The Challenge Cup is the Holy Grail to many rugby league supporters of teams who have been out of the lime light for a while. Salford have won the famous trophy just once in 1938 – Lance Todd’s great side beat Barrow at Wembley.
The Red Devils last appearance in the show piece final came in 1969 an 11-6 defeat against Castleford. Even through Salford’s glory days of the 1970s the Challenge cup was always the one that got away with disappointing defeats right through the decade.
Leigh have two Challenge Cup wins to their name – 1921 and the famous 24-7 victory over big guns Leeds in 1971. Player coach Alex Murphy involved in an incident that saw Leeds player Syd Hynes become the first player to be sent off in The Final. Tries from Stan Dorrington and David Eckersley along with four drop goals and Stuart Ferguson’s goal kicking claimed a memorable win.
Eckersley shaping to drop a goal but then gliding over to score under the posts one of the many highlights.
Leigh were beaten in the semi final of 1974 against Featherstone Rovers and went down 14-8 in the 1987 semi final against St. Helens.
In recent years the Centurions have had some excellent cup runs reaching the Quarter Finals in 2012, 2014 and 2015. 2014 a real valiant effort at Headingley when they were unlucky to lose to Leeds 25-12.
Salford have appeared in four Semi Finals in the last 30 years. Beaten at Burnden Park Bolton in 1988 against Wigan, in 1997 the newly promoted Salford Reds appeared in Super League for the first time an excellent cup run defeating top flight opposition all the way was ended at Central Park against St. Helens. The following year a heart breaking defeat at Headingley against Sheffield Eagles 22-18. Salford were 18-10 up in the second half at one stage. Last season Ian Watson’s Salford Red Devils were beaten in the Semi Final by Wigan.
In recent years when it comes to cup meetings between the two sides Leigh have had the edge. The last meeting came at the LSV in 2015. A thrilling contest went Leigh’s way 22-18. Who could forget the televised clash at Hilton Park in 2001. Salford with a 0-12 lead thanks to Warren Jowitt’s debut brace of tries looked comfortable on what was a very heavy pitch. Leigh however really dug in and with some excellent play came out with a 16-12 victory.
Rewind back to the 1980s Salford this time were winners twice at The Willows. 12-3 in the 80/81 season and 12-5 in the 82/83 season.
What can we expect on Friday night? Salford’s last visit to Leigh ended with a 25-0 drubbing towards the end of the regular season in 2017. It’s been a slow start to the 2018 campaign but now the Centurions are beginning to find their feet in what is a very tough looking Championship competition.
Despite being a League below Salford, Leigh certainly have players that can ask questions of the Red Devils defence. Half back Ben Reynolds can unlock defences and the pace in the three quarters with Matty Dawson and Jack Owens will be a threat. There’s plenty of top flight experience in the Leigh side with Micky Higham and former Salford favourite Harrison Hansen. Another ex Red Devil Liam Hood provides the pace around the ruck.
Both sides have other aspirations this season with Leigh aiming for a top four finish and another crack at the qualifying eights for a swift return to Super League. For Salford they will be desperate to finish in the top eight and avoid what looks like a very tricky prospect of the Qualifiers. With Toronto, Toulouse and London all currently up there, those away ties could prove really tough.
The Wembley dream is alive in the hearts of the Leigh and Salford faithful. It’s been a long time between drinks for both tonight’s sides. Victory on Friday night and the reward is a Quarter Final tie and just two games from Wembley.
Enjoy the game everyone, Paul Whiteside.