Where are they now? Leigh Leopards (Centurions) first-ever Super League side

Ben Olawumi
John Duffy, Mark Leafa, Jason Ferris

From left to right: John Duffy, Mark Leafa & Jason Ferris in action for Leigh Centurions in 2005

Before anyone in Leigh had even heard of Leopards, the club thrice failed in bids to retain Super League status – with the first of those unsuccessful attempts coming in 2005.

A dismal campaign which ended with just two Super League wins to their name began on February 12 with a 30-12 defeat to Huddersfield Giants at Hilton Park.

In front of 4,043 supporters, over 1,400 fewer than the number of tickets sold pre-game, the sides had to wait until five minutes prior to kick-off until the floodlights properly flickered into life, and Leigh would probably have been better off if they hadn’t turned on at all.

Before the then-Centurions responded with two late tries to make the scoreline look a little less one-sided than the game itself suggested, the Giants sped into a 30-2 lead courtesy of tries from Stanley Gene, Stuart Jones, Sean Penkywicz & Paul White, with Chris Thorman kicking a total of seven goals on the night.

The two clubs met again in Round 1 this term, with the same outcome as Huddersfield took a win away from the Leigh Sports Village against the now-widely known Leopards.

We missed out on our chance to run this feature then, but with the pair meeting at the John Smith’s Stadium in Round 12 action this weekend, we look at where the Leigh side from their ill-fated first-ever Super League game are now…

Neil Turley

Neil Turley
Neil Turley (facing the camera) and one of his Leigh Centurions team-mates celebrate a win in 2001

Turley scored Leigh’s first-ever points in Super League, kicking a first-half penalty to cancel out one from Thorman earlier in the piece and level things up at 2-2. The full-back – who came through Wigan Warriors’ academy – never made a senior career appearance for anyone other than the Centurions, racking up 124 in their colours with 132 tries & 488 goals to his name.

Retiring in April 2006 due to a serious recurring back injury, having also featured for Lancashire & England’s under-21’s, Turley still holds many club records. Now 44, he still lives and works in the local area, with a hand still in rugby league as an RFL ‘side member – sitting in on tribunal hearings and the like. Brother Warren is an RFL match official.

John Wilshere

A 20-time Papua New Guinea international, outside-back Wilshere kicked Leigh’s other goal on the night, converting one of their two late tries. With the club for only one season, he featured in 29 of their 31 games across all competitions in 2005 having arrived from Warrington Wolves.

Following the Centurions’ relegation, the Port Moresby native moved on to newly-promoted Salford – then City Reds – who he stayed with until the end of the 2009 season, hanging up his boots following that year’s World Cup. Having returned home and held various roles since his retirement, now 46, Wilshere is the ‘PNG Area Manager’ of a Mining Services Group.

Phil Jones

Phil Jones
Phil Jones in action for Leigh Centurions in 2005

No, not the departing Manchester United defender! This centre starred in both rugby league & rugby union during his playing days, once bought by hometown club Wigan for a fee of £35,000. His last venture in league was with Leigh, joining the Centurions at the back end of the 2004 season & departing again after this 2005 campaign with 21 appearances in total.

Now 46, Jones returned to rugby union then with Bury-based outfit Sedgley Park, and also made a return to Rotherham Titans prior to calling time on his career. Having scoured the internet, we weren’t able to track the ex-dual-code ace down, so if you know where he is today, let us know!

Ben Cooper

Fellow centre Cooper, who hails from Crofton in West Yorkshire, joined Leigh in June 2004 from Huddersfield who he’d appeared 82 times for after just one game in Sheffield Eagles’ colours in 1999. He scored 12 tries in 41 appearances for Leigh, departing at the end of 2005 when he hung up his boots.

He remains in the game today at the age of 44, joining Wakefield Trinity at the start of this season as their new Head of Strength & Conditioning having held similar roles at Hull FC, Castleford Tigers & Hull KR beforehand.

Rob Smyth

Rob Smyth
Rob Smyth pictured in action in 1995, during his time as a Wigan player

Winger Smyth, now 47, got the second of Leigh’s two tries on the night, one of five times he crossed the whitewash in 40 appearances for the club. Like many in this side, the Centurions were the final club of the five-time Ireland international’s career.

Having donned a shirt for hometown club Wigan, London Broncos, Warrington Wolves and the now-defunct Chorley Lynx, he departed Leigh in 2007 and took up a role in the construction industry. He remains in that industry today, now the Senior Contracts Manager of a firm in Wigan.

Jason Kent

Kent was sin-binned in the first half of the Round 1 defeat for holding on in the tackle, with this the Australian’s debut for the club having arrived from NRL outfit Cronulla Sharks. The New South Wales native was another rounding off his career, spending a solitary season over here prior to hanging up his boots following 26 appearances for the Centurions.

The ex-St George Illawarra Dragons ace is now 44, and for the want of trying, we’ve been unable to track him down! Again, if you know what he’s up to now, get in touch and we’ll be able to update!

John Duffy

John Duffy
John Duffy in action for Leigh Centurions in 2005

2005 was the final season in the second of Duffy’s three stints at Leigh as a player. The Platt Bridge-born playmaker, a 12-time Scotland international, donned a whole host of shirts over his career and ended on 356 club appearances when he retired in 2012 having played out the last three years of his career back with the Centurions, the club he made the most appearances for (202).

The 43-year-old headed up Swinton Lions, Featherstone Rovers and even Scotland as a coach prior to returning to Leigh (again) in 2019, in charge until August 2021 when the club relieved him of his duties after an eight-game winless start to the Super League season. He’s now at Wigan heading up everything youth-related as well as helping out Matt Peet’s senior squad.

Richard Moore

By the time Moore hung up his boots in 2019, forced to retire due to a serious head injury, he’d played for 10 different clubs including loan stints. Leigh were the fourth of those, with the Keighley native featuring 17 times in total between arriving in 2005 and departing at the end of the following season.

An ‘England A’ representative, the prop – now aged 43 – accrued 355 career appearances before having to hang up his boots. He still lives and works in West Yorkshire, and is now regularly found in France on fishing trips.

Paul Rowley

Paul Rowley, Keith Senior
Paul Rowley in action for Leigh Centurions in 2006, being tackled by Leeds Rhinos’ Keith Senior

One of the more instantly recognisable names on this list. The now-Salford Red Devils head coach is a Leigh lad, featuring over 150 times for the Centurions over two spells, sandwiched by stints at Halifax Panthers & Huddersfield. Four-time England international Rowley retired in 2007 after making his 400th career appearance, now one of Super League’s established coaches.

Taking charge of his hometown club and twice winning the Championship with them. Resigning prior to the 2016 season, he was then appointed by Canadian outfit Toronto Wolfpack, leading them to glory in both the second & third tiers before departing in 2018. After a few years out the game, he was given the Salford job ahead of the 2022 season.

Steve McCurrie

Cumbrian prop McCurrie – who will turn 51 on June 1 – was another coming towards the end of his career at Leigh, featuring 12 times and scoring a sole try in ’05 before rounding off his playing days with Swinton, appearing 20 times over the course of the two seasons which followed.

An England & Great Britain international who made well over 300 career appearances in the end, most of those for Widnes Vikings, the ex-forward is now a driving instructor based in Warrington, and also holds a role as a residential care worker.

Oli Wilkes

Ollie Wilkes
Ollie Wilkes pictured in action in 2009, during his time as a Wakefield Trinity Wildcats player

Another Cumbrian in Wilkes actually got sent off in this game, receiving his marching orders just 11 minutes into the second half for a dangerously high tackle on Eorl Crabtree. 24 at the time, this came during the forward’s first of two stints with Leigh, leaving at the end of 2005 and returning in 2014.

The 17-time Scotland international rounded off his career with Workington Town, surpassing 500 career appearances before he hung up his boots in 2019. 2022 saw Wilkes – along with former team-mate Jamie Acton – admit to doping during his career. Now back in Cumbria, the 44-year-old now works in health & safety for a national climate company dealing with climate change.

Mark Leafa

Kiwi-born Samoa international Leafa – who had featured in the 2000 World Cup – had played a handful of games in the NRL when he joined Leigh ahead of 2005, an ever-present for the Centurions that year. The powerhouse then spent 2006 with Whitehaven in the Championship before moving on to Castleford.

He ended his career in the British game with the Tigers, returning Down Under following his release at the end of the 2008 campaign. Now recognised as Mark Vaiao, the 43-year-old is a qualified performance coach and owns a fitness business. Based in Brisbane, he also doubles up as a Father Christmas come the festive period!

Jason Ferris

Jason Ferris
Jason Ferris in action for Leigh Centurions in 2005

Aussie Ferris arrived at Leigh ahead of the ’05 season and was handed captaincy, but this was one of just four games he played for the club before returning home on a permanent basis having fractured his cheekbone in March. In those four games, he played at loose, hooker and in the halves.

Prior to his arrival at Hilton Park, he’d made over 100 appearances in the NRL. The most recent bit of information we could find on Ferris was his appointment as the head coach of Country Rugby League side Tahmoor Roosters ahead of the 2022 season. Last year, they won their Grand Final, and this year, ex-Salford Red Devils flier Ken Sio is starring for them.

Rob Jackson (Interchange)

Onto the interchanges and Jackson is first up, who came through the Wigan Warriors academy but never made a senior appearance for the Cherry & Whites. An outside-back, the Salford-born ace joined Leigh ahead of 2005 following stints at Whitehaven & London, making 26 appearances for the Centurions before moving on after just a sole season at Hilton Park.

Leaving Leigh, the 42-year-old returned to Whitehaven, and that’s where he remained until he called time on his career in 2010, with his 191st & last-ever career appearance in July of that year. From what we were able to deduce, Jackson went into teaching after spending some time in Australia after leaving Haven. If anyone knows for definite though, again, please get in touch!

James King (Interchange)

James King
James King in action for Leigh Centurions in 2005

Second-rower King had earned two caps for Ireland during his time with Barrow Raiders, playing in the 2003 European Cup against both Scotland & France. Skip forward to 2005, and he joined newly-promoted Leigh but managed just 14 appearances for the club, with the last in June that year.

Nine of those 14 appearances came off the interchange bench, including this one, and the 43-year-old proved among the trickiest to track down with nothing seemingly written or said about him since his departure from Hilton Park! Please do get in touch if you know what he’s up to nowadays, we’re genuinely intrigued!

Matt Sturm (Interchange)

Quiz question – who was Leigh’s first-ever try-scorer in Super League? Answer: This man. Kiwi native Sturm came off the interchange bench and grounded Ferris’ kick five minutes from time, with 2005 his second and final season donning a Leigh shirt having joined from Warrington the year prior.

In the British game, Sturm had also played for Huddersfield & Workington, and he rounded off his time in this country at Rochdale Hornets in ’06. The forward is now 51, and is a water filter installer & serviceman back home in New Zealand. Still involved in the game, he coaches at the Mount Albert Lions, who compete in the Auckland Rugby League competition.

Craig Stapleton (Interchange)

Craig Stapleton
Craig Stapleton pictured in 2009, during his time as a Salford City Reds player

Rounding things off in this squad was Aussie Stapleton, who made the move to Super League to join Leigh having made just over 50 appearances in the NRL. The prop was an ever-present for the Centurions in 2005, but returned Down Under following their relegation and joined Penrith Panthers.

After a stint at Cronulla, he spent two years with Salford, leaving at the end of ’09 before one final hoorah came with NRL outfit South Sydney. Stapleton is now 45 and is a manager at Sydney Rail Services! His last involvement in the game came in 2019, taking charge of Illawarra Rugby League outfit Warilla Gorillas.

Head coach: Darren Abram

Darren Abram
Darren Abram, Leigh Centurions’ head coach between 2004 and August 2005

Abram was appointed ahead of 2004 by Leigh having been crowned Coach of the Year in National League 2 (now known as League 1) for his exploits with Chorley Lynx. The now-56-year-old led the Centurions to Super League at the first time of asking, but given their struggles in the top flight, was relieved of his duties in August 2005.

Getting the Rochdale Hornets job a few months later, he’d remain there until July 2007. Having held a whole host of assistant gigs since, he was appointed one of Alan Kilshaw’s right-hand men at Swinton in the off-season. Abram coaches son Dan, who has been at Heywood Road since 2022.

Huddersfield Giants’ line-up from Round 1 in 2005

Jon Sharp, Ken Davy
Jon Sharp (left), Huddersfield Giants’ head coach between 2004 & May 2008, speaks to Ken Davy (right), the club’s owner prior to a Super League game in 2013

Starting 13: Stuart Donlan, Hefin O’Hare, James Evans, Stanley Gene, Marcus St Hilaire, Chris Thorman, Sean Penkywicz, Paul Jackson, Brad Drew, Jim Gannon, Chris Nero, Stuart Jones, Ben Roarty

Interchanges: Paul Reilly, Paul White, Paul Smith, Eorl Crabtree

Head coach: Jon Sharp