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Super League Grand Final preview
Super League Season XIII draws to a close this evening, with St Helens and Leeds Rhinos doing battle in a repeat of last year's grand final match.
Twelve months ago Leeds came out victorious, after having lost to the Saints in the major semi-final a fortnight before. While St Helens had a week off Leeds had to defeat Wigan to earn their place in the Grand Final, and then ran away with the match in the second half to the tune of 33-6.
Exactly the same scenario faces the two sides this year - St Helens having beaten Leeds in the major semi-final and having a week off, and Leeds having then beaten Wigan to earn their chance at revenge. Both sides have been at or near the top of the table for the duration of the season, and make fitting Grand Final opponents.
Leeds can draw inspiration from their 2007 achievement, but will be fearful that St Helens have learned their lessons from what has gone before. St Helens can draw their inspiration from wanting to square last year's balance sheet, but should the Rhinos get a lead on them their confidence may be haunted by their memories of 2007.
So we have what is shaping to be a very interesting match here. The weather predictions for the Old Trafford ground at Manchester show a high likelihood of rain, after a cool day of 13 degrees. Tickets for the game are still on sale, but with a crowd of over 71,000 watching last year's Grand Final, the game should again go respectably close to the ground capacity of 76,000.
Departing St Helens coach Daniel Anderson has named an unchanged 19-man squad from that which defeated Leeds 38-10 a fortnight ago. Hooker Keiron Cunningham has signed a one-year contract extension on the eve of the Grand Final and there is conjecture over whether Jason Cayless will be promoted to a spot in the 17 after having missed the last month through injury. Hull KR bound Nick Fozzard has been filling the spot in Cayless' absence, and has already missed a chance at silverware in his final Saints season when dropped from the Challenge Cup Final line-up for a returning Maurie Fa'asavalu.
The St Helens backline is a representative class line-up, with fullback Paul Wellens, three-quarters Ade Gardner, Matt Gidley, Willie Talau and Francis Meli, and halves Leon Pryce and Sean Long all having tasted rep honours. If the Saints pack including newly crowned Super League Man of Steel James Graham can get on top of their Leeds counterparts, then expect this backline to fire and put on the points on the back of the injection of bench hooker James Roby.
Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McClennan also named an unchanged 19-man squad coming off their tight win over Wigan last week, but fullback Brent Webb is a late withdrawal following a recurrence of a back injury. McLennan is not bringing a replacement to Old Trafford, so this means that winger Lee Smith - fresh from escaping suspension for kicking Phil Bailey in the face during a spiteful clash - will move to fullback with young Ryan Hall coming into the starting side on the wing. Young forward Luke Burgess looks set to be the 18th man.
A Leeds backline without Webb looks less dangerous and more vulnerable than a full-strength line-up, but given the conditions and the nature of Leeds' victory in last season's decider, you can be sure the Rhinos will be trying to dominate up the middle in the forwards, and take things from there. The likes of Jamie Peacock, Jamie-Jones Buchanan and Gareth Ellis in the forwards will need to have big games to hold the Saints pack at bay.
If Leeds can play the game tight and not go backwards, then the creativity of halves Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire, as well as the ball skills of back-rowers Kevin Sinfield and Ali Lauitiiti on their day can bring an opposition side to their knees. Experienced centre Keith Senior and touchline flyer Scott Donald can expect to be busy out wide as well if Leeds are to compete in this match and come up with the spoils.
It should be an absorbing spectacle between the best two sides in Super League, and don't forget it is televised live into Australia at 3:30am Sunday on Fox Sports 3, with a replay from 12:00-2:00pm Sunday on Fox Sports 2.
St Helens squad: Wellens, Gardner, Gidley, Talau, Meli, Pryce, Long, Fozzard, Cunningham, Cayless, Gilmour, Wilkin, Roby, Flannery, Graham, Hargreaves, Clough, Fa'asavalu, Eastmond.
Leeds squad: Webb, Donald, Senior, Smith, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, Diskin, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ellis, Sinfield, Lauitiiti, Bailey, Scruton, Kirke, Ablett, Hall, Burgess.
Referee: Ashley Klein