THERE was an air of inevitability about this Featherstone Rovers’ Grand Final defeat.
Not just because they have made an unfortunate habit of losing on such occasions – this was their third defeat in five years – but more knowing the sheer brilliance of Leigh Centurions.
Whereas Featherstone, for once not favourites, had finished top in each of the previous four years only to win once in 2011, their opponents last night held their nerve and composure when it mattered most.
It was a fitting result given Leigh’s dominance in the competition; they had won 25 of their 26 regular rounds and in such an aesthetically pleasing fashion, too, playing some wonderful football along the way.
Of course, that does not guarantee silverware when it comes to the final act as Featherstone can testify. And, indeed, it was the West Yorkshire side that thought they were this time in touching distance of causing a major shock themselves.
They fought back from 18-0 down to create some tension and nerves around the hour mark.
Will Sharp had scored a brilliant second try to get back to 20-12 and, soon after, young hooker Luke Teasdale believed he had burrowed over close to the posts as Leigh’s discipline wavered.
Unfortunately for Andy Hay’s side – who finished second but have lost all four games to Leigh this term – the video officials ruled it out, and not without some controversy.
James Lockwood had barrelled close and, from the play-the-ball, Teasdale dived in but it was deemed his team-mate had obstructed the Leigh defenders.
It was hard to see where he could have gone, though, and furthermore, at least two of those Leigh defenders were initially offside as well. Regardless, with man-of-the-match Martyn Ridyard taking the lead once more, Leigh suddenly realised their season was on a knife-edge, accepted the warning and duly reacted.
Lockwood, inadvertently, quickly conceded a penalty in front of his own posts when Ben Blackmore ran behind him, although the Featherstone winger was tackled anyway so again it was hard to see which Leigh player had been obstructed.
That said, Blackmore should have done better when the ball was subsequently moved swiftly to Leigh’s right and winger Adam Higson, after stooping to collect, still had time to get around him and score. Ridyard could not convert from the touchline so it was still finely balanced at 24-12 with 16 minutes to go.
However, Featherstone’s Jason Crookes then produced a completely unnecessary swinging arm that felled Tom Armstrong.
The on-loan Hull FC winger should have seen dismissed, but escaped with a yellow card, Leigh hooker Sean Penkywicz receiving the same punishment for fighting in the resulting melee.
What also resulted was Leigh scored again from the penalty and essentially ended the game, Sam Barlow finally getting over in front of his club’s jubilant fans.
Ridyard made it 30-12 and added a penalty before Ryan Brierley finished things off after Michael Platt unleashed Higson once more down the right.
Leigh were 18-0 up inside just 22 minutes courtesy of converted tries from Matt Sarsfield, Gregg McNally and Armstrong and threatening to run riot.
But Sharp steadied the ship when he latched onto Andy Kain’s chip for Gareth Moore to kick the first of his two conversions.
Ridyard’s penalty put Leigh 20-6 up at the break but great work from Kain gave Sharp half a chance early in the second period. Frustratingly, Sean Pick could not gather the offload with the line at his mercy.
Moore then ducked under tacklers to get close, too, but again Leigh escaped unscathed.
They were thankful that the referee brought back play after Brierley had raced 70m after Sharp’s pass had gone to ground.
Moments later, Sharp was over for his second – and 28th try of the year – hitting Ian Hardman’s pass and then twisting out of Liam Kay’s tackle tight to the touchline before touching down one-handed.
Moore’s conversion from wide went over via an upright and, with nearly half-an-hour remaining, Rovers’ jubilant fans suddenly sensed a shock could yet be attainable.
With Leigh’s discipline deserting them, Matt James charged over soon after between the posts but was somehow held up.
Yet Rowley’s side conceded another penalty – a seventh on the bounce in the second period – to heap more pressure on themselves.
It was only alleviated when Teasdale took a wrong option and threw a pass to no one.
Leigh reminded Featherstone of their latent threat, though, when Oliver Wilkes charged clear and set Brierley on his way.
The scrum-half kicked ahead and claimed Sharp should have been carded after the full-back tripped him in the process. He perhaps had a point.
Featherstone recovered, though, and Sharp halted Wilkes more legitimately as the prop barged close
Rovers were furious next when Teasdale had that effort denied. It proved a turning point in the contest.
Leigh Centurions: McNally; Higson, Platt, Armstrong, Kay; Ridyard, Brierley; Emmitt, Penkywicz, Wilkes, Sarsfield, Haggerty, Barlow. Substitutes: Beswick, Walker, Acton, Aspinwall
Featherstone Rovers: Sharp; Crookes, Hardman, Cording, Blackmore; Kain, Moore; Crossley, Ellis, James, Pick, Lockwood, Spears. Substitutes: Teasdale, Annakin, Hirst, Bussey.