IF THIS is what the league re-structure is going to create next year then roll on 2015.
Championship leaders Leigh Centurions, a side arriving on a club record 16 consecutive game-winning run, delivered a truly remarkable performance last night which almost produced one of the biggest shocks in Challenge Cup history.
They gave the illustrious Leeds Rhinos an almighty fright with a display packed full of endeavour, guts, enterprise and no little skill before finally, in agonising circumstances, losing an epic quarter-final in the closing moments.
The final scoreline certainly does not tell the whole story and just how close the West Yorkshire club came to seeing their Wembley hopes ruined yet again.
With the game level at 12-12 since the half-hour mark, Paul Rowley’s part-timers had a perfect chance to go for a drop-goal with just nine minutes to go only to be undone perhaps by their own bold sense of adventure and verve.
Excellent hooker Sean Penkywicz opted instead to try to unleash his wide runners but the ball went to ground, Tom Briscoe recovered and, moments later, the relieved hosts were winning the contest at the other end.
That came from an unlikely source, though.
Kevin Sinfield was readying himself for his own drop-goal attempt – everyone seemingly knew where the ball was going – but young Leeds hooker Robbie Ward thought otherwise.
Showing remarkable guts, the 18-year-old, playing only his third senior game, ignored the England captain and dummied his way over as the entire Leigh defence rushed out, for once fooled.
The majority of a 7,145 crowd at Headingley erupted and breathed a sigh of relief, all in one go.
Sinfield converted, did add a drop-goal and then improved Zak Hardaker’s 77th-minute try as Leigh – who had not beaten Leeds in the cup since their famous Wembley win of 1971 – understandably saw the energy finally drain from their legs.
Certainly, if sides of similar calibre to this are going to be playing Super League teams more often in 2015, it can only be a good thing.
Leigh were level 12-12 at the break, but few would argue they did not deserve to be ahead given some of that effort and quality.
Leeds, missing Danny McGuire due to a calf strain, were called upon on more than one occasion to deny them.
Martyn Ridyard came up with a brilliantly delicate dink through and regather to put Ryan Brierley careering towards the line before Joel Moon just managed to intervene at the last.
Earlier, Leigh had an open run to the line from halfway when they were harshly pulled back for a scrum in their favour after centre Kallum Watkins had fumbled another Leeds pass and, generally, they were not afraid to go looking for space on the hosts’ edges – and often found it.
Admittedly, Brian McDermott’s side had taken a sixth-minute lead when Stevie Ward – one of Leeds’s more dangerous players last night – made the first of his numerous breaks and the ball eventually, albeit scruffily, found its way to Ryan Hall to finish in the corner.
Sinfield improved, but the undaunted visitors responded within just five minutes, Brierley ushering Tom Spencer over from close range, the ex-Wigan prop striding out of Ryan Bailey’s attempted tackle and then over Hardaker.
Ridyard improved and, when Sinfield fired the restart out on the full, Rowley’s team were over again immediately.
It was a wonderfully created, if ad hoc, try where they kept the ball alive so casually it was like they were playing sevens rugby on a beach before Liam Kay finally gathered a crossfield kick and squeezed out an offload to the waiting Tom Armstrong.
Ridyard did the rest and Leigh continued to probe so, though Liam Sutcliffe had a ‘try’ ruled out for a rather dubious obstruction, Leeds never really got going.
They were fortunate to draw level on the half-hour mark when Stevie Ward finished after another dart from Sutcliffe; it was messy again, though Sinfield converted.
An already full-blooded Cup tie really exploded early in the second half when Leigh second-row Matt Sarsfield flopped on Jamie Peacock and then appeared to headbutt the ex-England captain while on the ground.
The Leeds prop, understandably, came up swinging and connected, too, before both were yellow carded.
Sinfield then came up with a crucial tackle to force the ball loose from Oliver Wilkes, just as the ex-Wakefield prop looked certain to score after Ridyard’s dazzling jinking run between the posts.
When Sinfield and Peacock started arguing between themselves after another failed move, you knew Leeds – who handed a debut to ex-Leeds Carnegie teenager Josh Walters just a year after he started playing league – were in trouble.
But they got there in the end and are in tomorrow’s semi-final draw.
Leeds Rhinos: Hardaker; Briscoe, Watkins, Moon, Hall; Sutcliffe, Sinfield; Leuluai, R Ward, Peacock, Ward, Delaney, Bailey. Substitutes: Kirke, Clarkson, Singleton, Walters.
Leigh Centurions: McNally; Pownall, Higson, Armstrong, Kay; Ridyard, Brierley; Spencer, Penkywicz, Wilkes, Sarsfield, Haggerty, Barlow. Substitutes: Beswick, Emmitt, Goulden, Duffy.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield)