This is an excerpt from a story published in this week’s issue of League Express newspaper, which is out in all good newsagents right now. If you can’t get your hands on a hard copy, click here to download a digital version to your computer or smartphone.
At Saturday’s Wigan-Castleford Challenge Cup tie, Leigh coach Paul Rowley and scrum-half Ryan Brierley were sat on the row behind me in the press box. Both were still gutted about their Friday night defeat at Leeds Rhinos.
It wasn’t a fake disappointment, presented to try and show a front. Both were genuinely frustrated that the team hadn’t quite been able to pull off one of the biggest Challenge Cup shocks ever.
Because, while the Centurions are flying high at the top of the Championship, having won a club record 16 straight wins in all competitions this year, they are still a part-time side that was coming up against one of Super League’s strongest clubs on their own ground. The bookmakers were giving them starts of around 32 points on Friday morning.
But with nine minutes remaining at Headingley Carnegie, Rowley’s team were laying siege to the Leeds line with the score at 12-12, and the Rhinos were in very real danger of seeing their long-held Challenge Cup dreams evaporate for another year.
Two late tries, from Robbie Ward and Zak Hardaker, gave the scoreline an undoubtedly lopsided 25-12 look at full-time, but Leeds knew how close they’d come to being toppled.
VIDEO: A LOOK BACK AT LEEDS v LEIGH
Rowley couldn’t hide his disappointment at the end of the game. On Saturday at Wigan, Brierley questioned whether it would hurt more to lose in that manner or by 80 points.
But as this week unfolds – and Leigh have to play Halifax in a crucial Championship game this Wednesday – both will surely realise that Leigh did themselves and the Championship proud at Headingley.
For those who have been banging on about the quality and potential in the competition almost since Richard Lewis announced the controversial licence system back in 2007, it was another moral victory to claim alongside Featherstone’s cup triumphs of recent years.
It’s no coincidence that Leigh’s surge this season has come ahead of the prospect of genuine progression next season. Now the club can see a definite way to move up the leagues, rather than being restricted to hoping to be the one club picked every three years to step up to the top flight.
What happens on the field is now finally the most important thing again, and under Rowley the Centurions have bought shrewdly and are busily re-signing their current squad on full-time contracts for 2015.
Leigh are not on their own either – there are plenty of other clubs with just as much potential to build and progress.
Featherstone are the most obvious example, despite what has been an unstable 12 months. Their new coach Andy Hay is actually the sixth man in just over a year to take charge of the side, following Daryl Powell, caretakers Ryan Sheridan and Danny Evans, Sean Long and John Bastian.
Halifax are another who, if they get it right, can be every bit as well supported as most Super League clubs, while despite their recent dip in form and ground difficulties, Sheffield still harbour ambitions of progression.
Clubs like these can breath new life into the sport. Leigh were a terrific story for the game on Friday, and took a travelling support that would shame several top-flight clubs.
Long may it continue!
And if you’re at a loose end tonight, you won’t regret taking in their clash with Halifax at the Leigh Sports Village.