The Betfred Super League keeps its South of France foothold in Perpignan after the Catalan Dragons ran out 26-10 winners over Leigh in the Million Pound Game at Leigh Sports Village this afternoon.
But that result stayed in doubt until well into the second half as, for the second year running, two SL teams battled it out to decide which one would be relegated to make way for Hull KR, whose return to the top flight was guaranteed when they ensured a top three place in the middle eights.
There was little to separate the clubs leading up to the game, both having won four and lost three of those middle eight games. The Centurions hosted the contest because a much better points difference game them fourth place over the Dragons’ fifth.
With so much riding on the game for both sets of players, the pressure on them was obvious from the kick-off.
But it was clearly Leigh who adjusted better in the opening period.
Matty Dawson crossed the line in the corner after just six minutes, and Ben Reynolds’s conversion made it 6-0 to the home team.
That seemed to settle down Leigh, and while Catalans made a number of advances into the Centurions’ red zone, they seemed to have no idea how to break their opponents line in the crucial last 10m of the pitch.
Added to that, plenty of dropped ball and other mistakes showed that they were full of nerves, and the scorekeeper wasn’t troubled again until the 34th minute when Ian Thornley dived over the line for the visitors.
Luke Walsh missed his conversion attempt and the score remained 6-4 to Leigh when the half-time hooter blew.
Coach Neil Jukes must have felt things were on the right track in a tight game – and the more so when James Clare added a try just three minutes after the start to take the score to 10-6.
But that was to be the Centurions’ last score of the game.
The Dragons had clearly settled their nerves at half time and opened out their game, with on-loan Wigan full-back Lewis Tierney scoring in the corner to narrow the gap to 10-8.
Walsh missed the conversion attempt, but made up for it minutes later when Leigh gave away a pen for obstruction and the Catalans half-back levelled the scores.
And then, the proverbial floodgates opened.
Tierney scored a second try off the back of more open, second-phase play, converted by Walsh, which took the Dragons’ lead out to 18-10.
Another Walsh penalty on 75 minutes took the score even further from Leigh and pretty much sealed their return to the Championship.
But there was still time for Walsh to brilliantly break the Leigh defensive line and feed to ball to 20-year-old French winger Fouad Yaha, who crossed the line for a 26-10.
And by then, it didn’t matter that Walsh missed the conversion in the last minute.
There were tears in Leigh for a result which marked the end of a one-year spell in Super League – although chairman Derek Beaumont has vowed to keep the club funded for a swift return to the top flight.
And there wil be cheers and beers in Perpignan, where up to 3,000 fans were expected to greet the Dragons’ team flight when it lands sometime after eleven tonight.