FINALS RARELY live up to the hype, but the Coral Women’s Challenge Cup decider certainly did.
Leeds Rhinos retained the trophy with a hard-fought 16-10 victory over Castleford Tigers in a thrilling game which was just as tense as the sides’ meeting in the final 12 months earlier.
The quality of the tie fully justified the decision to stage it as part of a triple-header with both men’s semi-finals at University of Bolton Stadium and the West Yorkshire rivals showed on a big stage why they are the two best teams in the women’s game on current form.
Tigers have been the top side this year, but Leeds were worthy victors. They won away at the other leading club, St Helens, in their semi-final and were the better team on the day, though there was little between them from start to finish.
The final featured a high number of errors, particularly when the conditions worsened in the second half, but it was a tough, intense contest played in a terrific spirit and decided by a moment of outstanding quality.
Midway through the second half Rhinos’ Danika Priim, Tasha Gaines and Hannah Butcher pulled Kelsey Gentles into touch inside Leeds’ 20 and from the scrum Danielle Anderson, a front-rower, burst into open space with Hill in support. The pass was perfectly timed and Hill had the pace to race away and dot the ball down between the posts, making her conversion a formality.
That was the only scoring after half-time when the sides had been deadlocked at 10-10.
Half-back Hill ran the show and was named player of the match, but Anderson was just as good and there was a key contribution from right-winger Fran Goldthorp.
As well as scoring Rhinos’ first try, she kept their line intact three times in the final quarter with try-saving tackles on Lacey Owen, Hollie Dodd and the excellent Tara Stanley – the latter two in combination with another outstanding player, Caitlin Beevers.
Cas had swept all before them previously this season, including a 100-0 semi-final win over Wakefield Trinity, but never quite got their game together on attack, although it was a very good defensive effort.
Rhinos made a nervous start, knocking on three times in their own territory in the opening 20 minutes including the first set of the game, but grew in confidence and belief after quickly cancelling out Tigers’ opening try.
Castleford took some wrong options, particularly in the second half when they created an overlap on their right a couple of times without being able to shift the ball wide to their unmarked winger, Dodd.
She turned 16 the day before the final which – remarkably – was her debut.
Normally a forward, the teenager showed absolutely no sign of nerves, looked for work and made several strong carries.
Stanley was also impressive taking the ball up from full-back, number nine Sinead Peach had a good game and ex-Leeds loose-forward Rhiannon Marshall was hard to hold early on, scoring Tigers’ first try.
That came in spectacular fashion on 17 minutes when Marshall hit her stride in the middle of the field, powered through the first line of defence and held off Beevers’ last-ditch tackle to touch down at the corner.
Castleford were gaining the upper hand, but – crucially – Leeds hit straight back.
Had Castleford got on a roll it would have been hard for Leeds to keep them out, but the rapid reply shocked Tigers and gave Rhinos – who seemed to be tiring – a second wind.
They had been starved of territory since an early chance when Gaines scampered into space, but Stanley stood her ground to make a try-saving tackle and then Char Booth was held up over the line on the last.
After that Rhinos put themselves under pressure through the series of errors in their own half, but Cas’ first mistake came when they turned the ball over from the restart after Marshall’s try.
It proved costly as, on the last, Hill put in an intelligent kick to Leeds’ left and Goldthorp got above Dodd to make a fine catch for a try which Hill converted.
The reviving score gave Rhinos an injection of confidence.
Booth’s brilliant run almost produced a second for the holders and then Hill and Priim ganged up to drag Stanley into touch deep in Tigers territory and from the scrum Hannah Butcher fed Beevers and she raced round the defence for a superb, unconverted, touchdown.
Rhinos were now in control, but Priim knocked on driving the ball in from the restart and, after Marshall had almost forced her way over, Tamzin Renouf stormed through from Claire Garner’s excellent pass and Stanley’s kick levelled the scores with half an hour played.
Tigers went close to snatching a half-time lead when Sammy Watts ran on to Marshall’s pass, but Beevers made a hugely important try-saving tackle.
Though their try came from deep, Leeds had the better of the second period territorially and – other than Castleford’s three opportunities on their right flank – Rhinos managed to keep them a safe distance from the line.
Heavy rain didn’t help a team chasing the game and Cas struggled to complete their sets, though the outcome was in the balance right until the end, after Hill was wide with a drop goal attempt.
There were only two penalties in the first half, both to Tigers for high tackles and one after the break, when Castleford were offside.
That was a credit to both sides’ discipline and also young referee Cameron Worsley who was happy to let the players take the spotlight.
A couple of big calls favoured Leeds – a knock-on was missed near their line late in the first half and Tigers felt Gentles wasn’t in touch before Hill’s try, but Worsley refereed it in the right manner.
He was consistent in allowing a slow ruck and the lack of whistle helped the game as a spectacle, which was the most important thing.