NORTHERN RAIL CUP FINAL
LEIGH CENTURIONS 43 SHEFFIELD EAGLES 28
Aaron Bower, Shay Stadium, Saturday 20th July 2013
They are undoubtedly the kings of the Northern Rail Cup, as a blistering 29-point spell from the Centurions in the second half ensured the trophy was heading back to Leigh for an unprecedented fourth time.
In a game that was never threatened to be overshadowed by an ugly second-half brawl that saw Liam Higgins and Steve Maden sent off, both sides served up an absolute classic at The Shay, with the Centurions coming out on top thanks to an imperious second-half performance, leaving head coach Paul Rowley gleaming with pride at the hooter.
“It’s a wonderful competition, and it’s a wonderful moment to win it as a player and a coach,” Rowley claimed.
“When you run around in the cold and the snow in winter, this is what it’s all about, days like these. I’m very proud of the team and the way we played.
“We didn’t think the game had got away from us at any particular point, more that we got away from ourselves in that first half. We looked a little bit tentative, so it was pleasing that the scoreline was close going into that second half. There were some very good performances out there though for the most part, which there had to be against a very good Sheffield side.”
In a first half where the lead changed hands four times, the opening exchanges had all the feel of a cup final about them.
The breakthrough came when referee Chris Leatherbarrow penalised Mitchell Stringer for interference, and Martyn Ridyard kicked the simplest of goals to nudge Leigh in front early on.
The Challenge Cup quarter-finalists soon hit back though, and a fine sweeping move from the Eagles saw Matt Garside break into open field down the left edge, and he had too much pace for Gregg McNally, rounding the fullback to the left corner before running behind and touching down under the posts. Dominic Brambani added the simplest of extras, and Sheffield led 6-2.
An error from the Centurions gave the South Yorkshire side prime attacking position, and they thought they’d capitalised when Scott Turner found his way over in the corner after his centre Menzie Yere freed the ball in the tackle. However, video referee Ian Smith deemed the ball went forward from Yere, giving the Centurions a reprieve.
Tempers were starting to flare in the high-octane environment that so often comes with the rigours of a final, and after Leigh were piggy-backed down the field with back-to-back penalties, it was they who struck next as the game approached half-time. Ridyard and Ryan Brierley combined with some fast hands to send Stuart Littler over from close range and Ridyard’s touchline conversion put the Centurions in front by two for the second time in the half.
Sheffield hit back in search of an instant riposte and amazingly they grabbed two tries in three minutes to wrestle a stranglehold on the game with the break fast approaching. After Yere had robustly charged his way over the line from dummy half, despite the attentions of four Leigh defenders, winger Misi Taulapapa superbly collected his own kick to finish with aplomb in the corner. From a two-point deficit, all of a sudden the Eagles led by eight.
Amazingly though, the action wasn’t over for the first half, as with just sixteen seconds left on the clock before the break, Leigh once more made it a two-point game when Anthony Bate collected Ridyard’s stabbed kick that bounced off a post protector to pounce, moments after Joe Hirst having dropped the kick-off. A first half which had started brightly had utterly exploded in the final ten minutes before the break, with the game finely poised heading into the second half.
And that two-point lead the Eagles held was eradicated almost immediately after the restart, as Ridyard continued his faultless record with the boot to nail another penalty, after Brambani had been penalised for stripping the ball away in the tackle. In just three minutes either side of the break, the Centurions had clawed back an eight-point deficit to lock the game up at 16-16.
But then, the game’s telling moment. A routine tackle escalated into absolute mayhem when the tackled Gregg McNally appeared to catch Liam Higgins with the elbow, and he retaliated with a series of punches before a full-on brawl occurred. Referee Chris Leatherbarrow immediately made the call and sent Higgins and Leigh’s Steve Maden off for fighting, to ensure both sides would finish with twelve men.
The tension was beginning to rise through the roof, and the Centurions thought they’d reclaimed the lead when Matt Gardner touched the ball down in the left corner, but Ian Smith chalked the effort off, spotting Gardner’s leg hit the whitewash well before he’d placed the ball down.
The game was moving along at a frantic pace, and, just seconds after they were facing going behind once more, the Eagles raced up the other end and extended their lead when Turner did what Gardner couldn’t, and touched the ball down in the corner, off a long Quentin Laulu-Togagae pass, to put Sheffield in charge.
With time running out, the next points were beginning to look huge, as another from Sheffield would surely kill the game off. However, after Gardner intercepted on his own line and raced 60 metres to clear the siege it was Leigh who struck with a double-salvo of their own, as amazingly they turned another eight-point deficit into a leading position.
First Tom Spencer muscled his way over from close range, before the Centurions took a punt, and shifted the ball high and wide, leaving Littler the simplest of finishes in the right corner for his second.
Leigh were now the side with all the momentum and possession and, as they sought the try that would edge them nearer to glory, it was one of their own who delivered. Sean Penkywicz – playing for his hometown club on the ground at which he had spent the lion’s share of his career with Halifax – scored a typical hooker’s try, scampering from dummy-half to send the Centurions fans into raptures. Ridyard however, pushed the conversion wide to leave it still all to play for at 30-24.
It was getting to the stage where the Eagles had to start to chance their arm, but it was the Centurions who struck a fatal blow eight minutes from time, when Ryan Brierley struck a 40-metre field goal from nowhere, to all but seal it. And if that didn’t, Brierley stepped up again to score Leigh’s sixth – and most important – try of an unbelievable afternoon’s Rugby League. Tommy Goulden then added another for the Centurions, before a consolation from tom Armstrong was just that, leaving Mark Aston cutting an incredibly forlorn figure after the game.
“We were still in the game when there was fifteen minutes to go – we were only two points behind at that point – but certain decisions went against us and we put ourselves on the back foot,” the Eagles coach said.
“I’m not going to take anything away from Leigh, they played good rugby; cup final rugby, and I’m made up for Paul (Rowley). He’s had a tough few years and he’s come through it. Well done Leigh, not so well done Sheffield.
“When we didn’t take the opportunity to kill the game, we physically drained ourselves at that moment. Look at what happened after that, we didn’t have that resolve to put those moments behind us and get on with the game.”
GAMEBREAKER: The game ebbed and flowed all afternoon, but Ryan Brierley’s 72nd minute field goal sealed it for the Centurions.
GAMESTAR: Martyn Ridyard kicked the Eagles to death; both from the kicking tee and in open play as Leigh once more got their hands on the Northern Rail Cup.
TOP TACKLE: Quentin Laulu-Togagae’s superb effort to deny Matt Gardner was a moment of magic, even in defeat for the Eagles
1 Gregg McNally
2 Steve Maden
3 Stuart Littler
4 Matt Gardner
5 Jon Pownall
6 Martyn Ridyard
7 Ryan Brierley
19 Michael Ostick
9 Bob Beswick
34 Tom Spencer
11 Simon Finnigan
12 Tommy Goulden
8 Sam Hopkins
Subs (all used)
14 Sean Penkywicz
15 Andy Thornley
32 Anthony Bate
10 Rob Parker
T – Littler (29), Bate (40), Spencer (60), Littler (63), Penkywicz (67), Brierley (73), Goulden (78); G – Ridyard 7/9; FG – Brierley (72)
1 Quentin Laulu-Togagae
5 Misi Taulapapa
4 Tom Armstrong
3 Menzie Yere
2 Scott Turner
6 Pat Walker
7 Dominic Brambani
25 Eddie Battye
9 Andrew Henderson
10 Mitchell Stringer
21 Matt Garside
16 Duane Straughier
13 Joe Hirst
Subs (all used)
14 James Davey
17 Liam Higgins
11 Michael Knowles
12 Peter Green
T – Garside (12), Yere (35), Taulapapa (38), Turner (52), Armstrong (80); G – Brambani 4/6
Rugby Leaguer & League Express Men of the Match
Centurions: Martyn Ridyard
Eagles: Matt Garside
Penalty count: 8-5
GLDO Forced: 1-1
Referee: Chris Leatherbarrow