MANCHESTER // With good luck messages ringing in his ear from all and sundry, Lee Smith walked towards the exit at Old Trafford alone. It is a feeling he may soon have to get used to, despite ending his rugby league club career on a momentous high. Smith was the two-try hero for Leeds Rhinos as they edged a gallant St Helens 18-10 on Saturday to claim a third successive Grand Final win - a feat unmatched in the Super League era.
He has played a key part in each triumph. But after a seven-year Leeds career laden with success, Smith will soon enter unknown territory with a switch to rugby union and a new life with London Wasps. "I'm going to a new team and I've got to gain respect again. It's what I'm dreading the most," he said. "People are going to want to shoot me down, but let them do it. I'm not bothered. I have to learn the game, learn new tactics, but it's a challenge I'm looking forward to. I'm leaving a brilliant team, but this is something I back myself on."
Smith hoped his new teammates watched the final to see what he has to offer. Saints had charged into an early lead thanks to Kyle Eastmond's eight-point haul, including a dashing run for the opening try. Matt Diskin and Smith levelled with opportunist tries before the Leeds centre swept through for the vital score seven minutes from time, picking up a kick from Danny McGuire and being favoured by the video referee amid a strong offside call.
It was the perfect send-off for Smith, 23, and the Leeds captain Kevin Sinfield said it would not be a surprise if he went on to match the success of Jason Robinson, who became a World Cup winner with England after changing codes. "I think he's got the full package. I watch quite a bit of rugby union myself and Smithy is quick, strong and he can kick a ball as good as anyone in this team," he said. "He's got a great attitude and is willing to learn. Without putting too much pressure on him, it wouldn't surprise me if he's playing international rugby by the end of the year."
Sinfield, who expects to see out his career with the Rhinos, was similarly inspirational in attack and defence. One thundering tackle on Eastmond prevented a certain try. He shed "tears of joy" after becoming the first captain to lead a side to four Grand Final victories and said Leeds were hungry for more honours. Sean Long, who endured heartbreak in his final game for St Helens, admitted Leeds were now the dominant force. But he predicted the talented Eastmond, 20, will help Saints challenge them.
"They are in good hands with Kyle. He's a cracking player, electric on his feet, and the players will help him," he said. "The rivalry between Saints and Leeds will continue, but it could take a lot to stop them. Leeds are a young side with quality coming through and they are the team to beat." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org