As millions of people tune in to BBC this afternoon to watch England play France in the third Six Nations round of 2013, notably fewer rugby fans will have paid any attention to Leeds Rhinos’ World Club Challenge showdown with Melbourne Storm last night.
Despite the notable differences between the codes of union and league, casual supporters of rugby are naturally drawn to an England side that have won significant prizes over the years, particularly that World Cup win over Australia on their home soil in 2003. What they’re missing out on is a distinctly more exciting form of the sport with fewer interruptions, bigger hits (even considering the recent ban on shoulder charges) and much more action.
The sport isn’t without its irritating curiosities, but that is a frown on both halves of the argument. There are three prizes on offer in the European Super League (which may as well be British were it not for the French side Catalan Dragons), the Grand Final, the Challenge Cup and the league itself. As is the situation in a number of American sports – think the Super Bowl and baseball’s World Series – the overall winner of the season-long league campaign isn’t regarded as that year’s champion. Instead, that’s reserved for the victor of the subsequent play-off set of matches.
That sits pretty well with some of the clubs, however. The Rhinos come to mind immediately; Leeds have won five out of the last six Grand Finals, not making it to the 2010 showdown. That year, Wigan Warriors followed Leeds’, erm, lead by doing the league/championship double, but it’s more of an exception than a rule. Wigan regained their league title in 2012, but it was Leeds that defended their title by conquering Warrington Wolves 26-18 in the final. In fact, Leeds have only won the league title twice since the Super League began back in 1996, yet boast six final wins.
You might think that the Rhinos fancy the knockout format a lot more than the league then, right? The Challenge Cup, the premier cup competition throughout the season that also welcomes French sides and a Russian representative, clearly isn’t their cup of tea. They may have claimed 11 wins and 12 runner-up spots, but the third most successful team in Challenge Cup history haven’t won since 1999. They’ve since reached the final on six occasions, including three successive appearances since 2010 but they just can’t replicate their endgame form. That 2012’s loss was a 35-18 reverse against Warrington may have just spurred them on to that Grand Final victory.
So, what now for Leeds Rhinos in 2013? They may have been hoping that victory against Melbourne Storm in the World Club Challenge would be the catalyst for another triumphant year, one filled with more trophies. A dogged display that saw them 8-8 at half-time highlighted how big a game this was for rugby league and home tries from Ryan Hall and Jamie Jones-Buchanan, plus three goals from Kevin Sinfield took the game to their National Rugby League counterparts. It wasn’t to be in the end, but what an advertisement for rugby league on both sides of the globe.
Will this season get better for Leeds? It’s not going badly at the moment. Lying third after three matches, the Rhinos’ only defeat was a surprise 14-12 loss to Castleford Tigers. They’re still likely to be in the top eight come the end of the season and the following play-offs are where they do the most damage. Can they do any damage in this year’s Challenge Cup? It’ll be difficult to shake off that losing feeling but make it four consecutive final appearances and anything could be possible.