Leigh Leopards 12 St Helens 10
Leigh Leopards ended a 52-year wait to return to Wembley after beating St Helens in a dramatic Betfred Challenge Cup Semi-Final at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
World champions Saints almost took the tie to golden point extra-time after Jonny Lomax cut through to score far out on the right wing with just two minutes remaining. But as the 12,113 crowd held its collective breath Tommy Makinson’s conversion attempt to level the scores was agonisingly wide of the near post.
There was still time for one last play for Saints from the kick-off but when Lachlan Lam collected Makinson’s desperate kick the hooter sounded and the Leopards fans could begin wild celebrations.
Head coach Adrian Lam reflected emotionally on his team’s amazing achievement- and their 13th win in their last 14 games.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “I’m so pleased for our owner Derek Beaumont, our players, all the staff involved, the town and all those supporters who probably won’t be going home for another hour or so.
“Going to Wembley in three weeks’ time is something we can all look forward to- and you never know.
“I’m very proud of the efforts of everyone and it’s a special moment for the town, which hasn’t had much to cheer about.
“It took a mighty effort to beat the world champions and that’s what it was.”
The Leopards’ awesome first half defensive display paved the way for victory as they played with far more attacking fluency in the second- and turned the game on its head with tries by Oliver Holmes and Zak Hardaker within 13 minutes of the restart.
Though both sides largely traded set for set in a ferocious first half, Saints generally held the upper hand territorially- and they finally made a breakthrough when their outstanding hooker Joey Lussick dived over from dummy half midway through the half, Makinson converting for a 6-0 lead.
Lussick, playing his last game for Saints before returning to the NRL piled on the pressure with a brilliant 40/20 kick but in the follow up both he and Alex Walmsley were held up by the determined Leopards’ defence.
Josh Charnley typified the Leopards’ defensive resolve with an acrobatic, try-saving ball-and-all tackle that stopped Makinson crossing by the corner post.
But with seconds of the first half remaining Makinson pulled a penalty attempt wide of the posts after the Leopards were guilty of ball stealing.
TV cameras in the Leopards dressing room showed the players calm and composed as coach Lam conducted his analysis and they emerged intent on showing their trademark attacking fluency.
Within three minutes of the re-start Ben Reynolds and Lachlan Lam switched the ball left and Holmes ran a great line to surge over, Reynolds tying the scores with the conversion.
With the Leopards roar in full voice from the fans packed behind the posts it was the brilliant Lam who again unlocked the Saints defence. His lethal grubber kick to the corner eluded Tom Briscoe and Saints winger Tee Ritson but Hardaker followed up brilliantly to dive and get downward pressure before the ball ran dead.
Though Reynolds was off target with the conversion his penalty extended the Leopards’ lead to 12-6 midway through the second half after being the victim of a Sione Mata-utia late tackle, for which the Saints forward was yellow carded.
Saints threw everything at the Leopards defence in a desperate attempt to get back into the game. Konrad Hurrell and Makinson both went desperately close and Charnley reacted first to make dead a raking Jack Welsby kick. Then Hardaker pulled off a brilliant try-saving tackle on Lomax who had looked a certain scorer as he darted for the line. Agnatius Paasi was held up in another two-man tackle before Welsby created the opportunity for Lomax to finally breach the Leopards’ defence and set up that nerve-wracking finish to an epic semi-final that will live long in the memory.
Ten months on from winning promotion from the Championship the rebranded Leopards are second in Super League and in the final of the Challenge Cup. This win showed all the team’s qualities that have achieved such amazing results.
Heady days indeed and the club’s first semi-final for 36 years- since losing 14-8 to Saints at Wigan- was one to savour.
Owner Derek Beaumont, wearing a leopard-print jacket, joined the playing squad and staff on the pitch to celebrate in front of the Leopards fans at the end, scenes that will be remembered for a long, long time.
The club’s 1971 cup-winning team wrote themselves into the town’s history and now over half-a century later Adrian Lam’s team has the chance to do exactly the same.
Leigh Leopards: O’Brien; Briscoe, Hardaker, Chamberlain, Charnley; Reynolds, Lam; Mulhern, Ipape, Amone, Hughes, Holmes, Asiata. Bench: Davis, Nakubuwai, Mellor, Wilde (not used).
Tries: Holmes (43), Hardaker (53); Goals: Reynolds 2/3.
St Helens: Welsby; Makinson, Hurrell, Hopoate, Ritson; Lomax, Dodd; Walmsley, Lussick, Lees, Mata’utia, Bell, Knowles. Bench: McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Paasi, Davies, Delaney.
Tries: Lussick (18), Lomax (78); Goal: Makinson 1/3.
Sin-bin: Mata’utia (61).
Referee: Chris Kendall.