With the league leader’s trophy looking like it was a step too far for Leigh Leopards in what has turned into an astounding season for them, tonight’s game against a St Helens side with their eyes on the top of the table, was a chance for the fourth placed side to move two points closer to securing a lofty play-off place.
Leigh won both games so far in 2023 against the World Champions, the league game at the LSV and the Challenge Cup semi-final which saw them make their victorious trip to Wembley Stadium on the 12th of August.
St Helens were favourites going into the game with a twelve-point handicap on the coupon as they looked to continue their improvement in form as the competition entered its final stages and they looked to peak just in time for the Old Trafford Grand Final.
All of the early pressure was on the Leigh line as the Saints looked to get early points on the board. But on nine minutes, and their first attack of the night, fast hands down the back line saw Oliver Gildart as the first man on a two man overlap to cross down the left-hand side. Ben Reynolds added the conversion and against the run of play the Leopards had a 6-0 lead.
Basketball stuff from Saints on seventeen with Tommy Makinson on hand to complete a move which saw the ball through seven pairs of hands before the Saints winger went in to score from ten metres out. Mark Percival added the conversion to level the scores.
As both sides upped their aggression the referee started issuing warnings to the captains, the game was turning into a humdinger of a battle.
Leigh were hanging on as the half time hooter sounded to send the sides into the interval all square at 6-6, the second half promised to be equally thrilling.
An awful pass from Jack Welsby went straight into Leigh hands on forty-five and was followed by a high tackle from Sione Mata’utia to give the Leopards great field position but on the last tackle Zak Hardaker was forced into touch as he went for the line.
Saints conjured a try from nowhere on fifty after Gareth O’Brien spilled a Lewis Dodd high kick, the loose ball picked up by James Roby and passed out to Makinson to slide over the line for his second try of the night. Percival added the conversion for a 12-6 Saints lead.
With just over twenty minutes remaining, Jonny Lomax dropped the shoulder and went through a tiring Leigh defence to score from ten metres out. Percival was unable to add the conversion but with ten points lead it was a long way back for the Leopards.
An Edwin Ipape break from acting half back saw the big hooker feed Rob Mulhern to go over by the posts and score the second Leigh try of the night. Reynolds added the conversion, the Saints lead back down to just four points.
On seventy-three Saints put the ball to ground with Tom Briscoe collecting the ball and going over in the corner but the referee ruled no try and the video referee spotted a Leigh fingertip knock on by Joe Mellor in the build-up, to rule out the points.
A Leigh ball strip on James Bell on the Leigh line saw the loose ball collected by Joe Batchelor to go over unopposed for the winning try of the game. Percival added the conversion for 22-12 with just under two minutes remaining.
Both sides knew that they had been in a battle tonight, a possible dress rehearsal for a Grand Final. Saints edged to the win, thanks to their early game efforts tiring out the Leigh defence. Leigh are still leading the season by two win to one, but it is St Helens who are in the ascendancy and who will fancy their chances of making a fifth consecutive Grand Final. Don’t count Leigh out, but they will need to find another attacking gear.
St Helens: Welsby, Makinson (2T), Davies, Percival (3G), Bennison, Lomax (T), Dodd, Lees, Roby, Knowles, Mata’utia, Batchelor (T), Bell. Subs: McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Delaney, Royle, Mbye. 18th Man: Ritson.
Leigh Leopards: O’Brien, Briscoe, Chamberlain, Hardaker, Gildart (T), Reynolds (2T), Lam, Amone, Ipape, Mulhern (T), O’Donnell, Hughes, Davis. Subs: Mellor, Halton, Nakubuwai, Wardle. 18th Man: Holmes.
Score Progression: 0-4, 0-6, 4-6, 6-6 : HT: 10-6, 12-6, 16-6, 16-10, 16-12, 20-12, 22-12 :FT.
Lead Exchanges: Leigh – Square -St Helens.
Referee: Chris Kendall.