Featherstone Rovers: 1895 Cup final defeat to Leigh Centurions gives Brian McDermott's side signal of their progress
If history repeats itself a decade on and McDermott’s current club Featherstone Rovers are promoted to the top-flight, he will feel their defeat to Leigh Centurions in Saturday’s 1895 Cup final was well worth it.
Rovers and Leigh are streets ahead of the other 10 teams in the Betfred Championship and it will be a huge shock if they don’t meet again in the million pound match at the end of this season.
In that case, Rovers will be better for their surprisingly emphatic loss in the first rugby league game staged at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Retaining the trophy they won last July would have been a bonus, but the 1895 Cup final was always going to be a gauge of where Rovers stand compared to their only serious title rival.
Since Featherstone’s win in a league game three months ago, both teams have strengthened, but on Saturday’s evidence, Leigh are now a little way ahead, despite trailing by a point on the Championship table.
The two clubs have been involved in an arms race, going tie-for-tat in an attempt to better each other’s latest signing.
When Rovers brought in half-back Johnathon Ford, a key figure in Toulouse Olympique’s promotion to Super League last year, Leigh responded by recruiting former NRL, New South Wales and Australia star Blake Ferguson.
It has been like that since the end of last season, when Leigh were relegated back into the Championship and Rovers lost to Toulouse in the second tier title decider.
Rovers struck the first blow with a comprehensive league win in February, but were out-scored five tries to two in Saturday’s meeting. Leigh were the better team, despite making a host of errors in the first half, but the gap is nothing Rovers can’t bridge.
Both teams are used to blowing the opposition away and, realistically, they would each benefit from more tougher matches, but Leigh coped better when they were put under pressure.
They also had the best player on the field in substitute hooker Edwin Ipape, a Papua New Guinea international who ran in a brilliant solo try in the second half and was a deserved man of the match.
All Rovers’ points were scored by last year’s Ray French medal winner Craig Hall, through two tries, a conversion and three penalties.
He had a good game, but Featherstone’s best player was their full-back Mark Kheirallah, another key member of Toulouse Olympique’s Championship-clinching side against Rovers eight months ago.
Unfortunately, Kheirallah’s error - when he tried to shepherd a kick dead, only for Sam Stone to nip past and touch down - led to the final try of the afternoon in the closing moments, but the game was already out of Rovers’ reach by that stage.
Featherstone didn’t play badly, but weren’t at the level they are capable of and played some panic rugby, which led to a succession of costly errors, when they were chasing the game in the final quarter.
That’s the sort of thing they will learn from and look to put into practice when they visit Leigh for a league four-pointer in two weeks’ time.
Both teams led twice in a scrappy, but end-to-end first half, which finished 12-12. Hall landed an early penalty, but Krisnan Inu made a terrific catch from Ben Reynolds’ kick to score the opening try and then land the first of his five goals.
Kheirallah sent Hall in, the winger converting and adding a penalty before Reynolds’ converted touchdown edged Leigh back in front.
Hall’s third goal levelled matters, but Leigh took control with 12 points in 10 second half minutes, Inu equalising with a penalty before Ferguson and Ipape, whose effort was converted, both crossed.
Hall’s second try gave Rovers a glimmer, but - crucially - it wasn’t converted and Leigh had a hand on the trophy before Stone’s late clincher.
Featherstone Rovers: Keirallah, Briscoe, Leilua, Hellewell, Hall, M Smith, Jacks, Kopczak, Wildie, Lockwood, Bussey, Sene-Lefao, Moors. Subs Ford, Davies, Ferres, Cooper.
Leigh Centurions: Aekins, Ferguson, Chamberlain, MacDonald, Inu, Reynolds, Mellor, Sidlow, A Smith, Amone, Wardle, Stone, Asiata. Subs O’Donnell, Nakubuwai, Ioane, Ipape.
Referee: Liam Moore (Wigan).