For a long time, I thought the scoreboard wasn’t going to do Leeds justice. After having just about kept themselves in the game at half time, being behind at the interval by a 12-4 scoreline, they suddenly found themselves completely out of the game around seven minutes after restarting, as Manly hit them with one of the most intense blitzkreigs of scintillating Rugby seen in quite a while. Three tries (three very very good tries) meant that suddenly Manly were 26-4 up with half an hour to play, and a Rhinos side that had coped admirably thus far with adversity (Rob Burrow went off very early on after being laid flat out) looked like they were going to be uncharacteristically overwhelmed.
It’s to Leeds’ credit that they not only pulled the scoreline back to respectable margins, but that they could possibly sneaked it had they been a little more composed and took full advantage of the switch in momentum that took place in the final quarter. It’s to Manly’s credit that they didn’t really look like letting Leeds pull it back, and most of the tries that they conceded were those of a team who knew they were going to win and had taken their foot off the gas. When Leeds looked like they might be sneaking back into it, Manly upped the intensity again and closed out the game. Indeed, the whole game had a very intense feel about it, as shown by the two all-in brawls that took place (one in each half). In the end, Manly were far more able to cope with that intensity.
I suspect Leeds will look at this game as a missed opportunity on two counts. Firstly, this was the first World Club Challenge for a while where the Super League side were the ones under-strength, with Danny Buderus missing and Rob Burrow starting his first game of the season, only to get knocked out of it early on. Secondly, they will be disappointed by their horror showing just after the break. It’s hard to emphasise enough how much of a gut-punch it is to concede back-to-back tries, so to concede back-to-back-to-back tries really must have smashed Leeds’ confidence and left them with far too much to do in the final quarter. Their little burst at the end makes one wonder what the game might have been like if it was close heading into the final quarter.
I kind of suspect that Manly would have won anyway. Their pack generally outmuscled a young set of Rhinos forwards (with the exception of Ali Lauitiiti whose ball-handling game in the second half did as much as anything else to drag Leeds back into it) and their backs… well, what’s to say? This is an insanely good set of backs that would not look out of place at all in the Test arena. Brett Stewart is a pure finisher, and even though his tries weren’t as spectacular as some he’s scored for the Sea Eagles before, he still showed an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. With the likes of Lyon, Matai, Orford etc to back him up and indeed put chances on a plate for him, it’s a backline probably unparalleled in club rugby right now (hell, most international sides don’t have a lineup that good either) and ultimately finishing ability (from both the backs and the forwards) was what won Manly this game.