Leigh Leopards’ outstanding progress in 2023 is perhaps best summed up by Zak Hardaker’s comment that they were disappointed to miss out on the top four.
Spurred on by a rebrand led and executed by passionate owner Derek Beaumont, Leigh not only did what they hadn’t done before in securing their Super League status for a second season – but they added major honours to the club’s list, winning the Challenge Cup at Wembley for the first time since 1971.
They were in Super League’s top four for large parts of the season, and even the top two for a while, agonisingly missing out on points difference in the final round, finishing fifth and then losing in the play-offs to Hull KR.
The eye-catching capture of Matt Moylan from Cronulla Sharks headlines their recruitment, with highly-rated English forward Owen Trout arriving from Huddersfield, while being able to retain the likes of John Asiata has also been a coup.
Leigh Leopards star Zak Hardaker eyes Challenge Cup repeat as club look to establish themselves at the top of Super League
Hardaker told Leopards TV: “We want to surpass last year. Obviously the Challenge Cup was absolutely amazing last year, and if we could retain that, it would be outstanding, as that competition is very difficult.
“We were disappointed we didn’t finish fourth in the end last season, so finishing in the top four is a goal that’s reachable.
“We’ll set some (private) goals within our group too. With the players that we’ve got, I’m really excited to see where this year takes us. The special thing about this group and this club is we don’t actually know where we can get to, and that’s the exciting bit.
“We’ve just got to keep training hard, the backroom staff keep doing their bit and I think we’re going to have another exciting 12 months.”
Leigh find themselves 9/1 sixth favourites for the Challenge Cup with competition sponsors Betfred, with the third and fourth round draws set to be made at Widnes on Monday.
Super League sides don’t enter the competition until the last 16 stage, meaning the Leopards are three wins away from a Wembley return.
Leigh Leopards ‘way ahead’ of where they were 12 months ago in season’s preparations
In the league, Leigh are priced at 16/1 to win the Grand Final, ranking them seventh, although they are sixth favourites to win the league leaders’ shield.
It’s a far cry from their previous Super League pre-seasons, where they have been tipped for relegation.
They won’t be a surprise for anyone in 2024, and that is a challenge that the Leopards will rise to, starting with the pre-season clash with Warrington next week in Joe Philbin’s testimonial.
As well as Moylan and Trout, Adrian Lam has brought in forwards Dan Norman and Lewis Baxter from St Helens, highly-rated forward Louis Brogan from Swinton, youngsters Jack Darbyshire and Kavan Rothwell from Warrington and Wigan respectively, as well as utility Ben McNamara, son of Catalans coach Steve.
Hardaker added: “It’s my job and the senior guys to welcome everybody in. The staff make people feel like they’ve been here for years.
“My job is to make sure they know their role on the pitch, I like to win and do things correctly. They’ve added competition for places, so everyone is training really hard fighting for the starting shirt for the Huddersfield game (in Round One).
“We’ve added some really good players to the group. The combinations we’ve got, we’ve had a year of knowing each other’s roles and how each individual plays, and how us as a team and a club want to play.
“The club has gone out of its way to recruit and add in (competition) for places.
“We’re way ahead of where we were this time last year. We play a really exciting brand of rugby and come Huddersfield, hopefully we’re going to be ready.”