Cup final was just what the game needed

Congratulations to Leeds, commiserations to Salford.

And what a cracking match we were treated to.

With the Wembley stands empty, Saturday’s showdown was certainly a different sort of Challenge Cup Final.

But the Rhinos and the Red Devils produced an exciting, absorbing and eventful contest, which did this great old competition proud.

It was everything a Wembley final should be with the momentum, and the scoreline, switching one way then the other, with the outcome in doubt until the last few minutes.

After the year we’ve had, it was just what supporters, the Challenge Cup, the BBC and Rugby League itself needed.

The result was tough on Salford and their fans, but everyone connected with the club should be proud of a magnificent effort.

They came so close, and with just a little bit more composure, could have lifted the trophy for the first time since 1938.

There were two moments late on, when Kallum Watkins broke away but played a poor pass to the supporting Rhys Williams, then when Krisnan Inu drove upfield threateningly but failed to produce an end product, which might have provided a match winner.

But both made basic mistakes when under pressure, and of course that’s what pressure does, even to very good players like those two.

Luke Gale, on the other hand, held his nerve, and after failing with one field-goal attempt, was successful with the next, to grab that crucial point as well as the headlines.

As so many have pointed out, it was a poignant moment when the Leeds No7 clinched a match dedicated to Rob Burrow.

Luke didn’t have the greatest of games overall, but he came up with the goods when it mattered to ensure that a fine Rugby League institution lifted the game’s greatest knockout trophy for the 14th time.

I feel for Salford, who have come on in leaps and bounds under the stewardship of Ian Blease and Ian Watson, and I hope they can build on their fine achievement of making the Grand Final of 2019 and Challenge Cup final of 2020.

As for Leeds, can they push on and complete the double?

They have a really busy period coming up, starting with Friday’s game against St Helens, and Richard Agar will certainly use the full extent of his squad.

But if they can make the play-offs – and why shouldn’t they? – then they have every chance of making a first Grand Final since 2017, when they beat Castleford.

I’m delighted for Richard, and what a brilliant achievement by father and son after he followed in the footsteps of his father Allan, who won the Challenge Cup as coach of Featherstone against Hull in 1983.

He has really turned things around at Leeds, who, after becoming Super League champions by beating Castleford, had a torrid two years, missing out on the Super 8s in 2018, then going out of the Challenge Cup to Bradford and flirting with relegation last year.

Let’s not forget that Agar arrived at Leeds in late 2018 in a player development role before taking on the coaching duties, initially as a caretaker, after the departure of David Furner midway through last season.

He was withering about taking the job permanently at the end of last season, and I remember having a chat with him.

I told him he was being offered the chance to coach the biggest Rugby League club in this country, a chance that in all likelihood wouldn’t come again.

I knew Richard had both the ability and the experience to deal with the pressure the Leeds job brings and urged him to go for it, because I suspected he would end up regretting it if he passed up the opportunity.

Fair play to Kevin Sinfield as well, because he has had his fair share of critics, myself included. But he has persevered in his role as director of rugby and followed his instincts.

He might not have looked too happy when interviewed after the final, but I’m pretty sure he’d have been smiling on the inside, and rightly so.

As for Lance Todd Trophy winner Richie Myler, what a story!

Let’s be fair, he wasn’t really wanted, by Leeds or apparently anyone else, when the arrival of Luke Gale a year ago meant he was ousted from the halves.

The problem was that, after being signed from Catalans, he was asked to do a job he really wasn’t suited to, to be the main man and the main organiser, and he struggled as a result.

He came in for plenty of stick, some of it from me, and the arrival of Luke effectively meant he was being told to look for another club.

A move failed to materialise, and while he could have sulked, he rolled his sleeves up, really knuckled down in training, and got on with it.

When Jack Walker’s injury provided a chance at fullback, he took it and has really added something to the team.

He has had a new lease of life, and I like the way he acts as a second stand-off wide of the ruck, which adds an extra dimension to the way Leeds play.

Making a key contribution to both of Ash Handley’s tries helped clinch the man of the match award, and for me, Richie Myler has been Leeds’ best and most consistent player so far this season and is a genuine contender for Man of Steel.

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