So the fairytale run of the Dragons came to an end last night, but they didn’t give up without a fight. When Danny McGuire dummied his way over for the first try, it looked like Leeds had calmed down after a nervy start. Then McGuire let the kick-off go out on the full and Les Cats scored straight from the ensuing scrum thanks to Vincent Duport. Leeds somehow came of a first half in which they were being matched shot-for-shot by a resilient Dragons side with an 18 point lead thanks to a purple patch to end all purple patches, which saw two tries to Ryan Hall and an absolute beauty of a team effort finished off by McGuire. When Scott Donald went over at the start of the second half, it looked like the Dragons’ run was going to end with a damp squib, but Greg Bird and Adam Mogg wouldn’t allow it. Not only did they gain some respect back, the set up a nervy end but pulling scores back. When Kevin Sinfield popped over a drop-goal with 25 minutes left, it seemed like an over-cautious shutdown operation by the Rhinos. As it turned out it was probably the most intelligent piece of play all night, because it kept the Dragons that psychologically-diffcult second score away from the Rhinos.
This was one of those rare games where I’m not sure the better team won. In fact, I’m still not entirely sure how the Rhinos pulled away so dramatically just before half-time. Up until that point they appeared to be losing the forward battle. Next thing you know, they’re four scores ahead and the game appears to be over. It’s a tremendous credit to the Dragons that that wasn’t necessarily the case. For the most part they seemed to be bossing it in the forwards, and they certainly never seemed to be outmatched. Duport took his hat-trick nicely, which isn’t bad for a player who was originally a back-rower. Adam Mogg and Greg Bird were superb, and England should hope that Mogg isn’t able to take his place for France in the Four Nations (he might not play as his wife is due to give birth). Les Cats might rue taking off Bird just before half-time, even if he probably needed the rest for his own good. For large portions of the game and particularly the second half, it looked the Dragons were all over Leeds. It was a shame for them that they were 22 points down at that point.
Give Credit to Leeds though. In that ten minute spell just before and after half-time they were electric. I didn’t agree with the commentators going on about how awesome Danny McGuire was playing (he wasn’t that good, and I consider myself something of a McGuire apologist) but he sure as hell took his first try nicely, and his positioning to run onto Donald’s kick for his second try (very possibly try of the season, and certainly try of the playoffs so far) was also top-notch. He was in the right place at the right time, something that applied to all the Rhinos’ players in that spell. Jamie Peacock was a workhorse for his stay on the pitch, and Luke Burgess’ arrival on the pitch coincided with the Leeds explosion as he introduced a 2nd phase play that had been missing from the Rhinos at that point. The Rhinos rode their luck a bit, but they still came out of the game as worthy victors.
So the Dragons get a winter of rest in the south of France, whilst the Rhinos’ march towards an unprecedented third Grand Final victory continues. Leeds probably picked the Dragons with their ClubCall pick assuming that St Helens and Wigan would beat the crap out of each other, but the Rhinos have just had to endure a game of extreme physical intensity and will be glad that they’ve got an extra rest day. They conceded some very soft tries from scrums and that will have to be worked on for next week, but at the very least they won’t have the excuse of a soft preparation should anything go wrong. In fact, this game was probably the exact sort of warm-up the Rhinos needed; a reminder that they can’t just walk over every team.