Leeds. LEEDS. Leeds. (Look, you’re the richest club in the northern union. Get a better song)
So, I managed to get to watch the Grand Final on Saturday night! The first pub we tried had a private function where the TV is, although it also had Timothy Taylor’s Landlord Ale, and the other bar contained a group of Irish union fans who’d been drinking steadily since 6am. We moved on, and actually found rugby league on the Holloway Road.
John Kear apparently thought it was the best of the Grand Finals he’d seen, and he ought to know. He also thought Danny McGuire was Leeds’s defence leader, a clearly inspired judgement.
Saints were all about width, the classic pattern of trying to extend the line faster than the sliding defence and creating the overlap. Leeds were all about depth and tempo, trying to force defenders to turn and beat them for short sprint pace. It was a classic clash of styles.
A few years ago, people used to talk about the “midfield triangle” in league, being the half-backs and the loose forward. This doesn’t quite make sense, as the hooker in league is a specialist acting halfback and one of the most important distributors in the team, and organising a league team around the scrum is beside the point. Instead you’ve got a square, or a quartet, or something with four in it. A box with four pies in it, if you will. A four-pack of beers.
Leeds re-organised theirs quite radically – in the playoffs, they’d been using Kevin Sinfield as the scrum half and saving Rob Burrow to run at tired legs. In the final, they played Burrow from the start with his regular partner McGuire and put the Sinner back in 13. But that doesn’t tell you much. Burrow didn’t do much distribution or tactical kicking and McGuire’s role in the game was almost totally defensive. Instead, Sinfield and Danny Buderus did the distribution, Burrow had a free role to dash and buzz and harass Saints, and McGuire had a parallel defensive mission to hunt the Saints first receiver, coordinate the defence, and generally get stuck in whereever the attack came from. And he did a hell of a job on this.
Saints didn’t really come up with an answer to this, once it got going. Kicking penalties flattered the score a bit. McGuire broke up their moves regularly, Burrow kept catching defenders on the turn and eventually won the Harry Sunderland trophy, and Buderus and Sinfield kept control of the pace of the game.
This may bring back the old “is a stand-off really a loose forward” thing from the 1990s. Back then, there were quite a few good players who operated in either slot – Daryl Powell, Tony Kemp, Phil Clarke, Ellery Hanley, and earlier, Wally Lewis come to mind. The 1994 Lions, coached by Hanley, used first Clarke and then Powell in this role to mark the great Laurie Daley (who was the absolute opposite). It worked at Wembley, but the plan rather broke down after both of them got injured, and it also made the team pretty negative. On the other hand, once Powell was off the pitch and Garry Schofield back on, Daley ran rings round Great Britain for the rest of the series.
But Leeds’s game plan didn’t really reduce to that. Anyway, it was a hell of a game and Rob Burrow’s first try was a bit of brilliance beyond tactics, exploiting a gap in depth rather than width – one side of the defence hadn’t come up quite as smartly as the other – and ducking under the big men to make the initial break.
Oh yes, and that makes it a Yorkshire clean sweep of the three divisions with Leeds, Featherstone Rovers, and Keighley. Keighley! They told me it was Warrington’s year, and Wigan were back…