Richie Blackmore can scarcely believe that Leeds Rhinos have failed to add to the Challenge Cup final success he helped them achieve in 1999.
A little over a year after that triumph against London Broncos – the last final at the old Wembley – the strapping Kiwi centre returned home to sign for New Zealand Warriors fully expecting his former team-mates to flourish and enjoy plenty more glory in the famous competition.
However, 13 years on and despite an unprecedented five Super League titles and three World Club Challenges, the prestigious West Yorkshire club are still thwarted in their bid to recapture the trophy.
Now, as newly-installed general manager of Leigh Centurions, Blackmore is hoping to heap more misery on Leeds by causing an almighty upset when they head to his Championship club in tonight’s quarter-final.
“I am actually surprised from their perspective that they haven’t won one since considering they’ve been so dominant in the Super League,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“I know Leeds are very keen to press the refresh button and get that back in the trophy cabinet.
“It probably proves, more than anything, how difficult the Challenge Cup is to actually win.
“It can be so elusive for any team regardless of how dominant you are in any competition.
“It really highlights the appreciation you should have when you find yourself in a successful Challenge Cup-winning side or even just getting to Wembley.
“Sometimes it can appear to be too easy at times but it is only now you realise it just isn’t.
“Kevin Sinfield was running around as a young footballer back then (in 1999) and he still hasn’t won it so it’s a long time between innings. Leeds will be expecting to stroll into the semis but we’ve been playing some good footy.
“Whilst we’re not going out there banging doors we certainly won’t be expecting to lose.”
Indeed, buoyant Leigh have won each of their last seven league and cup matches – an epic run matched only by Wigan Warriors – including Sunday’s enthralling 34-32 win at Sheffield Eagles after a nerve-shredding golden-point extra-time victory against Championship leaders Halifax in the fifth round.
Blackmore, 42, continued: “We’ve been able to put some good wins together, none more so than against a decent Sheffield side. That’s been the mark of the side, though, being able to do that knowing there’s a big grey cloud on the horizon called Leeds Rhinos. On the other side of the coin, Leeds weren’t able to do that at Hull – maybe they were worried about the Centurions!”
Before this evening’s fixture, Leigh’s predominantly part-time players will, no doubt, be reminded of the club’s famous 1971 Challenge Cup final win over an international-laden Leeds side that was 9-1 ON to triumph.
Leeds captain Syd Hynes became the first player to be sent off at Wembley after headbutting Alex Murphy as the huge underdogs succeeded 24-7.
“The two stages are very different but we will use it as some part of our motivation,” said Blackmore, who also reached Wembley with Castleford in 1992.
“The way the boys have been playing, though, gives me confidence we’ll be able to put up some sort of resistance and make a game of it.
“We have some talented footballers who have played Super League, like Rob Parker at prop, while we’ve got a good blend of younger and older players with Sam Hopkins standing out while still only 21.”
Blackmore, who was Gary Hetherington’s first signing when the chief executive and Paul Caddick took ownership of Leeds in 1996, has only been in his job a matter of weeks.
Initially expected to join as Leigh’s new coach, visa issues meant he was unable to take up the role but is now working behind the scenes trying to drive the Lancashire club forward.
“It’s been wonderful,” he admitted. “I think I’ve fallen on my feet – I arrive and we’re in the cup quarter-finals against Leeds Rhinos.
“We’re not heavily staffed so I’m doing a few roles including expanding the corporate and business development and it will be good to catch up with Paul and Gary to chat about a few ideas.”
For Leeds, the visit to Leigh Sports Village is new ground in more ways than one; they have never played at their rivals’ smart new stadium while it is the first time in 11 Challenge Cup fixtures they have faced an opponent outside of Super League.
Blackmore, meanwhile, almost did not make the Rhinos’ side that triumphed 52-16 against London having been plagued by a groin problem.
“I’d had several ops to try and rectify it and when I eventually found the right guy he did the right operation,” he recalled.
“Having to get needles every week to try and get out on the footy field isn’t ideal.
“Nevertheless, your desire to get out there is such you just push your body through whatever.
“We posted a pretty good scoreline which just added to the whole euphoria and occasion that is Wembley. There’s not much better feelings than jogging out there. I was fortunate in my career to do it a few times – although I only won once – and it’s every player’s dream. I’d love our Leigh lads to experience it.”
Blackmore – centre to winger Leroy Rivett’s record-breaking four-try heroics that afternoon – endured a different emotion when Leeds lost against Bradford at Murrayfield 12 months later.
Still 19, Sinfield was overlooked that day but has since become the epitome of Leeds Rhinos.
Blackmore, who scored Leeds’s only try in the inaugural 1998 Grand Final defeat to Wigan, admitted: “He was always a good kid – level-headed and quite a smart young man.
“He’s proved that with his football qualities as his trademark is probably making those special plays at special times.
“Kev’s been wonderful for Leeds but anything can happen in the Challenge Cup, It’s hard not to let yourself dream a little.”