Leigh Leopards head of rugby Chris Chester has recalled the moment he knew they were a top six Super League club – which came almost 18 months ago.
Leigh won their first Challenge Cup final since 1971 on Saturday, with a Lachlan Lam drop goal sealing a 17-16 win over Hull KR in golden point extra-time.
Adrian Lam’s side have been the story of the season, lifting the Challenge Cup at Wembley as well as currently sitting third in the Super League table.
Leigh’s rise to the top comes as no surprise to Chester, who knew the heights they’d reach 18 months ago in a pre-season friendly against Super League champions St Helens.
“We knew back then,” Chester told Love Rugby League in an exclusive interview in the aftermath of their historic Cup win.
“I spoke to the players after we played St Helens in a friendly back in January at the start of last season.
“I said I didn’t think we were a top two Championship side, I thought we were a top six Super League side and I said that in front of the players.
“We gave them a real good game that day and I could just see things building. We knew with Derek’s (Beaumont, owner) input and the finances he put in that we could compete with anybody.
“A lot of people wrote us off at the start of the year, saying ‘who is going to finish bottom, Wakey or Leigh?’ but we knew at the start of this year that we’d be nowhere near the bottom.
“We think we’ve got a very special group here and today’s just proven that.”
‘It’s massive for the players, the club and the town’
Chester couldn’t put into words how big their Challenge Cup win would be for the club, the town and the local community.
He said: “It’s been 50 years since we were last involved in a Challenge Cup final. We’ve got a group here that are willing to die for each other and that was evident today.
“It’s massive for the players, it’s massive for the club, it’s also huge for the town as well.
“They’ve had to put up with a lot over the last 20 or 30 years, being up and down in Super League, so its nice we can reward those fans and reward Derek as well because I’ve seen him when we’ve been relegated and how tough that is, and I’ve also seen him today and I couldn’t be prouder of him and what he’s done for the town and the club.”
‘They said it would never catch on, didn’t they?’
Leigh underwent an infamous rebrand ahead of their return to Super League this year, changing their name from Centurions to Leopards as well as the kits.
“They said it would never catch on, didn’t they?” Chester added. “There was a lot of opposition at the start of it.
“But now you can’t go around Leigh town centre and not see leopard print, whether it’s a rugby shirt or whether it’s a dress or a t-shirt, whatever it is, and that’s all down to Derek as well.
“He probably cops a lot of stick does Derek, but he’s probably one of the smartest guys you’ll come across.
“We knew we needed to distant ourselves from the red and whites, that’s what Wigan are, they are the Warriors and we were the Centurions.
“We knew that with IMG coming in and Derek knew that with IMG that we needed to do something drastic. We’ve obviously reaped the benefits from that and Derek deserves all the credit.”
‘The fact that people like Lam, Asiata and O’Donnell want to stay at this club speaks volumes’
Chester, whose role as head of rugby is to oversee recruitment and retention, admitted the past couple of months have been stressful for him but he wouldn’t change it for the world, with the former Wakefield and Hull KR boss loving his time with the Leopards.
“I did say when I finished at Wakefield, a lot of stress and a lot of abuse and things like that, that I wanted a job I felt that would suit me with less stress,” he continued. “And I can honestly say these last four weeks have probably been the most stressful time of my career! I’m going to enjoy this.
“The fact that people like Lokie Lam, John Asiata and Kai O’Donnell want to stay at this club speaks volumes for what we’ve created here.
“Adrian has been fantastic at bringing that group together and my job is to make sure everything fits, that’s really difficult but we got the job done today.”
Sky is the limit for Leigh Leopards, with eyes on historic treble
The Leopards will enjoy the immediate period of winning the Challenge Cup, and rightly so, but they still want to finish off the Super League season on a high – and are still in with a genuine chance of the League Leaders’ Shield and Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford.
“We’ll go to the town hall and celebrate will all our fans and then we’re back to work, probably late Monday afternoon,” Chester said.
“We beat Hull KR on the back of a really short turnaround again and at one point we did look tired but in terms of what we want, I think one more win means we finish in that top four and that’s massive.
“If we do get that win against Catalans it’s all on then for top spot, so you’ve got to aim high and that’s certainly what we’re doing at the minute.”
The Leopards are back at the Leigh Sports Village on Saturday as they host league leaders Catalans Dragons, 3pm kick-off.