It really shouldn’t work.
An owner changes the name of a club based solely on his favourite type of clothing. He then promotes pre-match entertainment to get families through the gates early and in numbers, but plumps for Scouting For Girls – whose last big hit was arguably in 2007 – and T’Pau, of whom most people under 40 have little to no recollection.
On the field he puts together a squad that is talented but in so many aspects just has the same sort of air about it as previous teams who have represented the city of Leigh in the Betfred Super League era.
And yet, 12 rounds in, Leigh Leopards are fifth. They have won four games on the trot – conceding a total of three tries along the way – and sit a full 14 points clear of the same bottom spot on the ladder which had become their natural habitat in their three earlier cracks at the top flight. At the fourth time of asking, Leigh will be surviving a Super League season, and it’s not even going to be close.
It shouldn’t have worked so well, but it has.
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Derek Beaumont has become an almost self-styled polarising figure in rugby league circles. To some, he’s important in the growth of the game, to others he’s an ego-driven businessman who could turn his back at any moment and leave a good club in a potentially fatal spot.
From the outside looking in, that’s what seemed to have happened in 2018 after the-then Leigh Centurions had followed relegation from Super League with a poor Championship season which meant them missing out on the ‘Middle 8s’ and a potential top-flight return was out of the question.
“There is a misconception that I walked away,” Beaumont recently told the Eddie and Stevo podcast about the news five years ago that he was looking for a new buyer at a time when the RFL had put the club in special measures and the owner oversaw the finalisation of all full-time playing contracts.
“I didn’t walk away in 2018, but I had to give the perception that I did. The club had come out of Super League and we didn’t make the middle 8s so we went from a £2 million squad, we went down with parachute payments of £500,000 and £900,000 central distribution, and we were down to less than £200,000 and that was too big for me to deal with in a year. If players and agents knew I was staying and rebuilding, they wouldn’t have done the deals that they did with me.”
Having applied successfully to replace Toronto Wolfpack in the 2021 Super League but again suffered relegation, Beaumont built Leigh back bigger and better in the Championship last term with Adriam Lam in charge of a squad which lost a single Round 2 game to Featherstone Rovers and won every other match. They scored 50 or more points 15 times and even hit York Knights for 100.
And this term they have not let up. With a rebrand to the Leopards, a new buzz around the matchday entertainment and signings such as Zak Hardaker, Ricky Leutele, Gareth O’Brien and the permanent addition of Josh Charnley after his loan spell in ’22, Leigh have really taken the ball and run with it.
Wakefield Trinity’s regression was being cited as one of the main reasons why there was greater optimism around Leigh this time around, but they have been a million miles better than anyone could have imagined. At this stage it would be a surprise if there aren’t at least four teams separating the Leopards from Trinity come the end of the season, and the play-offs have to be regarded as a real possibility.
Of course, we are still less than halfway through the 2023 campaign. Perhaps Lachlan Lam’s form could dip. Maybe Charnley’s league-leading finishing – he tops the charts with 14 tries to date – begins to dry up. There might be a bit of fatigue that sets in for a squad which has 11 players aged 30 or over. But even if all that comes to pass, relegation is now the very last thing anybody can expect from Leigh Leopards.
So even for those who saw the bluster regarding Leigh’s new look and nights under the lights and thought it was an elaborate headline-grab, little more from a man who had tried exactly this kind of trick in the past, this is a very different club these days.
Leopards really can change their spots.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change