Pick a winner?
Phil Clarke looks at the strengths and weaknesses of Warrington and Leeds heading into the Grand Final.
Last Updated: 03/10/12 4:15pm
Well, after 40 hours of on-field effort, in 30 Super League games, the Warrington Wolves now get a chance to take on the Grand Final guardians of the last nine years.
It's an amazing achievement of consistency that Leeds have managed to maintain. The club have almost been able to print the game on their fixture list, they appear there that often. Their supporters will certainly know the best places to park their cars on their seventh visit to Old Trafford since 2004.
I think that it's fair to say that the Wolves have been building for this event for some time. They finished at the top of the table 12 months ago but will still remember how tenacious the Rhinos can defend when they put their mind to it.
Without over-simplifying the game too much, I feel as though it is the speed of the Leeds team that will be the biggest thing to worry Warrington this week.
If you cast your mind back to September 30, 2011 you might be able to remember the long range, high-speed chase that attempted to stop a dramatic Leeds try that helped them to win 24-26 and make it through to the Grand Final.
Warrington know that a break by Leeds usually puts six points on the scoreboard. Leeds' success in the last decade has always had some players with fast feet at the middle of it. The 90m solo effort by Kallum Watkins last weekend at Wigan was a great example of this.
Their journey to the Grand Final never seems to be a simple or straightforward affair. Many people might have forgotten that they lost seven of 10 games in Super League between the end of March and mid-June, and as usual, they were written off as a threat this season.
A narrow victory over Wakefield, 44-40 in a high-scoring thriller, put them back on track before a Kevin Sinfield drop goal at Hull KR saved them from another loss to a team who didn't even make the Top 8.
They almost looked like a different team when defending their try line at Wigan last Friday to the one that allowed the Giants to score 48 points at the start of September. Where do they find the ability to turn it on when it's needed? Wherever it is, they'll need to find that button again on Saturday, as the Wolves look like favourites to me.
Not only did they win four more games than the Rhinos in 2012, they also beat them convincingly in the Challenge Cup Final. Their season has had fewer dramas on the field. There were two games which I would describe as 'blips' when they lost away at Salford and at London, but it never really looked like it was going to be a long-term problem.
It's always seemed to feel as though they're just running around the track like Mo Farah, trying to stay in a decent position, waiting for the bell this Saturday night.
The most recent meeting between the sides was the other 'Big Day' in the rugby league season at Wembley. The final score of 35-18 to Warrington doesn't tell you how close the game was at half-time, or how the Rhinos could have taken the lead if the video referee had awarded the try when Brett Hodgson was crunched in a tackle by Kylie Leuluai early in the second half. After watching the tackle 10 times the video referee deemed it a no try and the game was taken away from them shortly afterwards when the Wolves scored 10 points in 10 minutes on the back of the three goal line drop outs that they forced Leeds to make.
If Leeds are all about speed then what is Warrington's greatest strength? It's the skill factor and not the X factor that the Wolves have.
They love to offload and pass the ball and use the full width of the pitch. The first try they scored at Wembley was a perfect example of them doing this. The play-the-ball took place just inside their own half, three players offloaded the ball and the one of them kicked it to the right corner post at which time Joel Monaghan pounced on it for the points.
Their attacking philosophy and skill was brilliantly in evidence when they scored against St Helens just before half-time last Saturday evening. They went from attack to defence and the length of the field in just over 60 seconds, during which time 11 of the 13 players on the field had touched the ball before Simon Grix eventually scored.
I won't embarrass myself again by trying to pick a winner after writing off the Rhinos last week at Wigan but have picked out some interesting points from the Opta database that's recorded all of the information throughout the 2012 season:
The Rhinos take a while to get into their running, Castleford are the only team to have scored less tries than Leeds in the 0-10 minute segment of matches in 2012.
The Wolves rank 2nd behind the Warriors in scoring tries at the start of games (i.e., 0-10 minutes). The start of this match is important.
Never underestimate the stamina or finishing power of a man or team led by Brian McDermott. His team are the best at scoring tries in the last 20 minutes of matches.
Not sure if Tony Smith is a Robbie Williams fan but his team certainly want to 'Entertain You!' No team makes more offloads than his in their attempt to break their opponent's resistance.
The Wolves break the traditional theory of needing to be close to their opponents try line to score. They are the best at long-range tries and will think about attacking when others play more conservatively. On average they score a try a game from their own half of the field (i.e., over 50 metres).
If we divide the pitch lengthways into a left section (touchline to 20m in from left), middle section and right section (20m in from the right to the wing), we can see two contrasting styles between the two Grand Final teams. Warrington score more tries out wide, especially on their left. Leeds score most tries in the middle.
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As Wigan fan I'm gutted we didn't make it to the Grand Final. Where did think it went wrong for us? If Tomkins played I'm sure we would have won.
PHIL REPLIES: It was a great game and the best team won in my opinion. Brian McDermott seemed to have his team well prepared for what Wigan were going to throw at them and the first try of the match was a wonderful example. Kevin Sinfield, and many other Super League players, have been embarrassed on numerous occasions this season by the ball playing ability of Brett Finch. McDermott had obviously drilled his team to recognise when this was coming and prepared them to deal with it. It was the team work of Sinfield and Watkins working in harmony that created the chance for one of my favourite players to show us just how quick he was.
Sure, Sam Tomkins would have made a difference; he's just been voted the best player in the competition. I'd say that he's worth 10 points a game to the Warriors. Some people have blamed young Jack Murphy but the mistake he made when dropping the ball late on only cost Wigan two points. Who would you blame for the other 11?
Wigan seemed to play their best rugby in the first half of the season, and were amazing when they scored 50 points at Leeds in June. It just wasn't there when they needed it in the semi-finals with Leeds.
The Briers factor
Who do you see the Grand Final going next weekend Phil? What do Leeds have to do to stop the Lee Briers?
PHIL REPLIES: I think that Lee Briers isn't the biggest worry for Leeds. I think that Hodgson, Myler, Atkins and Riley on the left-side are the first thing that I'd be concerned with. On the other side of the field, Stefan Ratchford is my tip for Man of the Match. In the forwards the Wolves have Waterhouse and Westwood, and arguably the most improved player in the last 12 months, Chris Hill.
I know that Mick Potter won the award for Coach of the Year but I would've given it to either Brian McDermott or Tony Smith if I'd had to award it. If, like me, you think that a coach should be judged on the improvement he can make to a player's game, then Smith needs to be congratulated for the way that Ratchford and Hill have developed this year. It's not that long ago that one of them couldn't get a regular starting spot at Salford and the other wasn't deemed to be good enough to play in Super League. I'm not aware of a long queue of clubs lining up to sign the two of them. Smith identified their potential, created the environment for them to thrive in and then let them get on with it, all the time providing the positive feedback and correction to maintain their progression.
In some ways it is easier for the Wolves to get excited by the challenge than for the Rhinos. They've been at the top for so long that I have nothing but admiration for Gary Hetherington and the people who annually lift to a higher level. They have some great leaders, none better than Jamie Peacock.
When he was awarded the prestigious Spirit of Rugby award in honour of Mike Gregory this week, he spoke with humility, honesty and passion. He was thrilled to be recognised alongside the previous winners and legends of the game and felt pleased to be mentioned in the same sentence as Mike Gregory. Not only is he a great rugby player, he's also a great man. He was recently invited to attend an evening of Inspiration and Motivation in support of The Royal Marines who have recently been injured in combat. His rugby commitments prevent this from attending but he selflessly agreed to donate his match jersey from this year's Challenge Cup Final. Well done JP.
Hi Phil, surely winning the Challenge Cup against Leeds will give us a big advantage going into next weekend? Both in terms of tactics and mentally.
PHIL REPLIES: Dave, Is your win in the Challenge Cup Final worth more as a mental advantage than Leeds triumph from fifth place plus the feeling of momentum that the Rhinos have right now? They've just won three sudden death Play-Off games and have Danny McGuire available again after his suspension.
I've said earlier that the Wolves are the favourites, but they were 12 months ago in the Play-Offs. That night at the Halliwell Jones saw an outstanding defensive effort from all 17 Leeds players, plus the devastating impact that Rob Burrow can have when big men tire in the middle of the field.
Shaun Lunt is massively important for me. Will Brian McDermott use him from the start as he did at Wigan, or from the subs bench as he did at Wembley? His defence was noticeable at the DW Stadium as I have rarely seen players push Sean O'Loughlin backwards like he did. It's amazing to think that he started the season with a win for Huddersfield at Wigan, and then now ends up with Leeds at the Grand Final. (The odds on that happening must have been massive in February!)
Good luck to both sets of players, coaches and the officials. Let's hope it's another Grand Final to remember.