Leigh Leopards go into Saturday’s Betfred Challenge Cup semi-final on the back of an incredible run of form, with last weekend’s nerve-wracking 24-22 win at Salford their 12th in the last 13 games.
Second in the Betfred Super League table, the Leopards now change their focus to achieving their ambition of a return to Wembley, a stadium they last graced in 1971.
Standing in their way are the World Champions St Helens, 13 times winners of the Challenge Cup, including eight in the summer era.
Ironically, Leigh’s last semi-final appearance was also against Saints. Saturday 14 March 1987 at Central Park, Wigan, over 36 years ago.
Saints dominated the first half and took a 14-2 lead. Tries by Kevin McCormack, Chris Arkwright and Andy Platt and a Paul Loughlin goal with just a Chris Johnson penalty in reply.
But ball handling prop and captain Derek Pyke inspired a Leigh revival and after Neil McCulloch scored a converted try, it set up a stirring second half.
Saints hung on desperately against wave after wave of attacks, eventually winning 14-8. The decisive moment came when Saints’ flying winger Barry Ledger, later a Leigh player, made a despairing ankle tap to deny John Henderson what looked to be a certain try.
Saints coach was Alex Murphy, Leigh’s hero as player-coach pm that never-to-be-forgotten day at Wembley in 1971. Billy Benyon was the Leigh coach, just 17 months after being sacked by Saints.
Leigh have made nine Challenge Cup semi-final appearances so far, winning in 1921 and 1971 and on both occasions going on to lift the trophy.
Leigh’s great side of the 1950s reached the semi-final stage on three separate occasions, losing narrowly each time. They also lost a quarter-final against Saints at the old Kirkhall Lane ground (later renamed Hilton Park) in 1953 when a ground record attendance of 31,326 was established. Saints won 12-3.
Leigh and Saints have met on five occasions in the cup, Leigh’s only win in a quarter-final tie at Hilton Park in 1974 when Jimmy Fiddler was the Leigh hero. Fiddler scored Leigh’s only try and kicked three goals, Dennis Carden adding a drop-goal in an 11-5 win watched by a crowd of 8,302.
Since then, Saints were victorious on three occasions, 16-10 in a first-round tie in 1984 and 22-12 at the same stage in 1988 as well as that 1987 semi-final.
But the Leopards have plenty of big match experience in their ranks- and plenty of players who know what it’s like to lift the game’s most famous trophy.
Tom Briscoe won the Cup three times with Leeds Rhinos, including a Lance Todd Trophy winning performance by scoring five tries against Hull KR in 2015.
Josh Charnley has won the Cup twice with Wigan and once with Warrington.
Zak Hardaker has two cup-winner’s medals from his time at the Rhinos.
Matty Davis, Jack Hughes, and Ava Seumanufagai have all got a Challenge Cup win on their CV.
That winning feeling also extends to the coaching staff.
Head coach Adrian Lam was a cup winner with Wigan in 2002, Head of Rugby Chris Chester with Hull FC in 2005, while Head of Performance Paul Johnson won the cup with both Wigan and Warrington.
For the record Leigh’s last cup semi-final side, from 1987, was as follows:
Chris Johnson; Neil McCulloch, John Henderson, James Leuluai, Ian Jeffrey; John Kerr, Phil Johnson; Derek Pyke, Mick Dean, Tony Cottrell, Milton Huddart, Mark Thomas, John Westhead. Subs Mike Davis and Gary Hughes.
Several of those players will be in attendance on Saturday, along with some survivors of the 1971 team cheering on the Leopards.