their careers there is still confidence and belief that the self-fulfilling system will maintain the club at the very top of the game for many years to come. There is simply no evidence to suggest otherwise.
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