Summer is long gone and the cold, wet miserable October weather is here: you suspect there are few sides who enjoy that point quite as much as Leeds Rhinos. Maybe we should have known all along this would be their day and they would book their place in the Challenge Cup final for the first time in five years.
After all, what other team in this usually unpredictable sport has made such a habit of winning big games at this time of the year? There is a time and a place for flamboyant, attracting rugby, but as Leeds have proven so often in recent history, there is only one thing that matters when the business end of the season rolls around. Winning.
How we were all served another emphatic reminder of that from the Rhinos here. Was it pretty? Far from it. The weather largely dictated that, with monsoon-like conditions inhibiting both sides from producing the kind of rugby they are capable of. But pretty does not deliver trophies and earn you a place at Wembley. Winning does.
In these circumstances, you need a chief conductor too, and Luke Gale’s performance was like watching Herbert von Karajan in his pomp at the Berlin Philharmonic. Gale orchestrated his Leeds teammates to perfection and almost every one of them – from the impeccable Richie Myler at full-back to the industrious Rhyse Martin in the pack – followed his lead.
It is some turnaround for Leeds under Richard Agar, who was thrust into the job last year and forced to watch his side be eliminated from the cup at Championship side Bradford as one of his first acts. Now, under his guidance, they are back in the game’s showpiece event. “We were on our knees back then as a club, but we’ve worked hard and these lads now get an opportunity to play in a cup final,” he said.
They will face Salford who beat the holders, Warrington, 24-22 thanks to a late try by Joey Lussick. It will be Salford’s first appearance at Wembley for 51 years.
Gale’s right boot was the catalyst for the 20-0 half-time lead Leeds established. From the 40-20 that laid the platform for the opening try, to the countless occasions he pinned a hapless Wigan attack back on their line, the England scrum-half was made for afternoons such as this.
But how well he was supported by those around him, too. Martin, who scored that first try either side of two smartly taken penalties given the conditions, was fantastic, as was Myler, who has thrived in his switch from half-back to full-back to such an extent that Leeds’ regular first-choice, Jack Walker, may have to watch from the sidelines at Wembley.
It was Myler’s clever pass that allowed Ash Handley to extend Leeds’ lead before the break, before a superb Konrad Hurrell pass unlocked Wigan’s defence again on the hooter, sending Tom Briscoe through to make it 20-0. Wigan could not muster even a credible attempt on Leeds’ line throughout that first half.
After leaving practically their entire first-team out of the midweek derby defeat to St Helens, this was not the performance Adrian Lam expected. “We looked flat for whatever reason and I don’t get it. It’s hard chasing points in the rain,” he said.
He was right; 20-0 is some score to chase in any weather, let alone driving wind and rain.
The two late tries Wigan scored through Harry Smith and Zak Hardaker put some unwarranted gloss on the scoreline. By then, Martin had added another penalty and Handley had claimed his second try to make it 26-0.
Wigan had barely laid a glove on Leeds, who could have easily spent the second half contemplating which Wembley hotel they would be frequenting in a fortnight’s time, rather than focusing on getting the job done.
This is a season like no other because of circumstances out of all our control, but for 80 rain-soaked minutes here, it felt as if everything was back to how it used to be. Leeds, horrendous autumnal weather and victories. Three things that go hand in hand when it comes to one of rugby league’s most famous clubs.