Edwin Ipape will be a part of the first-ever Leigh Leopards team to survive a Super League season. If you’d have offered that to most Leythers ahead of the 2023 season, they’d have probably snatched your hand off, but as it’s turned out, they’ve already achieved so much more and are now looking forward to a first Challenge Cup final since 1971.
Explosive hooker Ipape linked up with Leigh ahead of 2022, joining fellow Papua New Guinea native Adrian Lam in a small North West town home to less than 50,000 people, a figure similar to that of his home city Mount Hagen.
The 24-year-old impressed immediately, scooting over for many a try on his way to the Championship’s Player of the Year award as Leigh earned promotion back to the top table and Super League. They also won the 1895 Cup along the way, Ipape crossing for a try in that triumph against Featherstone Rovers at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last May.
Despite that success, a re-brand from Centurions to ‘Leopards’ shortly after promotion, and smart recruitment, many outside of the town – and probably some inside it too – had their doubts over whether Ipape and co. could be successful in the top tier.
Edwin Ipape on the Leopards silencing their doubters
Leigh had thrice before got themselves into Super League without staying there for more than a year. 2005, 2017 and 2021 all ultimately ended in disappointment for the Leythers.
Even this year, their start wasn’t the brightest. The Leopards lost their first two, and five of their first eight. The hooker though never lost faith, as he told Love Rugby League at Monday’s press day ahead of this weekend’s Wembley showdown with Hull KR.
He said: “When I first joined Leigh last year, we had a great team in the Championship. We were having a great year and then coming into this one, people had doubts – they were saying we were going to struggle, and that we would get relegated, or even that we just wouldn’t perform.
“I think that really brought the fire into our bellies, and everybody took it personally because all the players that Lammy and Chris Chester (Head of Rugby) have recruited are very competitive players. I think we used those words and doubts as a motivation tool to get out there on gamedays, compete and perform as we have been doing.
“When we were losing games at the start of the year, I told the boys that if Leigh were going to do something special, then our group would have to be the one to go and do it. We’re where we are now not through luck, but because we deserve it. I’m just so proud to be here and to be a part of this.”
Leigh’s success so far built on togetherness
Along their journey to 3rd in Super League and a Challenge Cup final, boss Lam has assembled a squad filled with interesting stories.
As well as Ipape’s journey from PNG to the LSV – or Leopards’ Den as it’s now informally known – there’s stories of players unwanted by other clubs, who have made the move from the NRL, and other hidden gems uncovered by the Leopards.
‘Good feel’ news stories have been aplenty in recent times for the Leythers, with one going under the radar including Ipape being bought a new bike by a club sponsor last year after his old one was stolen. Still in the early months of his Leigh career back then, his family still lived over in PNG, but Ipape says he’s always felt like a part of the family in Leyth town.
📸 On Wednesday afternoon, after hearing the news that Centurions hooker Edwin Ipape had his bike stolen in early June, club sponsors @ElvisEckardtRec surprised the @PNGKumulsRL international as he bought him a brand new one!#Leythers 🔴 pic.twitter.com/w56zV4RJxy
— Leigh Leopards (@LeighLeopardsRL) July 1, 2022
He added: “Credit has to go to the coaching staff here, they’ve done a great job in getting us to understand each other’s games, but also getting us to bond as a group. It really is like a big family.
“We understand our roles, what we want to look like as a team, and how we want to play. That’s been driven by the coaching staff, but also on the field then it’s been driven by us as players. Everyone deserves credit for working hard to put ourselves in the position to win games when they come around.
“Playing in the final of the Challenge Cup really does come down to how hard we’ve worked. I think the club was expecting, or thinking about, a long-term re-building, but I think the way we’ve progressed so much already this year has even shocked them at times.
“Some at the club even probably didn’t see this coming, but as players you can feel it coming through the vibe in training, you know that this is the time to go and do something special.”
Ipape discusses using emotions to their advantage at Wembley
In recruiting their squad for this year and beyond, Leigh managed to piece a pack together littered with big-game experience.
There are six Challenge Cup winners’ medals between just their wing pairing of Josh Charnley and Tom Briscoe, the latter crossing for five tries under the arch in a Leeds Rhinos’ drubbing of this weekend’s opponents KR eight years ago.
For Ipape, it’ll be his first time playing at the national stadium, but he’s confident he and the rest of his teammates will get the job done as long as they control those emotions.
The Papua New Guinea international affirmed: “It comes down to individuals and how you control those emotions. We’re humans, there’s going to be nerves coming into it, and throughout the week, the boys are aware of it.
“We’ve got to be able to control it and use it in the right way on field when we’re out there. Regardless of where you’re playing, the noise, crowd, whatever is going on, when the whistle goes you’ve got to try and forget about everything.
“You’ve got to get switched on, and be focused on what’s going on. That’s our mindset, our mentality doesn’t change, and we won’t let the occasion change what we do or how we play.”