So here we are – the morning of the biggest night of the British rugby league calender, the night where the champions will be crowned. Will it be the league leaders’ shield winning Castleford Tigers or their big city neighbours Leeds Rhinos? Here I look at some of the variables and match ups that may decide where the sought after trophy will head come 8PM tonight.
Experience may come into play tonight and nobody could argue that the Rhinos have that in spades. This will be their tenth Grand Final and, having won seven of their previous nine, the big game experience is there. A lot of the Rhinos players featured in their title in 2015 and, under the stewardship of Brian McDermott, they will have been readied by a coach who knows what it takes to win the title. The same can not be said for their small town neighbours from Castleford who, after the bombshell of Zak Hardaker’s expulsion from the squad due to a rules breach, have lost one of the few players who has played in a Grand Final before – he wore the Leeds shirt as they won the title in 2015. The league’s great entertainers finished ten points clear of the Rhinos and have beaten them four times this season and eight in a row in total so, while they may not have experience of winning titles, they definitely have the experience and knowledge of how to beat the Rhinos.
One of the key match ups for me comes in the shape of the game’s two number tens: the Tigers’ Grant Millington and Leeds’ Adam Cuthbertson. While both of the Australians are, on paper, prop forwards, as the season has grown older Cuthbertson has made the move to loose forward which has given him more freedom to use his key weapon – the offload. Last year saw Cuthbertson set a new Super League record for offloads and this season has 121 going into the final. The Australian’s offloads are a huge part of Leeds’ unstructured attacking play as teams get around him to tie him up which, when he gets his arm free, leaves holes for the support runners to get through the gaps and make ground. However, Castleford’s Millington isn’t averse to doing unconventional things for a prop forward. The Super League Dream Team selection was, when Luke Gale was ruled out after surgery, one of the options coach Daryl Powell pondered to put into the halves to replace him as, despite his size, he is a very technical and creative player who, given half a chance, could well hurt the Rhinos.
Zak Hardaker’s exclusion, unsurprisingly, definitely plays into Leeds’ hands. Not only does it leave the Tigers without the league’s best defensive full back but it also means that we will likely see Super League’s top try scorer Greg Eden move back to his old position of full back, seeing the Tigers lose their very potent left edge after his forty tries outside the experienced Michael Shenton. Brian McDermott has a huge call to make of his own at full back between Ashton Golding and Jack Walker, the big breakthrough of the season. Walker was selected for the semi final victory against Hull and the confident 18 year old therefore, in my opinion, is likely to be selected tonight. He is far more able of getting involved in attacking plays than Golding and that could be huge tonight.
A fascinating battle will be seen between the two hookers tonight – Paul McShane of the Tigers and Matt Parcell of the Rhinos. If James Segeyaro has honoured his contract and not refused to return from Australia, the Rhinos would never have had Parcell pulling on the blue and amber this season but he has arguably been the signing of the season. Very adept at causing pandemonium around the ruck with his creativity, agility and pace, Parcell is Leeds’ top try scorer this season with 17 and when he plays well, the Rhinos play well. He was selected ahead of former Rhino McShane who, tonight, will feel he has a point to prove. While not as prolific as the Australian, he is possibly more creative and his kicking game is another tool in the Tigers’ belt – he kicked a 40/20 from dummy half last weekend against St Helens and Leeds will have to be alert to that this evening.
The finest sub-plot tonight is the departure of not just two Leeds Rhinos legends but legends of British rugby league. While captain Danny McGuire is not retiring – he is, indeed, moving to Humberside with Hull KR – scrum half cum hooker Rob Burrow is. Over the last few matches, Burrow has started to feature more and, at times, has been on the field with McGuire, Parcell and stand off Joel Moon which gives the Rhinos loads of creativity and potency. In 2015, the Rhinos’ treble winning team gave the perfect goodbye to the retiring Kylie Leuluai, James Peacock and former captain Kevin Sinfield and the class of 2017 will want to do just that for two players who are icons of Leeds’ Super League era and that emotion and passion could tip the tables in the Rhinos favour.
Either way, tonight’s game promises to be enthralling with a fairytale outcome for whoever wins – the Tigers who, ten years ago to the day, won the second tier title and are very much the neural’s choice for winning tonight after their entertaining form of rugby league. Or the Rhinos – a team who had to fight in the qualifiers for Super League survival in 2016 and who, with only the addition of Parcell, have turned their form on it’s head to finish second this season.
It’s novices versus old dogs. Small town versus big city. Entertainers v battlers.
Castleford Tigers versus the Leeds Rhinos.
It’s the Super League Grand Final.