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What happened to Leeds Rhinos’ three-time Grand Final hero?

Every player dreams of scoring in a victorious Grand Final, but few ever realise that ambition and even fewer score in multiple Grand Finals and only one player has scored in three consecutive Grand Final victories. Lee Smith will go down as a Leeds Rhinos hero thanks to his four Grand Final tries in three final victories as he become one of the greatest Grand Final players ever even if his career never reached those heights again.

Born in Leeds, he grew up with ambitions of playing for the Rhinos. He soon made a name for himself in the impressive Rhinos academy that in the years prior had produced the likes of Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow and the young three-quarter was being tipped for big things. He claimed the Senior Academy Player of the Year award in 2003 and caught the eye in 2004 pre-season although it wasn’t until 2005 that Smith made his senior debut for the then reigning Super League Champions. In 10 appearances that season, Smith scored 8 tries and kicked four goals. With the impending departure of Marcus Bai to Bradford, Smith’s namesake Tony didn’t hesitate to promote Smith to the number five jersey ahead of 2006.

Smith started the season impressively on the outside of Keith Senior. His lightning-fast pace central to plenty of tries. But an injury to fullback Richie Mathers saw Smith take over the fullback spot for the rest of the campaign. His performances were so impressive that some Leeds fans expected him to replace Mathers in 2007 as he headed to Gold Coast.

In the end, star fullback Brent Webb was brought in and Smith remained on the wing. Despite the lukewarm end of season Leeds suffered in 2006, Smith was achieving more success at academy level as the England Under 18s star captained the Rhinos academy to a bizarre 1-0 win over Hull FC in the Grand Final.

A year after winning the academy Grand Final, he scored in the Grand Final as Leeds defied the odds to beat Champions St Helens 33-6 at Old Trafford. Another year on and things got even better for the Leeds academy star.

After scoring twice in the Grand Final eliminator, he was named at fullback in the 2008 Grand Final following Brent Webb’s injury. Despite playing in his preferred position, he was written off going into the game but produced one of the finest individual performances the Grand Final has ever seen. He scored Leeds’ opening try, kicked a 40/20 that led to Leeds’ third score and was simply remarkably at the back for the Rhinos.

That performance saw Smith promoted to England’s World Cup squad and he went on to score a hat-trick against Papua New Guinea only for a minor injury to derail his tournament. However, it didn’t derail the momentum he took into 2009.

Having enabled Ryan Hall’s rise on the wing with his heroics at fullback, Smith moved to centre ahead of 2009 with coach Brian McClellan believing his skillset would make Leeds even more potent in attack. It worked as Leeds again made their way to Old Trafford.

Once more, the Grand Final brought the best out of Smith. He scored the equalising try in the first half before wrapping up the win with a second score showing superb pace to get to a McGuire kick. It was set to be one final act of Grand Final heroism from Smith as a big money move to London Wasps Rugby Union beckoned.

However, by Easter 2010 Smith was back at Headingley promising more big game heroics against Bradford as he sought to return to what he did best after a difficult start to life in the other game. He appeared to be picking up where he left off. He scored a brace on his second debut and the winner in a seismic cup quarter-final against Wigan. He even found a way over the line at Wembley although it was in defeat.

2011 promised to rekindle his career at Leeds but the form of youngsters Kallum Watkins and Ben Jones-Bishop pushed him down the pecking order and it was a similar story in 2012. Despite starting the season as Leeds’ first choice winger, an injury once more opened the door for Bishop to reclaim his spot.

After spending time as a back-up hooker and scrum-half Smith left Leeds in search for regular game time. He joined Wakefield and helped them to the play-offs in 2012 only for Leeds to knock them out in the first week.

2013 saw him try his hand at rugby union once again with Newcastle Falcons. Before his return to Wakefield in 2015, Smith scored 28 points in 10 appearances for the union side. His return to Trinity helped them to Super League survival in the Million Pound game against future club Bradford Bulls. After a failed trial at Hull FC, he joined Leigh ahead of 2016 before moving onto Bradford as the previous heights of his career continued to allude him although he was named Bradford skipper in 2018 in what must have been a nice moment for him personally.

In January 2019, he officially announced his retirement from rugby league looking to pursue a career as an agent. Ultimately, his career will never be forgotten for the highs of its amazing start and he’ll always be a hero to Leeds Rhinos fans. However, his career steadily slowed down after a brief flirtation with rugby union. Had his career maintained the trajectory of its beginning, he’d have retired Leeds skipper rather than the captain of a struggling Bradford side. Nonetheless, his effort was always there for all to see no matter what shirt he pulled on and on his day he was one of the most exciting players to watch. Perhaps no player is as synonymous with big moments in Grand Finals as Lee Smith and when it comes to contemplating the greatest Grand Final players he has to be in the conversation.

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