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Can Leigh get past the Choke Point?

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Leigh has been in Wigan’s shadow for a long time. Ever since 1972 when it, along with a lot of other English towns, found itself suddenly relegated to the second division of civic standing by being made part of the borough of Wigan (officially known as Wigan and Leigh), Leigh has found itself rendered into obscurity by its more prominent neighbour. Generally the story hasn’t been much better in Rugby League terms either. Wigan Warriors are a global name. Leigh Centurions on the other hand…

Last season saw them win the Kingstone Press Championship only to choke during the qualifier matches that would decide who secured the coveted elevation to the ranks of Superleague. Having beaten Dewsbury Rams 40-24, they then endured a series of ignominious defeats against Widnes Vikings, Halifax and Bradford Bulls to end up finishing last of the teams that were competing.

That sorry story continued a tragic saga for Leigh, whose pre-eminence in the Championship has become a bitter irony given their inability to reach the Superleague.

True that was not entirely of Leigh’s own making. Never mind the crass nature of a system that makes a team play for promotion, after winning the league. Leigh were, despite their obvious quality, on the wrong side of the tracks in the days when the barrier or Superleague entry or relegation, was kept firmly closed. That’s how clubs like Bradford, and the London Broncos, survived so long in the top flight of the English game.

Even local rivals Wigan didn’t face the threat of dropping down a division during their own bad patches thanks to that same rule. Leigh on the other hand, were playing for little more than pride. The worst insult coming at the start of the century when the club was told their stadium at the time, Hilton Park, wasn’t up to scratch where the expectations of Superleague were concerned.

It wasn’t, as anyone who ever stood on its terraces on a cold, wet Sunday afternoon could have told you. Then again neither was Knowsley Road, St Helens’s fabled ground.

Nowadays both are history, just as with Wigan’s hallowed Central Park. St Helens have moved to a fantastic new stadium, while Leigh can bask in the way their star has risen at Leigh Sports Village, which happens to include a modern ground for the club to play on. Still not that Leigh do not have the convenient excuse of their being no opportunity for promotion anymore, it has proven beyond their grasp.

Various reasons have been given for this, the most troubling of which is a certain ill discipline amongst players. Given that those players include English and Australian internationals, ill discipline shouldn’t be a concern. These men after all have proven fit to represent their countries on the international stage, so they should be fit to represent their club on a more local stage.

New captain Mickey Higham and coach Paul Rowley will have such thoughts uppermost in their mind, though local rivalry will get more attention in Sunday’s friendly with Wigan. The Warriors will be strong favourites for the game, having named a strong mix of players, including Joel Tompkins and Lee Mossup, for the game. Leigh’s performance, given their claims of being Superleague calibre, would be a test of how they’ll perform in the forthcoming season, only Leigh’s performance in the regular season isn’t being question.

It’s the qualifiers where they seem to run out of steam and so the real test for both Rowley and Higham will be if they can provide good enough leadership, on and off the pitch, to make sure that Leigh’s form doesn’t desert them so ill fated again.

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