Leigh Centurions 20 Sheffield Eagles 32
Leigh Centurions’ dreams of a Cooperative Championship Grand Final were dashed by a splendid Sheffield Eagles.
But not before the Centurions had staged a thrilling second half fight back in a game that saw Leigh’s lack of forward power cruelly exposed in the first half before sheer guts, courage and determination saw them close to within four points of the Eagles only to have their hopes crushed with a fifth Sheffield try in the final minute of the game.
Leigh always knew it was going to be tough against a Sheffield side that had beaten Halifax in the previous round. But the challenge was further heightened through the enforced absence of a number of injured key forwards and a bare 17 to select from. This forced Coach Paul Rowley to rearrange his team and as the game progressed, John Duffy even had to play as a back rower.
Never-the-less, Leigh had enough chances to win this game twice over, yet when it came to finishing it was the Eagles who showed them how it was done with full back Quentin Laulu-Tongagae (known as QLT), half back Simon Brown and hooker Andrew Henderson a constant threat in a thriller of a game.
It started dreadfully for Leigh with second rower Michael Knowles latching on to a Brown kick for a Brown goaled try within 58 seconds of the kick off.
The Eagles then soaked up a great deal of Leigh pressure as Duffy, Bob Beswick and Martyn Ridyard looked to try and engineer the gaps for the home side to exploit. On 13 minutes it looked like they had done just that when Ridyard broke to put Steve Maden away. Stuart Littler carried on the break, but when he turned the ball inside Ridyard just nudged it forward to Greg McNally and the try was ruled out for a forward pass.
That set the pattern of the game as QLT tackled Jonathan Pownall into touch when the final pass was just a touch behind him to create the delay that proved crucial, and other chances went begging for Matt Gardner, and Pownall.
The Eagles withstood the Leigh charge and then whipped up field on 23 minutes with QLT again breaking clear to send centre Duane Straugher in by the posts for a converted try. Within five minutes it was even worse for Leigh as a third Eagles attack registered a third try with Brown sending winger Misi Taulapapa in at the corner for Brown to goal from the touchline.
With Anthony Nicholson going well, Littler and Pownall went close as Ridyard’s kicking game pushed the visitors back and Craig Briscoe, Michael Ostick and Tom Spencer had been going well.
At last Leigh got their reward as last ditch tackles denied Littler and the inspirational James Taylor, before Ridyard managed to get Pownall in at the corner for an ungoaled try. Yet as the Leigh fans thought that gave them a life line, a Brown penalty from 40 metres edged the Eagles into a 20-4 interval lead.
Leigh again piled on the pressure in the second half, as Tommy Gallagher and Taylor roared forward, but again the Eagles grabbed the initiative with a try from James Davey as he cut through and Brown added his fifth goal.
It looked all over for Leigh, but a Bob Beswick try off a Littler pass and Ridyard goal gave them hope. With Ryan Brierley off the bench, he almost scored on 55 minutes but was brought back for a forward pass, but the home side were stepping up the pace.
Sheffield’s defence was magnificent, but on 71 minutes Leigh finally got the try they sought as Brierley went over from the scrum, and then two minutes later Ridyard put in Dean McGilvray. With Ridyard goaling both, Leigh were within four points and pressing.
It was all on for a Leigh win, but a spilled pass as Leigh went for broke and then a penalty given away by Littler for ripping the ball, saw a quick tap and Henderson sending Menzie Yere blasting in for a Brown goaled try to end Leigh’s hopes of a Grand Final appearance.
Leigh Centurions: McNally; Maden, Littler, Gardner, Pownall; Ridyard, Duffy; Ostick, Beswick, Spencer, Briscoe, Thornley, Nicholson; subs - Brierley, McGilvray, Taylor, Gallagher.
Tries: Pownall (36), Beswick (50), Brierley (71), McGilvray (75).
Goals: Ridyard 3/4.
Tries: Knowles (1), Straughier (23). Taulapapa (28), Davey (47), Yere (80).
Goals; Brown 6/8.
Half time: 4-20
Referee: Tim Roby.