11 August 2023

Hull KR and Leigh Leopards keen to end decades of hurt in Challenge Cup final

11 August 2023

Lingering pain from lost decades will make it all the sweeter for Hull KR and Leigh Leopards when they converge on Wembley on Saturday for one of the most unlikely Betfred Challenge Cup finals in recent memory.

Forty-three years have passed since Rovers beat their city rivals Hull FC to claim their solitary crown and the intervening years have seen relegation heartbreak and three further final appearances – most recently a 50-0 humiliation by Leeds in 2015 – they would rather forget.

Leigh’s long wait for a trip to Wembley ticked over half a century two years ago, and their return sustains an astounding revival for a club who changed their spots last summer, shortly after providing the appetiser for last year’s showpiece when, as the Centurions, they sunk Featherstone to win the 1985 Cup final for second and third-tier sides.

Bank-rolled by leopardskin-clad local businessman Derek Beaumont and welded by a brilliant spine including Edwin Ipape and Lachlan Lam, Leigh have made a mockery of pre-season expectations of struggle by catapulting into the thick of the Super League play-off picture, and the cusp of adding a third Cup win to previous successes in 1921 and 1971.

“The town’s not had much to cheer about in the Challenge Cup and that’s why it’s an incredible story that we’re there,” said Leigh head coach Adrian Lam, the instigator of his side’s stunning campaign, who played for Wigan in their 2004 final loss to St Helens at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

“It’s always important to acknowledge the past successes and we’ve only won it twice. But we’re not there just to make up the numbers.

“There is a real opportunity to have an 80-minute performance and to give the town something else to cheer about.”

Rovers’ recent revival has been considerably more under-stated but under head coach Willie Peters they appear to have re-discovered an identity that harks back to their halcyon days of the mid-1980s – when they won two successive league titles – and promises much for their future prospects.

That fervent desire to re-emerge as one of the sport’s acknowledged powerhouses perhaps made their 2015 final thrashing even harder to bear, and ironically Rovers’ path towards Wembley redemption has involved two of the architects of their demise at the hands of the Rhinos.

Rovers favourite Ryan Hall, who has won his fitness battle ahead of the final, played on the wing for Leeds that day while Danny McGuire, who will stand alongside Peters at Wembley as Rovers’ assistant coach, crossed for the second of the Rhinos’ nine tries.

McGuire is adamant that Rovers have learned the tough lessons from that 2015 loss, pointing out the relatively muted celebrations that accompanied their uproarious golden point semi-final win over Wigan at Headingley last month that sealed their return trip to London.

“Arguably in 2015 Rovers were still living off the emotions of their semi-final win against Warrington ,” McGuire told the PA news agency. “I’ve had instances like that where you celebrate a semi-final win a bit too much, and it’s only through experience that you learn to handle those situations.

“That’s what happened in the dressing room after Wigan. The players know the magnitude of what they could achieve.

“The 1980 final is still revered in Hull and it is a constant reminder of all the great players who achieved things for this club and how they’re still held in high regard.

It's important that you learn how to handle your chance to make history. It's time for someone else to write a new chapter and this is their chance.

“It’s important that you learn how to handle your chance to make history. Willie has brought a real passion and no-nonsense approach and there’s a real feeling we’ve come out of the other side.

“It’s time for someone else to write a new chapter and this is their chance.”

If any further incentive was required, Rovers are determined to give 35-year-old captain Shaun Kenny-Dowall a rousing send-off in his last season for the club, with Peters also set to revert Mikey Lewis to full-back in light of the positive news about Hall, who limped out of the warm-up prior to their semi-final win with a calf strain.

For their own part a much-settled Leigh side with a ramming front row led by captain John Asiata will start as narrow favourites, which McGuire acknowledges is testament to the incredible progress made by a club that seemed for so long to remain one of the sport’s bit-part players.

“I’m really please with what Leigh have achieved,” said McGuire, who was joined by current Leigh pair Zak Hardaker and Tom Briscoe in the Rhinos’ 2015 line-up.

“They’ve been great to watch this season and their confidence will be sky-high. Like us they have overcome big odds to reach this final and one of us is going to make history.”

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