Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair came up just short in the Wheelchair Grand Final as they fell to a heartbreaking 52-48 defeat at the hands of local rivals Halifax Panthers, despite mounting an unbelievable second-half comeback.
In one of the most entertaining games of Wheelchair Rugby League ever broadcast, the Rhinos fought all the way back from 26 points down late in the first period to level up the scores, only to lose out as England international Rob Hawkins capped off a five-try performance to secure the spoils.
With the contest getting underway live on Sky Sports following a presentation of the League Leaders’ Shield to the Rhinos from club legend Jamie Jones-Buchanan, it was Nathan Holmes who opened the scoring at the National Basketball Performance Centre in Manchester as the Panthers quickly stated their intentions of putting an end to Leeds’ period of dominance in the Wheelchair game.
Showing the quality that has helped them secure all five trophies on offer throughout the past two seasons, the Rhinos duly responded with tries from fellow England Wheelchair stars James Simpson and Nathan Collins giving them a 10-6 lead.
However it was the Panthers who looked on top form and quickly took complete control of the Grand Final, with Hawkins completing a first half hat-trick and France international Jeremy Bousoun scoring twice as they pulled clear before the break.
As their hopes of retaining the Super League title began to wane, Leeds showed they weren’t done yet when Collins doubled his tally with a priceless score right on the hooter.
Down 36-16 at half time it would need to be a monumental effort from the Rhinos in the second half to overcome their West Yorkshire rivals, but that’s exactly what they produced as they raced back into the Grand Final and made it a spectacle to behold.
Wales international Jodie-Ann Boyd-Ward crossed first, before Collins completed his hat-trick by staying alert to ground his own chip through after the ball had taken a wicked bounce before the dead-ball line.
Even a third for Bouson to give the Panthers some breathing space did not deter the Rhinos in their comeback quest, and once Collins had been sent over by his coach Simpson and England teammate Tom Halliwell for his fourth and fifth tries of the game they were behind by just two points.
And an unlikely comeback was complete with just eight minutes left on the clock, when Ewan Clibbens moved the Rhinos into good field position with a line break resulting in a penalty for a strong challenge by the retreating Bouson. Collins added the goal, levelling the scores back up at 42-42.
With Grand Final glory now fully in the sights of both sides, it was Halifax who came up with two moments of magic inside the last five minutes to settle this classic encounter.
Not to be overshadowed by Collins, Panthers speedster Hawkins took his own tally to five by racing onto two sensational offloads from England compatriot Seb Bechara to break Leeds hearts and ultimately decide the contest, although a late try from Josh Butler had everyone on the edge of their seats with a chaotic final play from the Rhinos providing the most exhilarating end to such an incredible spectacle of Wheelchair Rugby League.
Speaking on Sky Sports after the game, a disappointed Leeds Rhinos Wheelchair boss James Simpson reflected on a colossal battle between the sport’s undoubted two top teams.
“”It was tough out there. We had a plan to win the game and we stuck to it, but it was a real shame to come up four points short at the end,” he said.
“We gave ourselves too much to do out there. It came down to things like one missed tackle and we were chasing the game.
“I said at half-time as soon as you stop giving away eight-metre restarts the game will change, and I said stop going for deep kicks and go for shorts ones. We did that and the game shifted.
“All the way through until the last minute I thought we could do it. It’s been a tough year for the players. Winning two out of three trophies can’t be bad. You can’t win everything. We had a challenge today, but we pushed ourselves to breaking point and just came up short so I’m immensely proud of us all.”
1 Nathan Collins
4 James Simpson
6 Ewan Clibbens
7 Tom Halliwell
10 Jodie Boyd-Ward
3 Josh Butler
8 Paul Horrobin
9 Verity Smith
Tries: Simpson (10), Collins (13, 39, 47, 60, 67), Boyd-Ward (45), Butler (78)
Goals: Collins 8/9
7 Wayne Boardman
11 Rob Hawkins
13 Jeremy Bourson
20 Nathan Holmes
21 Seb Bechara
14 Tom Martin
1 Julin Hernandes
10 Tom Green
Tries: Holmes (1), Bourson (22, 34), Hawkins (23, 31, 38, 73, 76), Bechara (51)
Goals: Hawkins 8/10
Half time: 16-36
Referee: David Butler
Penalty count: 8-2
Scoring sequence: 0-6, 4-6, 10-6, 10-12, 10-18, 10-24, 10-30, 10-36, 16-36, 22-36, 28-36, 28-42, 34-42, 40-42, 42-42, 42-48, 42-52, 48-52