New Leigh Reporter columnist Dave Parkinson looks back at an intriguing first weekend in the Super 8 qualifiers.
Well the Super 8’s are here and while the race for the top four will rightly dominate the headlines in the new era of Rugby League; the opening weekend of the Qualifiers also provided greater emphasis and more media interest than ever before.
Leigh Centurions continue to build towards their aspirations of becoming a Super League club and Leigh Sports Village again laid on an occasion as the Sky Sports cameras and a good number of national journalists arrived in town with Wembley bound Hull Kingston Rovers.
I only have two criticisms from the day. First, it proved to be a final twenty minutes to forget when despite best efforts and intentions nothing seemed to go right for the hosts. Leigh just couldn’t escape their own half or keep their hands on the ball long enough to push forward. It was such a shame when you consider Gregg McNally again impressed, Jake Emmitt proved his consistency and Tommy Goulden tackled himself to a standstill on his 250th professional appearance.
Secondly where were the Rovers fans? Looking across to the South Stand I had expected maybe a thousand would have made the journey from East Yorkshire but I reckon no more than 400 made the trip.
On the flip side, major positives from the day were the Centurions first half performance when to quote head coach Paul Rowley “We dismantled a Challenge Cup Final team for 40 minutes”, and also the support from the home crowd.
Again there were over 4000 Leigh fans; a far cry from a play-off defeat in 2013 when the hardcore 1500 were in attendance. Long may those numbers continue to rise, giving vindication to the hard work Paul, his backroom team and all the directors and support staff continue to put in to make the Centurions as good as they can be. As a Leigh fan first and foremost I’ve never been prouder to represent the club and bring game coverage to life via Leigh Centurions TV and also through streamed matchday commentary on www.mixlr.com/leighcenturions.
Before this weekend no-one was really sure what to expect, but for me that is the major selling point of the Qualifiers, the return of jeopardy where the result means something.
So what of the rest of the opening weekend of the Qualifiers you may ask? Bradford Bulls welcomed Lee Gaskell back into action and mercurial stand-off scored a hat-trick in a 42-10 success over Sheffield Eagles in front of more than 6,000 fans, a crowd over 1,200 up on the league game between the teams. The Eagles lost heavily at Odsal earlier in the season but were one of the teams to defeat the Bulls during the closing stages of the Championship. However on this occasion Mark Aston’s men were shown no mercy. The visitors trailed 26-6 at half-time with another dominant half going the way of the hosts.
Widnes were at best functional and in honesty had enough possession to win three games during their encounter with Halifax. By standings alone this was top against bottom but the Yorkshire side did themselves and their boss Richard Marshall proud with a battling display that saw them unluckily succumb to a 14-0 defeat. Widnes led 4-0 for much of the second half following the rarity of a scoreless first but the game was a good old fashioned tussle of solid defence and brave performances. Halifax had stand outs in Australian forward Mitch Cahalane and a name infamous with Leigh fans, Dane Manning. Both were superb and in the case of Cahalane if his reach was a foot longer he would have claimed a dramatic equalising score with seven minutes remaining.
As the history books will show however, returning Kevin Brown, on his day one of the best halfbacks in the country, popped up with a reverse pass that put Alex Gerrard over and there was more heartbreak for the hosts as NRL recruit Charly Runciman claimed his second try on debut for the Vikings. More than 3,000 were at the Shay for a game with a real cup-tie feel.
The final game of the opening weekend saw Salford repel Wakefield 34-26. The Red Devils handed debuts to on-loan pair Iain Thornley and Reni Maitua while the Wakefield team sheet looked like a couple of sets of lottery numbers with figures ranging from 4 to 40. An interesting name lining up for the Wildcats now is Leyther Scott Moore and Wakefield were more than competitive, coming back from 16-6 down at the break to twice lead in the second half before tries in the last ten minutes by Rangi Chase and a second for Cory Paterson saw besieged Salford home.
With week one full of thrills and particularly for Leigh, painful spills, what does week two have in store?
Leigh travel to Salford, Widnes host Sheffield, Bradford do battle with Wakefield at Belle Vue on Saturday while Hull KR are at home to Halifax.