Championship Focus: Can Leigh Centurions put down a marker at Tottenham?

Four players with NRL experience, three of them internationals.

A look at the additions made to an already-strong squad since the start of the season (Krisnan Inu, Kai O’Donnell, Ben Nakubuwai and Blake Ferguson) show just how serious Leigh Centurions are about regaining their place in Super League at the first attempt.

The recruitment of former Hull KR, Wakefield Trinity and Scotland coach Chris Chester in September was a sign of intent following a dismal top-flight campaign during which they won only two out of 22 matches and finished well adrift of their closest rivals Salford Red Devils, thus being relegated after a single Super League season for the third time (after 2005 and 2016).

Club owner Derek Beaumont said he had gone for Chester – “his knowledge of players at all levels and dealing with agents will be significant in what he can bring” – after plans to lure a “high-profile NRL coach that would have been my biggest single investment in an individual in my time at the club” fell through. 

Chester was tasked with recruiting a replacement for Kurt Haggerty, who took interim charge of the team following the departure of John Duffy a year ago and is now working alongside Paul Rowley, himself a former Leigh coach, at Salford, as well as assembling a new squad after a string of departures following the drop.

Chester turned to his old Wigan Warriors team-mate Adrian Lam, who had just ended a three-year stint at the DW Stadium during which he took his charges to the League Leaders’ Shield and Grand Final in 2020, when he was named Super League Coach of the Year.

Former Papua New Guinea halfback and team chief Lam is also assistant to Australia coach Mal Meninga and will be at the heart of the Kangaroos’ bid to defend the World Cup later this year.

The 51-year-old, who also played for Sydney Roosters, has three targets before the Autumn – to lead Leigh to 1895 Cup success – they face Featherstone Rovers at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday – top spot in the Championship, in theory giving them the most straightforward route to the Million Pound Game, and promotion.

Featherstone, who after losing 34-12 at Toulouse Olympique in last year’s Million Pound Game are now led by former all-conquering Leeds Rhinos coach Brian McDermott and have also recently added several players to their ranks, are regarded as their main rivals (although York City Knights look capable of coming into the equation).

And that makes the 1895 showpiece, part of a double header also involving the Challenge Cup Final between Lam’s former employers Wigan and Huddersfield Giants, all the more interesting.

It’s the second of a potential five meetings between the two, who also clash in the Championship at Leigh on Monday, June 13 and Headingley at the Summer Bash on Saturday, July 30 ahead of that possible Million Pound Game showdown on the weekend of October 1/2.

Featherstone were 26-6 winners in the second round of Championship games in February but have had more time to gel.

“I’m pleased with progression we have made and the way the team is coming together. It’s a new group, so it will take some time,” said Lam.

“We had a few absentees a few weeks ago, but we’ve got players back from injury and a few new ones, and that has put some pressure on positions, which is what you need.”

Former Australia and New South Wales winger Ferguson, who was playing for Parramatta Eels last year, could well feature for Leigh after his being signed late last month.

The 32-year-old was released by the Eels after the 2021 season and his rugby union deal with the NEC Green Rockets in the Japan Top League lapsed after he was arrested on allegations of cocaine possession.

Ferguson, considered one of the best wingers in the world in the peak of his career, scored 126 tries in 249 NRL games (he also had spells at Cronulla Sharks, Canberra Raiders and Sydney Roosters, with whom he won the title in 2018) and played seven Tests and nine State of Origin matches.

“When he first arrived, we needed to be wary of the science side and make sure he didn’t blow out straight away,” explained Lam, who has worked with him in the Australia set-up.

“We gave him time to get right.”

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