Leeds’ Knowhow Overcomes Salford’s Enthusiasm in Thrilling Challenge Cup Final

The Challenge Cup final teams of Leeds Rhinos and Salford Red Devils certainly showed that it is possible to produce a properly full-blooded contest in these straitened and difficult times for sport, and for society in general.

It was the West Yorkshire outfit who triumphed in the end, with the final scoreline of 17-16 in the Rhinos’ favour reflecting a contest that was packed with drama and tension of the right kinds. A Luke Gale drop goal won the game in the end, but the result was in doubt right up until the final minute.

As Challenge Cup final attendances go, of course, this will be the lowest ever, with literally no fans in the crowd. That certainly didn’t affect the way the players approached the game, however. During the Covd-19 pandemic, many of the games in Super League have had a slightly unreal feel to them. This final felt like a final right from the off, with intensity, skill and speed very much on show.

Gale was in great form for Leeds, with his kicking game proving key to the eventual outcome. Many thought he was unlucky to lose out on the Lance Todd Trophy, with team-mate Richie Myler taking the Man of the Match honour. Myler’s journey from a halfback who never seemed to quite fulfil his potential to possibly being the Betfred Super League’s best fullback is an inspiring one, and coach Richard Agar deserves credit for triggering the player’s positional switch.

The Rob Burrow Cup Final

Of course, there was Robbie Burrow to consider too. The former Leeds halfback, stricken by MND, was the virtual guest of honour at a final at which no guests could be present. This might well be the last Challenge Cup final Burrow witnesses, given the seriousness of his condition. For his old side to take the Cup will have meant more than can be imagined to Burrow and his family.

How many times have Leeds won the Challenge Cup? Their tally stands at 14. Who has won the Challenge Cup the most? Well, that’s Wigan Warriors, of course, who have won the famous old trophy 19 times. But the Rhinos are certainly catching up.

Winning the Cup for the first time since 2015 also marked something of a staging post on the club’s journey of revival, something that coach Richard Agar was keen to point out to reporters after the game. Agar has not always enjoyed the best reputation among rugby league fans, and he must see this victory as vindication for his way of doing things.

“For us, after getting bundled out embarrassingly at Bradford last year, it’s a little bit of a resurrection,” reflected Agar afterwards.

It was also a pleasing piece of personal history for Agar, as his father Alan coached Featherstone Rovers to an iconic Challenge Cup final win over Hull FC in 1983. There are not many families that have both the father and son as Challenge Cup winning coaches.

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Rhys Williams: Salford’s Welsh Wizard

But this game was not all about Leeds. Salford certainly had more than their fair share of moments in the game. The presence of former Leeds centre Kallum Watkins in the Red Devils line-up was another talking point. It was Watkins who produced a significant contribution to Salford’s first try, scored by Welsh international Rhys Williams.

Indeed, that moment left one wondering once again just why Welsh players like Williams were not called up to the Great Britain Lions team last year when there was a shortage of outside backs. We’ll leave Wayne Bennett to answer that question, eventually, but Williams has been a consistently good performer in Super League for several seasons now.

His try was a fitting reward for his part in Salford’s recent revival, but he will have wanted to win the Cup more than score. An increase in winning desire has been a big part of the Red Devils’ recent rise, and coach Ian Watson identified the disappointment that everyone at the club felt after the final as a sign of just how much the team’s mentality has changed.

“It shows the club and the team are moving in the right place from where we have been and they’re competing in these big games now,” said the former Wales international, after the game.

“With everything that’s happened, to come here and end up being in a 17-16 result and players and staff being absolutely devastated that we’ve not been able to win, shows a sign of how far we’ve come as a group and as a team over the last few years.”

Although the performance of young referee Liam Moore was very good indeed overall, the Red Devils may well rue one key second-half decision. Just as they were looking for a way to exert more pressure on the Rhinos in the second half, Pauli Pauli was penalised for an incorrect play the ball. It was a harsh call, even though it clearly was an illegal play the ball.

If you ran a detailed check at every ruck in the final, you would have found incorrect play the balls at a very high percentage of them. It was one of those refereeing calls that was true to the letter of the law, but perhaps did not quite fit the spirit of the occasion.

Glory Days are Here Again for Leeds

But there were good things on show for both teams in this game. Much as Salford will be stinging, they are becoming a very good side who play entertaining, winning rugby league football in a good spirit. Two finals in two seasons indicates that they are doing something right and, as the old cliché goes, sometimes to you need to lose games to learn how to win.

For Leeds, this might well mark a return to the glory days. There were only two players in the Rhinos’ team who were part of their last Cup triumph, back in 2015. There is a new generation of talent at Headingly now, and with the likes of Luke Gale leading them around the park they look set to be challenging for honours regularly again now.

But, to use another old cliché, rugby league was really the winner on Saturday. Even though we were limited to TV viewing, spectators were still part of the occasion, not least for the wonderful decision to have the cup final hymn, Abide with Me, performed in the hills over Huddersfield before the game.

The accompanying montage of images from rugby league’s community and history stirred the heart strings. The players from both teams were more than true to the game’s great traditions of strength, skill and self-sacrifice. All 34 players were stars on Saturday.

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