Leigh Leopards hooker Edwin Ipape will step out for the ‘biggest game of his career’ in the Challenge Cup final on Saturday afternoon, and he’s desperate to get his hands on the trophy so he can take it back to the town that has embraced him.
Leaving his family behind in Mount Hagen, the 24-year-old made the move to Leigh from Papua New Guinea early on in 2022 ahead of Leigh’s then-upcoming Championship campaign.
Ipape was greeted with dismal weather in a country – and town – that was still finding its feet again following the coronavirus pandemic.
But from stepping off the plane and into Adrian Lam’s side, the hooker was an instant hit with the locals, and they were an instant hit with him.
He’s now signed on with the Leopards until at least the end of 2025.
That connection with the club’s supporters is one that’s only gotten stronger over the 18 months that Ipape has been a Leyther.
He now has his family here with him, and they will be supporting him under the Wembley arch this weekend.
Importantly, north of the capital, the town of Leigh is home to the Ipapes.
Edwin Ipape feeling the Leyth loving
It’s a basic chant, as are most, but ‘Ohh, Edwin Ipape’ has been heard on the terraces at every single venue Leigh have played at since the Papua New Guinea international’s arrival.
For Ipape, it’s not just on the field where he feels the love though, as he told Love Rugby League: “I didn’t expect the support to be at this level coming here to be honest. The supporters here are just the most passionate fans that I’ve played for in a long time.
“They travel with us, they go wherever and get behind us whether we win, lose or draw. It’s awesome to see, and the support I’ve had personally has been unreal.
“Not only on the pitch, people offer me help when I need anything off it. They’re always just one call away ready to help whenever I need it, and that’s a big part of it for me.
“It really sunk in quickly for me that for these guys, it’s not about rugby league, it’s about life and caring for individuals.”
‘It’s the biggest game of my career so far’
An unknown quantity prior to linking up with Leigh, Ipape had previously played for the PNG Hunters in his homeland.
He instantly shone though, and with explosive performances, he earned various accolades. An influential performance which included a try earned him the Ray French Man of the Match award in the 1895 Cup final.
The star man then featured in front of more than 7,000 at the Leigh Sports Village against Batley Bulldogs in October as Lam’s side were promoted, and represented PNG at the delayed World Cup.
Saturday’s Challenge Cup final though is without doubt the grandest of the lot so far, for Ipape, adding: “I would easily say that it’s the biggest game of my career so far.
“Even just playing in the Challenge Cup, I hadn’t done that before I came here, so I definitely hadn’t played in anything like the final of it.
“Being at Wembley and having my family over here able to watch me, there are a lot of things that make it more special. This is definitely up there at the very top of my list.
“All of them (will be there)! My two kids and my wife will be there cheering for me, and that’s probably the highlight of everything that’s going on.
“To be able to play such a special and important game for the club at an iconic venue in front of my own loved ones, it will be special.”
Edwin Ipape: ‘This is just the start of something’
Leigh last lifted the Challenge Cup in 1971 when Alex Murphy starred in a game against Leeds Rhinos which saw the first-ever red card in a final of the competition for Syd Hynes.
1921 was the club’s only previous triumph in the prestigious cup competition prior to that, and in the Super League era, all three of Leigh’s years at the top table prior to this one have ended in relegation.
But now, they sit third in the ladder and look certainties for a first-ever play-off appearance.
Ipape and his team-mates are well aware of the history of the club, and he believes times have permanently changed for the better heading into the weekend.
He told us: “This is the start of something, hopefully for more silverware to come to this club. I’m confident in saying that, and we know we have the town behind us, all of our fans.
“We just have to go out there on Saturday and deliver. For us as a club and as players it’s another day and another game, but for the fans it’s 52 years.
“Their mindset and their mentality will be different from how we approach this game. We will approach it as athletes and as professionals, but for the fans it’s bigger than you can imagine.
“We’re well aware of that, and we’re going to take a lot of motivation and energy from it. If we channel it in the right way, hopefully it’ll help us to get the win on Saturday.”