Rewind way back to 5PM on the first afternoon of the Championship weekend, and hundreds of Leigh fans were leaving Batley’s Mount Pleasant fearing the worst.
After so much hype leading into the season, they had just seen their star-studded side humbled by the Batley Bulldogs, ten days after the resignation of head coach Paul Rowley.
Fans were, righly, concerned about the club’s fortunes at that point. However, a quite remarkable turnaround has seen the Centurions dominate the Championship in a convincing manner.
Neil Jukes’ side have dropped just one point in their last 18 matches, scoring almost 700 points in the process while also possessing the league’s sternest defence. Their impressive league form saw them cruise to victory over their nearest rivals London last weekend, leading 28-0 before eventually winning 38-12, a win that mathematically secured their place in the Qualifiers. That victory, and more so the performance, was a clear message to their Middle 8s rivals. The message from the start of the year was that they intended to peak at the right time, and their most recent outing was an indicator that they are doing just that.
Given the nature of their off-season recruitment, many will suggest that they should be in the position they are. It’s hard to disagree, too. The Centurions should be in the position they are when you consider the financial backing invested into the playing roster, and had they finished anywhere other than top, it would have been considered a failure.
However, what has been impressive is the way in which the Centurions have continued to pick up results despite plenty of changes in their team all year. By no means have Leigh been at their excellent best all season, but, despite changes aplenty to their squad on a near weekly basis, they continue to produce on the scoreboard. People talk about the number of halfback combinations Bradford have had this season, but Leigh won’t be too far behind, and they are still winning every week.
Of course, the big question hanging over the head of Neil Jukes’ side is their ability to earn promotion. The Rugby League community will remain sceptical about the Super 8s structure until a team is promoted to Super League, but Leigh are starting to prove that they, along with the other teams that make the top four, are much better equipped to compete than last year.
The Centurions are unquestionably the best hope of a team going up in 2016, but it is by no means a certainty. With Leeds and Huddersfield in the bottom four, who between them have numerous England internationals, the standard of the clubs Leigh will face is higher than last year.
Beyond that, London’s recent acquisition of Jamie Soward validates their push for Super League, while Halifax, should they make the top four, are a much stronger squad this year.
But the Centurions are prepared. They appear confident, wiser, and, beyond that, have the squad capable of threatening those in Super League. The likes of Lee Smith, Travis Burns, Harrison Hansen and Cory Paterson all know what it takes to play at that level, and they have the quality to produce on the big stage.
There will be doubters, but Leigh will frighten a lot of clubs come August.