After three failed seasons in Super League previously, it’s a very different Leigh that has entered the top flight in 2023 in more ways than one.
A bold, if at times criticised and disjointed, re-brand to Leigh Leopards has coincided with a strong start to their fourth stint in Super League, all underpinned by a recruitment strategy based on the learnings of their previous failures.
Owner Derek Beaumont has his critics, but they are few and far between in Leigh where rugby league is booming.
The atmosphere being generated by their on-field performances, and their approach off the field, has created the sort of occasion that Super League should be about.
Their win over Warrington last week in front of more than 8,000 at Leigh Sports Village came on a lovely late spring evening where there was a genuine buzz inside and outside the ground in the build up to kick-off.
It led to my colleague at BBC Radio Merseyside, Phil Kinsella, proclaiming that Leigh simply aren’t getting the coverage or profile that they deserve.
And he posed that very question to Beaumont on The Rugby League Club on Wednesday night and whether he is surprised by their achievements so far, which sees them fifth in the table with eight wins.
Beaumont said: “No, I’d have thought the lads were where we aspire to be. We’ve not had a lot of coverage but it’s been suiting us. We’re just getting on with our business.
“We knew we had a new team. We knew we had 13 new players and needed to gel, so it could have gone differently. Lammy (Adrian Lam) seems to have got them playing well together early and they’ve grown week on week, and I think they sit rightfully where they do.
“I’m not sure anybody in the game would have underestimated us, but I think quite a lot of supporters might have done that.”
Moving away from Wigan comparisons
Although as Beaumont said they have made plenty of Super League hardened signings in the off-season, coinciding with the Leopards re-brand, they brought in several of their most impressive players in during their Championship campaign in 2022.
Papua New Guinea hooker Edwin Ipape has been a revelation, while Tom Amone and John Asiata are among the top performers in the competition. Even Josh Charnley, almost wilfully discarded by Warrington, has rejuvenated his career to be the top try scorer in Super League.
Even the departures of Blake Ferguson, Nene Macdonald and Sam Stone, all components of the side that romped to promotion, hasn’t proved the disaster it might have been.
Beaumont’s approach, and more importantly funds, in recruiting a high standard squad in the Championship has no doubt set up Leigh well for this season – regardless of how poor bottom club Wakefield have been.
It is Wakefield that Leigh come up against at Magic Weekend on Sunday, looking for their first ever win at the event.
A win for the Leopards would put them 18 points clear of Trinity, with just 26 points left to play for. They can already start planning for a second successive season in Super League for the first time in 2024.
By then, they’ll hopefully have built further on the Leopards branding and maybe even launched a fully functioning website!
Beaumont added: “With the re-branding, I felt we needed to change. We needed to look different than what we’ve always been. Ultimately we’d been in Super League three times and never managed to stick it out.
“We had an image that was very similar to Wigan, in the stripes, the Warrior and the Centurion. I felt if you were IMG or an investor looking from the outside in, you’d have to accept that (Wigan) looks like a bigger club than ours, with its history and so on and so forth.
“We had to break away and find a way of maximising what we could do., and I think facility wise, the size of facility we’ve got is perfect. It’s something that we can fill and create a great atmosphere in, rather than something that’s too big, a great facility yes, but one that is twice or three times in some people’s cases the size they need.
“We didn’t know how great we were going to do (on the pitch), so you’ve got to create an event. If you can come out and you’re listening to good quality music, you create an event that you come and have a good night, hopefully get a good service and are well looked after, see some fireworks and the flags waving, and it just generates the mood amongst the people.
“And of course, the product on the field will always be the bit that raises the atmosphere. And as Lammy says, winning takes care of everything and at the minute we’re doing that more than we’re not, so that’s massively helping.”
If Leigh beat Wakefield on Sunday, it will be their seventh successive win.