It was fantastic to see the name of Salford Red Devils alongside Challenge Cup Final for the first time since 1969, a long, long wait for their faithful fans. The last time they won the trophy was back in 1938 when the beat Barrow by 7-4, and this was only the seventh occasion that the side from Salford had made it to the showpiece.
By contrast their opponents, the Leeds Rhinos, are experienced old hands at these events. This was their twenty-sixth Challenge Cup Final appearance, having lifted the trophy on thirteen occasions, the most recent being in 2015. Leeds have been to the cup final on fifteen occasions since Salford were last there, having lifted the trophy five times.
But this was a one-off game, and despite the odds being stacked in the Rhinos favour, everyone tuning in to watch the game in an empty stadium, knew that Salford could beat any side on their day. It was just a matter of whether this would be that day.
Salford super coach Ian Watson was without the services of the brilliant and experienced Dan Sarginson who had tested positive for Covid-19 but he was replaced by talisman Niall Evalds who was returning from injury. The Rhinos were at full strength with coach Agar having to make some hard choices in his team selection.
There was nothing to choose between the two sides for the opening ten minutes but after Lee Mossop was penalised for a high tackle the Rhinos moved the ball from left to right with Tom Briscoe being on hand to take a flipped Konrad Hurrell pass and take advantage of a small overlap and ground in the corner. Rhyse Martin converted in off the far post for a 6-0 lead.
Excellent Rhinos defence meant that Salford were playing most of the game in their own half.
Salford equalised with a superb length of the field try, Rhys Williams getting the ball after a Rhinos kick to the corner went to Salford hands. The Welshman got the ball ten from his own line and outpaced the Rhinos chasers to score under the sticks. Krisnan Inu added the conversion for 6-6.
James Donaldson stretched for the line on twenty-seven, but had the try ruled out for a double movement.
Just after the half hour mark the Rhinos used the left wing to get their second, a passing moved across the field with a touch pass from Myler being instrumental in creating the extra man for Ash Handley to go over. Martin kick dead centre of the sticks from the touchline for 12-6.
The Rhinos spurned the chance to extend the lead to seven points with two minutes of the half remaining, opting the run the ball. Salford ended the half on the front foot, but the Rhinos had a six-point lead at the interval.
It was an error strewn opening to the second half, both sides giving up possession and territory far too easily.
Leeds knocked on a high kick on fifty-two and from the restart on the Rhinos twenty the ball was moved left to right with Pauli Pauli running through the defensive line for a second Red Devils try. Inu couldn’t add the goal for 10-12, Salford punishing the Rhinos mistakes.
Salford were in the lead on fifty-seven when the Rhinos failed to defuse a bomb, the ball hitting Myler’s knees and bouncing into the hands of Kevin Brown who passed through a couple of pairs of hands before James Greenwood walked over. Inu added the goal for 16-12.
A sixty-fourth minute Ash Handley try, made by a Brad Dwyer half break on the previous tackle, levelled the scores at 16-16 with Gale and Myler providing the killer passes. Martin pulled his kick wide of the sticks. Fourteen minutes remained with nothing to choose between the two sides.
Luke Gale pushed a seventieth minute drop goal wide of the sticks but with four minutes remaining Gale was accurate with a thirty-metre effort for a single point lead.
Salford spilled the ball deep in the Leeds twenty while setting up for a drop goal with ninety seconds left and a ball steal then cost Salford further ground as the clock ran down. The Rhinos started the tackle count in halfway with thirty seconds remaining and they took the tackles to take a one-point win.
This was a classic cup final between two dedicated and evenly matched sides. The atmosphere was non-existent in the stands but in abundance on the pitch as the Rhinos won by a single point. Both sides executed their kicking games with aplomb and the defences gave every last drop of energy that they had. Leeds win their fourteenth Challenge Cup and Salford will hope that they don’t have to wait another fifty one years for their next chance.
Leeds Rhinos: Myler, Briscoe T (T), Hurrell, Sutcliffe L, Handley (2T), Lui, Gale (DG), Seumanufagai, Leeming, Oledzki, Mellor, Martin (2G), Prior. Subs: Sutcliffe A, Dwyer, Donaldson, Cuthbertson.
Salford Red Devils: Evalds, Williams (T), Watkins, Welham, Inu (2G), Lolohea, Brown, Mossop, Lussick, Dudson, McCarthy, Greenwood (T), Flanagan. Subs: Ikahihifo, Pauli (T), Yates, Burke.
Referee: Liam Moore.
Half Time: 12-6.
Full Time: 17-16.
Venue: Wembley Stadium, London.