Newly-promoted Leigh almost got their return to Super League off to a dream start as they were pipped 20-18 by local rivals Wigan.
The Centurions were in dreamland as they opened up an 18-0 lead inside 26 minutes thanks to tries from Liam Hood, Iain Thornley and Ben Hellwell.
Wigan scored two tries in the last few minutes of the first half, and then a double salvo in three minutes midway through the second half from Joe Bullock and Jake Bibby swung the game in their favour after it had looked like a major upset was set to happen on opening night.
Only promoted back in December, and operating on lower central funding than any of their rivals, Leigh made a mockery of their disadvantages by stunning last season’s Grand Finalists.
Captain Hood reached out to get their opening try on four minutes, just about retaining finger tip contact with the ball, and they used that as a foothold, keeping pressure on Wigan with defensive intensity and having the better of the field position.
They couldn’t find that second try and when Blake Wallace’s pass went to ground behind the attacking line, they feared the worst as Wigan newcomer Jai Field got to the ball and looked set to race off for an interception – only for him to pull up with what looked like a hamstring strain and the chance was gone.
Not only that, but Field’s night was done too, far from ideal for a Wigan side already missing Bevan French, Jackson Hastings, Liam Marshall, Dom Manfredi and Oliver Gildart in the back division.
But Wigan were left shellshocked when Thornley and Hellewell crossed within three minutes, Hellewell winning the race to the ball after a Hood break and kick forward.
In the absence of experienced forwards Ben Flower and Tyrone McCarthy, Hellewell was one of a number of outstanding Leigh forwards.
They could have stretched their lead to 24-0, if the excellent Joe Mellor could have picked up an awkward loose ball on half way with no defenders in front of him.
You wondered at that time whether that play could have been crucial, and so it proved.
A fine offload by John Bateman created room for Willie Isa to put Bibby over in the corner, and Bibby turned provider minutes later to put Hardaker over for 18-8 at half time.
The break came at a good time for Leigh, and they managed to hold out for 23 second half minutes – until Bullock crashed over.
The Centurions will have been disappointed with what proved to be the decisive try though, a simple kick forward by Wallace was fielded by Hardaker, and a poor tackle attempt enabled the former Leeds and Castleford full-back to race through and though he was stood up by Ryan Brierley, Bibby arrived in support to cross for his second try.
Hardaker goaled to put Wigan 20-18 in front and that’s how it remained – but while they took home the points, Leigh will have taken home plenty of encouragement to head in to the rest of the 2021 season as they look to prove everyone’s relegation predictions wrong.
Leigh: Brierley, Russell, Thornley, Brand, Tierney, Wallace, Mellor, Sidlow, Hood, Ioane, Gee, Hellewell, Thompson. Subs: Peteru, Eaves, Mason, Foster.
Tries: Hood, Hellewell, Thornley. Goals: Brierley 3.
Wigan: Hardaker, Field, Isa, Bibby, Hanley, Leuluai, Smith, Singleton, Powell, Bullock, Bateman, Farrell, Partington. Subs: Havard, Byrne, Shorrocks, Smithies.
Tries: Bibby 2, Hardaker, Bullock. Goals: Hardaker 2.