They will be direct rivals in the most unique Challenge Cup final in rugby league history this weekend, but there is more that unites Kevin Brown and Luke Gale than divides them. Brown and Gale will start at scrum-half for Salford and Leeds respectively on Saturday afternoon, with both aiming to win the sport’s most prestigious competition for the first time in their careers.
There is one small difference, however. While this will be Gale’s first Wembley final, Brown is bidding to avoid becoming the first player in history to lose four cup finals with four different teams. “Yeah, don’t remind me,” Brown laughs when asked about his painful final experiences. “I know more than most what it’s like to lose a final, so I’m desperate to avoid that.”
Brown and Gale have a high opinion of one another, and many agree it will be their performances which will be key to deciding whether it is Salford or Leeds who lift the cup in a near-empty Wembley on Saturday. “We’ll have to keep him quiet,” the 36-year-old Brown says of Gale, four years his junior. Gale agrees. “Salford’s good stuff goes through Kevin. He’s key.”
It is no surprise they value each other so highly, given how well they know one another. Brown and Gale were England’s half-back pairing throughout the 2017 World Cup, and roomed together throughout the tournament. “You don’t have an appreciation of certain players until you’re in the trenches with them, and I got that with him,” Gale says. “I’ve huge respect for him.”
That respect is doubled given how both men have survived an injury that can so often be career-threatening. In early 2019 Gale ruptured his achilles tendon in pre-season training, an injury which led to him missing almost a year of action. “I remember when he did it, and I was speaking to the physios at Warrington about how bad it was,” Brown says. “They said it was bad. I winced at the thought of trying to come back from that, and what happened next you couldn’t predict.”
Two weeks later, in an innocuous training-ground incident, Brown susstained the same injury, and given his age he feared his career was over. “I’ve got a few years on Luke, so I thought I was finished. It was a tough time.”
Already close friends from their time together with England, Brown’s and Gale’s shared experiences of such a major injury strengthened their bond further. “We spoke a lot last year when we were rehabbing, sharing ideas and and where we were up to with our recoveries,” Brown says. “It was good to have someone to speak to about it: but on Saturday he’s the enemy.”
They may well be rivals this weekend, but Brown’s and Gale’s journeys to what will be the strangest final in rugby league history have striking similarities. Having spent nearly two years out injured in 2018 and 2019, Gale’s signing from Castleford in the off-season was viewed as a risk. Similarly, Salford fans were unconvinced when Brown was brought in as replacement for Jackson Hastings.
Both have excelled at their new clubs, with Gale having the extra motivation of honouring the No 7 shirt made famous at Leeds by Rob Burrow, whose fight against motor neurone disease remains an inspiration. “It’ll be an absolute honour to lead these lads out at Wembley,” Gale, a Leeds native and the Rhinos captain, says.
Leeds are bidding to win the cup for the first time in five years; Salford have not won it since 1938, having reached the final for the first time in 51 years. The Rhinos have been in more finals this century than Salford have in their entire history.
“After three defeats, winning it with any team would be special, but with a team nobody fancied before a ball was kicked? That would be something,” Brown says. “When I stand in those changing rooms, I know it’ll be strange when we walk out onto that field with nobody there, but that doesn’t change the enormity of the occasion.”
You suspect that no matter who it is that comes out on top on Saturday, Brown or Gale will be there to console the loser. They have come too far together not to.