Rugby League and the Challenge Cup Final returned to Wembley on Saturday. The game saw a powerhouse of Rugby League, Leeds Rhinos, gunning for their 14th Challenge Cup trophy, taking on the Salford Red Devils, with their history in the Challenge Cup much more modest. In fact, this was the first time that a Salford team, in any form, had reached the final since 1976, with their only victory coming in 1938.
Both teams are in the middle of interesting seasons. The Red Devils have not been able to recapture their brilliance from last season and currently sit down in 8th in the Super League. Meanwhile, the Rhinos have had their best season in recent years, currently sitting in 6th but with a very good chance still of success.
It’s fair to say fans were expectant of an exciting game and they were not disappointed. Tom Briscoe got the scoring started with a tidy finish in the corner in the 11th minute to give the Rhinos the lead, bringing his Challenge Cup Final tally up to seven tries, an astounding achievement.
Salford, as they would all game, came straight back at the Rhinos and got their just rewards. Kallum Watkins, the ex-Rhinos man who won the Challenge Cup with them in 2014 and 2015, took down a kick in an incredible manner and managed to get the pass off to Niall Evalds, who in turn managed to find Rhys ‘Dragon’ Williams free on the touchline for an 80-metre score. After battling and battling it was Leeds who would get the next score just before half-time as Ash Handley was found free on the side-line for a relatively easy walk-in.
The second half promised even more of the same: a tense game where an inch meant everything. Both sides were ready to exploit it. It was Salford who struck first in the second half with Pauli Pauli powering over the line from five metres out, a try that didn’t so much fit the rest of the game with gaps from either side hard to find. Salford scored again through James Greenwood to take the lead for the first time in the match. The try came from an uncharacteristic defensive mistake by Richie Myler from the Salford kick. Handly then got his second try of the game for Leeds to make it 16-16 in the 65th minute.
And then it was all about Luke Gale. He’s scored some very important winning drop goals in his career but this one has to take the biscuit: a brilliantly struck kick at the second time of asking, after an earlier kick missed, which lead to a one-point lead for the Rhinos, which they hung onto for the remaining five minutes and in turn won their fourteenth Challenge Cup.
The game was close the whole time and it was a fittingly narrow scoreline. The game was a true battle and was a perfect representation of the fight and bravery that has had to be taken on recently by the honoured former Leeds player Rob Burrow. Burrow has been honoured at the game ‘in absentia’. He could not be at the game due to him being high risk of COVID-19. Rob Burrow was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2019. The two-time Challenge Cup winner has since been very open and vocal about his struggles with a brilliant documentary on the BBC about its effects on him physically and emotionally as well as on his family.
Though he was absent, Burrow’s spirit shone through in this match. The game was a reflection by Leeds of how hard Burrow has fought his whole life. Everyone told him that he wasn’t big enough to play professional Rugby League. However, the twenty international caps, eight Super League Grand Final wins, two Challenge Cups and three World Club Challenge victories would tell the doubters a different story.
He is now fighting against a horrible and terminal disease and doing it with all the grace and dignity one can have. Leeds head coach Richard Agar told BBC One that ‘Rob Burrow is with us in spirit at the moment’, and that shows by the way Leeds battled all game and the way they played. Salford played very well too; however, it wouldn’t be too controversial to say that the inspiration of Rob Burrow could very well have been the thing that got Leeds over the line in this affair.
Image: Beth Nixon via Flickr