Leeds Rhinos coach Richard Agar was both excited and relieved to win the Challenge Cup Final on Saturday, as the Rhinos survived a spine-tingling game to win 17-16 thanks to a late field-goal from Luke Gale, which snatched victory away from a gallant Salford Red Devils, who had taken a 16-12 lead after being 6-12 down at half-time.
“I thought we were gone when they took the lead in the second half,” said Agar after the game.
“We controlled the first half really well. But we just didn’t get our finishes right.
“We knew they wouldn’t go away. There’s a lot of experience in their team, which a lot of people overlook.
“We started in the first 15 minutes in the second half in terrible fashion.
“When Tom Briscoe got his head knock, if we had lost him we would have been goosed with substitutions. His coming back on combined with the energy Brad Dwyer gave us, and the input of Alex Sutcliffe were magnificent for us.
“I don’t think they allowed us to build a big lead. Against opposition like this, if we had led 12-0 at half-time we would have been very happy. Their try was a length of the field effort, but they weren’t causing us too much trouble near the line.
“I just felt that our spirit got us through in the end. We had great energy, particularly in those last-ditch moments, and Luke came up with a play to win the game, just as we know he can.”
And Agar admitted that Gale winning the game while wearing the number 7 shirt that was worn for so many years by Leeds icon Rob Burrow, who is currently struggling with Motor Neurone Disease, was highly symbolic, and he paid tribute to his captain.
“It makes you wonder whether it was in the script somewhere along the line,” said Agar.
“If you believe in that stuff there are a lot of things that point to it.
“Luke’s contribution has been fantastic. He assumed the captaincy really early when he joined us. We probably have some different philosophies from the team he left, which means he has had to see the game in a fractionally different way. But he isn’t short of confidence, and we had talked about owning the big moments in the game.
“Luke’s journey, to hang in there and have so much success, shows what the game means to this. He has two young daughters and he lost his mum when he was young, and that is an inspiration for him. His name as the winning captain will go on the plaque and will be there forever.
“I mentioned to Luke beforehand that the captain’s name went on the Cup and I think that had an effect on him.
“We weren’t good in an attacking sense, but in terms of spirit we were outstanding.”
Agar also paid tribute to Lance Todd Trophy winner Richie Myler, whose future at Leeds had looked highly uncertain earlier in the year.
“I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Rich,” said Agar.
“He is experienced and tough; in fact I don’t think people give him enough credit for how tough he is.
“I can’t say how pleased I am for him. The way he attacked this year. The respect he has in our group is massive and he deserves all the success he enjoys.”
When asked for his views about how the game was controlled by referee Liam Moore, who, at 25, is the youngest man ever to referee a Challenge Cup Final, Agar was ambivalent.
“I don’t know what Tommy Briscoe has to do to get a penalty any more,” he said.
“They say that when he’s tackled he thrashes around to win a penalty. They have decided now that’s he’s a diver, so they are not going to give him penalties.
“Having said that, I thought you saw a typical performance for a big game. The referee was quite reluctant to blow for too much, which I was quite happy with.”
Meanwhile the Leeds coach admitted to being slightly surprised to learn of the plaudits the game received from TV viewers.
“It’s difficult for me, because I’m looking at my own team’s performance, and I tend to see the problems. But I’ve had 150 text messages saying what a great spectacle it was and I’m told it came across well.
“With no crowd we knew it was going to be different and it was. But the journey since we were humbled against Bradford last year is a resurrection for us.”
And Agar admits that he sometimes hasn’t been popular with supporters at his previous clubs.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to win the PR battle.
“(St Helens Chairman) Eamonn McManus described social media as an open sewer last year. I have been in the game a long time and I’m being judged by people who know a lot less than me. Marco Pierre White handed back his Michelin stars because he was tired of being critiqued by people who knew less than him.
“I’ve had messages from former Australian internationals and State of Origin players and those count far more for me.”
But one thing that did delight the Leeds coach is the knowledge that he is following in his father’s footsteps after Allan Agar coached Featherstone Rovers to a 14-12 Challenge Cup Final victory against Hull FC in 1983.
“One thing I’m really proud of is that I and my father have become the first father and son to do this,” he said.
“I was a youngster in 1983 and my mother had cancer at the time. She recovered but then had a relapse.
“But you could see from a family point of view why it means so much.
“I said to the guys that they can never take this away from you. We can’t celebrate too much this year, but we know there will be a five- or ten-year reunion.
“As for me, I’m coming down from a very nervous and anxious 40 minutes.
“It’s not about me and it never has been. I just wanted our blokes to win and for them to get the feeling. The way we stuck together and rode out some good and bad times together gives me so much satisfaction.”
The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.