The World Club Challenge between Leeds Rhinos and Manly Sea Eagles was an electric match, helped along by the sell-out crowd on a cold and windy night at Headingly.
Played at blistering pace despite the conditions, the number of penalties pointed to a game so fast that many players struggled to keep up, not a brutal slug fest like the last fixture between these clubs in 2009.
Ashley Klein was as fast with the held call as he was with the whistle, immediately setting the game to Super League fast-play speed. This gave the advantage to the Rhinos, both for their familiarity with the style, and their match fitness due to their season already commencing.
Manly’s smaller, more mobile forward pack should have been more able to deal with the situation than they were early in the encounter, but were put on the back foot early in their sets by enterprising kick returns from Leeds.
Not wanting to be held down by the enthusiastic Manly kick return, which must surely rank as the best in the NRL, Leeds put the ball through the hands.
Leeds Coach Brian McDermott claimed before the game “I don’t believe the game should be played … muscle in your own half, when you get near the line, use the ball.”
He wasn’t playing mind games, and as Manly’s line rushed the back three on the kick return, the ball moved, and made it impossible for a full steam Manly line to shuffle across in time to stop Leeds gaining an extra 15-20 metres.
This inevitably lead to a breakneck play the ball to force Manly deep into their half, and often penalties which put Manly under pressure. There was also dealing with 21,000 screaming Leeds fans who weren’t quiet for a second.
This definitely wasn’t helped early on with Cherry-Evans failing to kick the ball low against the wind in the first half, which led to easy takes for the kick return. Foran made a better effort with his early kicks forcing players to chase, and forcing a goal-line drop out.
The young Manly stand-off was a star performer all night, whether breaking tackles, making them, or keeping the defence on its toes.
Dummy half was pivotal during the fixture, With Rob Burrow showing that the little man can reign supreme in a fast game. Time and time again the Leeds rake bolted like a rabbit out of dummy half, confusing the defence into backpedalling, forcing penalties, and setting up the try by Jones-Bishop that sealed Leeds’ win late in the game.
His was a game of perfection when it came to sniffing out an unwary defence, and the only real blotch was his misread of a Cherry-Evans dummy which gave him the half-foot needed to plant the ball over the line.
Matt Ballin was equally important, typically powerful in defence, and racked up the tackles in his usual way. Is he perhaps the Stuart MacGill of rugby league, an undoubtable talent unfortunately playing in the same era, in the same position, for the same representative team as one of the greatest of all time?
The Brett Stewart try with a Kieran Foran assist (do I even need to say it) was the inside ball close to the line. What is often overlooked about this play is the pivotal part that Ballin plays in it, with his bullet passing to the very wide Kieran Foran allowing the space between defensive line and markers which allows Brett Stewart through for the try.
If you have a marker that is the slightest bit off balance, the ball goes out like lightning, and almost never misses the diagonally running Kiwi five-eighth.
Keen to talk up Rhinos centre Kallum Watkins before the match, the Pommy commentators could only gloat when he ran perhaps the line of the match to split Steve Matai and Kieran Foran (no mean feat in itself).
On an early Leeds goal-line play, he dropped his shoulder at just the right time to bolt through the defence to score the first point of the night. He still needs to work on his defence, as Matai caught him off a few times, but definitely one for the future after a few good seasons so far.
Another star of tomorrow, today, was dual try-scorer and English international Ryan Hall. He scored his first with a length-of-the-field, try-saving intercept off Brett Stewart, and his second from a great bomb take from a pinpoint Sinfield cross fielder, both in the first half.
Sinfield put in a few good kicks, and early on showed terrific vision to put a cross field kick to Ben Jones-Bishop when seeing David Oldfield straying from his mark, but the execution was well off and the ball went into touch early in the tackle count.
His terrific run was helped by poor old Wolfman, who had to work hard all night. He made a key intercept on his own try line to save a Leeds try when the Sea Eagles were four points behind, but Manly fans should be patient as he works his way back to his best after a lengthy injury lay-off.
Both country’s commentators made excuses or lavish compliments to the point of hilarity, but make no mistake. Manly may be the best club side in rugby league, but an ageing Rhinos side taught them a lesson last night, one which will serve them well in the season ahead.