One hundred and fifty six games, twelve thousand four hundred and eighty minutes, and two nail-biting semi-finals had landed Super League 2017 at Old Trafford for the Grand Final between Castleford Tigers and the Leeds Rhinos.
Castleford were making their first ever appearance in the games flagship final, whereas for the Rhinos it was their tenth outing, seeking to lift the trophy for the eighth time.
The Tigers were the clear favourites with the bookies and unbeaten in the last eight against the Rhinos, but without the services of Club Player of the Year, Zak Hardaker, and with the Rhinos packed with big occasion players, including the last game for legends Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire, it was billed to be a classic final in front of a sell out crowd.
Both sides came out of the traps showing some nerves at the big occasion in far from ideal conditions. Castleford were marginally in control of the early exchanges but errors started to creep in from both sides.
The Rhinos forced a drop out on ten minutes, and on the last play of the returning six a Danny McGuire kick to the corner was fielded by Tom Briscoe in the Castleford goal area and he dropped to the ground for the games opening try. Kallum Watkins kicked the conversion from wide for a nerve settling 6-0.
The Rhinos had a try turned down by the video referee on eighteen after Watkins was adjudged to have knocked on in the act of grounding a bouncing ball.
The quality of the game deteriorated with both sides making unforced errors and failing to complete their sets of six. After Briscoe took out a chasing Ben Roberts, Castleford had a great chance of an equalising try but a brilliant last ditch tackle from McGuire denied Greg Eden the chance to go over in the corner.
On thirty-five the Tigers had a try turned down for an obstruction in the build up, and two minutes later the Rhinos suffered the same fate for an interference with the chasing player.
Seven seconds before the interval and Danny McGuire moved into the pocket and slotted over a twenty-five metre drop goal to give Leeds a two score, 7-0, lead at the interval. It had been an untidy first half from both sides but the Rhinos had more possession and position and the scoreline just about reflected their dominance.
The opening exchanges of the second half were punctuated by yet more mistakes.
On fiffty-one Greg Eden failed to collect a Joel Moon high kick and the loose ball was picked up brilliantly by Danny McGuire who went ten metres to dive over. Watkins slid the conversion in front of the uprights leaving the Rhinos with an 11-0 lead.
On fifty-eight the Rhinos made it 15-0 when Briscoe took a last tackle pass from Moon after a brilliant Jack Walker break . There was a slight suspicion of a forward pass but referee Child pointed to the spot. Watkins was accurate with the kick and the Tigers now had to score three converted tries in the last twenty minutes.
On sixty-nine McGuire dribbled the ball over the line after McMeeken knocked on and he won the race to get his hand on the ball to ground. Watkins kicked the extras from under the sticks for 23-0 to the Rhinos to seal the win and secure the Super League Trophy for the Rhinos for the eighth time.
Seven minutes from time and Greg Eden looked to have got a consolation try but it was ruled out by the video referee for a foot in touch.
On seventy-six McGuire kicked his second drop goal of the game for 24-0.
The Tigers got on the scoreboard on seventy-nine when Alex Foster picked up a McShane hack forward to walk in and score through an exhausted Rhinos defence. Luke Gale kicked the conversion to save some small face as the full time hooter sounded.
The Rhinos ran out as 24-6 winners, inflicting a crushing end to the Castleford Tigers season. Danny McGuire was named as winner of the Harry Sunderland Trophy, and well deserved for a massive contribution to the Rhinos win. McGuire and Burrow end their Leeds careers at the pinnacle of the game and the Rhinos fans cheered them until they were hoarse.
From the Qualifiers to Grand Final winners in twelve months the Rhinos have witnessed an extraordinary turnaround. Brian McDermott had almost the same squad of players to choose from but changed his side from relegation prospects into champions. Despite their all-conquering season, which saw them cruise to the minor premiership, it wasn’t the Tigers but the second placed Rhinos who totally dominated the Grand Final. Castleford were outplayed in all departments and will now spend a depressing close season wondering how much the indiscipline of Zak Hardaker during the week cost them on the biggest stage.
This was a complete and professional Rhinos performance in a clumsy and ugly game. The Rhinos took their chances and their defence performed brilliantly to repel a lacklustre Tigers defence.
Tigers: Eden, Minikin, Webster, Shenton, Hitchcox, Roberts, Gale (G), Massey, McShane, Sene-Lafeo, Holmes, McMeeken, Milner. Subs: Millington, Moors, Cook, Foster (T).
Rhinos: Walker, Briscoe (2T), Watkins (3G), Sutcliffe, Hall, Moon, McGuire (2T, 2DG), Garbutt, Parcell, Singleton, Ward, Jones-Buchanan, Cuthbertson. Subs: Mullally, Burrow, Ablett, Ferres.
Referee: James Child.