Column: Gale’s the man for Leeds

This was the first Challenge Cup Final to be decided by a single point since Hull FC defeated Leeds Rhinos 25-24 at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2005.

On that day the difference between the two teams was a Danny Brough field-goal, which he kicked in the 58th minute.
On Saturday it was Luke Gale kicking a goal in the 76th minute that finally decided the outcome of the game.

Gale’s kicking game, particularly in the first half, must have made him a strong contender for the Lance Todd Trophy, but by the time he kicked the winning field-goal the journalists had already voted for Richie Myler, who thoroughly deserved to win the prestigious trophy after an outstanding performance at fullback for Leeds.

He must have been pushed all the way not just by Gale, but also by Salford fullback Niall Evalds, who had a magnificent game, having come back into the side after several weeks’ absence. Evalds had come in to replace the unfortunate Dan Sarginson, who had tested positive for Covid in the period leading up to the game.

Perhaps Evalds’ greatest mistake was when he made a great break on 26 minutes and tried to chip over the top of the Leeds defence, but Myler collected the ball when Kris Welham looked to be in a good position to take Evalds’ pass. But that was down to Myler’s anticipation and I don’t think we should be too harsh on Evalds.

The most thrilling moment of the game was undoubtedly Rhys Williams’ outstanding try, which came after Leeds had taken an early lead through a Tom Briscoe try. After a Gale kick over the defence, Kallum Watkins caught the ball, gave a great pass to Evalds, who put Williams through the gap to run the length of the field to score.

That was a try that will be replayed over the ages, perhaps not quite as much as Martin Offiah’s 1994 try, but not too far behind.

And, as Luke Gale commented afterwards, the game will be remembered for as long as people remember Rugby League and the Challenge Cup. As Gale pointed out, the fact that it was played in front of no spectators ensures that it will be recalled for all time, hopefully long after the Covid virus has faded into the memory.

Many Cup Finals are also remembered for controversial or unfortunate events.

For example, if you mention the 1971 Cup Final, most people will probably recall it because Syd Hynes became the first player to be sent off in a Cup Final, while the 1968 Cup Final, which also ended with a one-point margin in favour of Leeds, is remembered for the missed conversion by Don Fox at the end of the game that would have won it for Wakefield.

There was nothing in this year’s game that was quite as dramatic as those two events.

But there was certainly controversy and the Red Devils were incensed by the decision of referee Liam Moore, who at the age of 25 is the youngest ever Challenge Cup Final referee, to rule against Pauli Pauli in the 75th minute when he was tackled and tried to play the ball when getting to his feet. The referee, if I understood him correctly, appeared to claim that Pauli had surrendered in the tackle and therefore was obliged to rise to his feet before attempting to play the ball.

That may be technically correct, but even so it seemed a harsh decision, particularly at that point in the game. It was the first tackle after Salford had kicked a penalty into touch. It certainly seemed to take the steam out of the Red Devils’ bid for glory at a time when the two teams were level at 16-16.

As I commented on Twitter, it was correct in the same way that it would be correct to fine someone for driving at 31 miles per hour in a built-up area – technically correct but some people may regard it as being excessively harsh.

Eighty seconds after that incident Gale was kicking the field-goal that would win the game for Leeds.

Having said that, it would be hard to begrudge Gale his first major team trophy, other than the League Leaders’ Shield he won with Castleford in 2017.

He has made a tremendous difference since arriving at Leeds, with his infectious confidence, the quality of his leadership and his tactical astuteness. He already looks like one of the Rhinos’ best signings in the Super League era.

And the other good signing is their coach Richard Agar, who fell into the job when David Furner left the club in 2019.

I’ve always had a huge admiration for Agar’s incredible technical knowledge and understanding of the game and I used to wonder why those qualities were not more widely recognised.

Now, as well as those technical qualities, he seems to have added some formidable skills in being able to manage his players and instil a strong team spirit, as Gale made clear when speaking to the media after the game.

After winning the Cup, I can see Agar staying at Headingley for many years.