Leigh Centurions 12 Leeds Rhinos 60
EVEN that old stager Alex Murphy could not hoodwink anyone here last night.
The rugby league legend, one of the greatest to ever play the game, tried cajoling Leigh Centurions to victory yet again against World Club champions Leeds Rhinos.
As constantly repeated grainy replays of the shock 1971 Challenge Cup final victory he inspired over the same illustrious opponents were shown on the big screen, Murphy took to the microphone to try to whip up the crowd just as he had done in the press all week.
As player-coach of Leigh 41 years ago, he famously lifted the cup – minutes after being stretchered off following the headbutt that saw Leeds captain Syd Hynes dismissed.
The incident has gone down in rugby league folklore – did the irrepressible Murphy really play-act and wink while being carried off the Wembley turf or was he, as he has always maintained, merely blinking?
Typically, the mischievous 73-year-old was met by cascading boos from the Leeds faithful as he waved at them last night before insisting to the joyous home crowd: “It can happen again – just give the lads your backing. Best of luck to Leigh. Hard lines Leeds.”
But there was no repeat fairytale and it is the West Yorkshire club, beaten finalists in each of the last two seasons, who are in tomorrow’s semi-final draw.
Captain Kevin Sinfield amassed 28 points, including two tries for the first time in five years, and Leeds assistant coach James Lowes said: “Credit to Leigh, they shut down some of our plays in the first half.
“We’d asked our players to try a few new things and it didn’t quite get going for us.
“But we changed things and in the second period we were pretty ruthless.
“Kev’s been fantastic all year while Ryan Bailey was a big influence too.
“It means everything to the players to be in the semis, especially after what happened last year.”
Part-timers Leigh had their moments, not least in an opening quarter when they played the better football and found themselves level at 6-6.
They also had a sparkling effort ruled out on the stroke of half-time when some splendid handling on halfway saw Gregg McNally sprint clear only to be denied by Ben Jones-Bishop’s stretching desperate tackle over the line.
By that point, however, Leeds – their size, power and pace understandably coming to the fore – had built up an unassailable 24-6 lead.
There was a hint of fortune in some of their scores.
Sinfield’s hanging kick deceived full-back McNally and Brent Webb picked up to scramble over in what was, like colleague Ian Kirke, his 150th game for the blue and amber.
Some dazzling footwork by Zak Hardaker almost created a try for Danny McGuire but Leigh – with ex-Halifax half-back Bob Beswick outstanding – scrambled well.
However, a long pass by Webb – after he appeared to marginally dance behind his own player – caught Leigh winger Johnny Pownall flat-footed allowing Jones-Bishop to tip-toe in for the sixth successive game. A brilliant cut-out pass from McGuire – which left Sinfield stood applauding – allowed Ryan Hall to stroll over in the corner and, so, after McGuire had opened the scoring backing up Lee Smith following Sinfield’s clever kick, the damage was done.
Leigh, who saw on-loan Castleford Tigers prop Steve Nash drop an inviting pass early on, had instantly responded to that setback with a well-worked try for Tommy Goulden.
Some marvellous offloading allowed Beswick to fire out a pass to Stuart Littler in space. The big, former Salford centre attracted a clutch of Leeds defenders and, as he veered towards the touchline, found winger Steve Maden back on the inside.
He linked with Beswick again whose sharp pass saw Goulden charge over the exposed line, Martin Ridyard improving.
Well-organised Leigh were on a seven-game winning run and started strongly, the likes of prop Rob Parker, who suffered semi-final defeat at Leeds’s hands last season, and Warrington loanee James Laithwaite running hard with plenty of adventure on their outside.
But they could not maintain the pace and Leeds, with muscular prop Ryan Bailey shoving off defenders at will and McGuire finally finding space, simply posed too many threats.
Burrow marked his return from a broken cheekbone with a typically elusive dart out of dummy half to score on 47 minutes and it was he and McGuire who slickly combined to pierce the Leigh midfield as Shaun Lunt went over for his third try in four games since joining on loan from Huddersfield.
Another sublime McGuire pass ushered Sinfield through for the next, although the captain still had to show neat footwork to elude McNally.
However, the Leigh full-back crossed for a thoroughly deserved try on the hour mark, following up his own kick for Ridyard to convert, as Paul Rowley’s side showed real spirit to react.
Parker barrelled over straight after when Leeds were deemed offside from Sinfield’s re-start but it was cruelly ruled out as Littler was flooring Ryan Bailey in back play.
Good work from the returning Weller Hauraki saw Lee Smith and Sinfield score further tries, before Hall raced 90m after intercepting in the final seconds for Sinfield to maintain his 100 per cent conversion rate.
Leigh Centurions: McNally; Maden, Littler, Gardner, Pownall; Ridyard, Beswick; Parker, Nicholson, Ostick, Laithwaite, Goulden, Nash. Substitutes: Hopkins, Gallagher, Brierley, Briscoe.
Leeds Rhinos: Webb; Jones-Bishop, Smith, Hardaker, Hall; Sinfield, McGuire; Leuluai, Burrow, Kirke, Jones-Buchanan, Hauraki, Clarkson. Substitutes: McShane, Bailey, Moore, Lunt.
Referee: Ben Thaler (Wakefield).