Wembley can be the setting for so many tales, but this was a story all about redemption for Leeds Rhinos. When they trudged from the field at Bradford last year, having been eliminated from the Challenge Cup by lower-league opposition, it was hard to know where one of rugby league’s most famous clubs would turn next. In the end they moved in the direction that nobody expected. But how it has paid off.
When Richard Agar was thrust into the role of interim coach in 2019 he had not coached in Super League for six years. Few Leeds fans wanted him in charge, but here he was at Wembley, against all the odds, lifting the Challenge Cup aloft. Then there is Luke Gale. Leeds’ marquee signing last winter, but having barely played for two years because of injury, some doubted whether the 32-year-old could still deliver.
Yet here he was, kicking the match-winning drop goal to bring the Challenge Cup back to his home town for the first time in five years. Then there is Richie Myler. The focal point of all Leeds’ fans frustrations in 2019, it would not be an exaggeration to call him the scapegoat at times. But here Myler was, winner of the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in a cup final.
Redemption comes in many forms, but there can be few sweeter ways than this for everyone associated with a club that have had their fair share of detractors. “The embarrassment with getting bundled out at Bradford last year … it’s a resurrection,” Agar said. “Look at where we were 12 months ago, and now we’ve a cup on the table. The criticism, it’s social media driven, but look at what we’ve done now. As I say, it’s a resurrection.”
But this resurrection would not be told properly without a worthy mention for the beaten finalists. Salford, back at Wembley for the first time since 1969, did not wilt in the spotlight.
They played their part in a simply thrilling final, one that would have graced any sold-out Wembley, let alone a near-empty one. But big games are defined by big moments, and in Gale, Leeds had a player who has a time-honoured tradition of delivering when it matters. The Rhinos levelled at 16-16 thanks to Ash Handley’s second try, and when it came down to a battle of who would hold their nerve the best, you always felt Leeds and Gale would do so.
Leeds fans will argue that with Rob Burrow courageously fighting motor neurone disease, the fact they can take the cup home and celebrate with him is fitting. This was a performance filled with the grit and determination with which Burrow always played the game, not least the way in which they battled back so determinedly in the final quarter to win.
“You wonder if it was in the script – Luke wearing seven, Rob being famous for wearing seven … if you believe in that stuff,” Agar said.
They led early in the game thanks to Tom Briscoe’s try, but any notion that Salford would buckle on a historic day for the club was tempered when a superb breakaway play led to Rhys Williams scoring from long range.
Leeds moved back ahead before half-time when the outstanding Myler’s pass sent Handley over in the corner. Salford, unperturbed, responded after half-time when Pauli Pauli forced his way over the line, before Greenwood pounced on a rare error from Myler – his only one of the day – on the hour mark. That began to raise hopes that the cup could be heading to Salford for the first time since 1938.
However, as their coach, Ian Watson, said: “We just weren’t smart enough to capitalise in some key moments.”
There were plenty of those, not least Kallum Watkins’ break in the final few minutes with the scores level, after Handley’s second had made it 16-16. However, Watkins’ pass fell just behind Williams and Leeds regathered themselves, with Gale’s drop goal ultimately the difference.
Perhaps the defining image afterwards, though, was the one of Agar, Myler and Gale stood together with the cup in their arms. It was a lesson that sometimes you write people off in this game at your peril.