Eighteen months ago Leigh were staring at an uncertain season in the Championship, with no head coach and only half a dozen players on their books.
For a couple of champagne-drenched hours at Wembley on Saturday afternoon, the Leopards were in rugby league heaven.
The most dramatic finish in the Betfred Challenge Cup’s 127-year history had seen the first ever golden point drop goal decider, kicked by Leigh scrum-half Lachlan Lam to see off Hull Kingston Rovers 17-16.
Lam's father Adrian, the Leigh head coach, watched in pride as his son took the prestigious Lance Todd Trophy for player of the match, flanked by eccentric millionaire owner Derek Beaumont in a fitted leopard-print suit scarred by the blood, sweat and tears of his impulsive final-hooter celebrations.
For the next two hours the rugby league team from the tiny town of Leigh held both the iconic Challenge Cup and the 1895 Cup, won by the pick of the sides outside of the Betfred Super League.
Such has been the extraordinary rise to prominence of the Leopards that 12 months after pipping Featherstone Rovers to win the lower league cup competition, sponsored by big-spending Beaumont’s own company AB Sundecks, they had already gone on to claim the sport’s most prestigious prize.
Featherstone felt they’d let one slip on that sunny afternoon last summer in Tottenham. It turns out they were just collateral damage in Leigh’s remarkable rise to the top. So where has this extraordinary success story come from and where does it go next?
“This is a magic moment for the club but we feel there is so much more to come,” says coach Lam, who was brought in ahead of the 2022 campaign. So far he has delivered promotion to the Betfred Super League, a current top-four spot in the top flight and now the club’s first Challenge Cup success since the heroics of Alex Murphy in 1971.
The man behind Lam’s appointment was Chris Chester, a former back-row forward of great pedigree for both Hull clubs, finding his way to Leigh via a difficult spell as Wakefield Trinity head coach. Chester appointed Lam, the pair set about rebuilding a depleted squad, and after a slow start to the 2022 Championship season they ended up powering past Featherstone to gain promotion.
Many onlookers still predicted an immediate relegation, with the overseas-heavy squad requiring further tweaks to tick Super League’s boxes. Then came the rebrand, the ditching of the historic Centurions logo to a Leopards brand that first appeared a comedic hoax.
Its unveiling coincided with a new squad announcement that felt more like a Fantasy Football team reveal. Nine new players were paraded as the new-look Leigh Leopards displayed an immediate mix of raw talent, last chance saloons and - by Lam’s own admission - players on Super League’s scrap heap.
“Some of the players we’ve recruited were down and out,” Lam admits. “The way that the group has come together has been incredible and I’m just grateful that everyone has been rewarded for their hard work."
Of the players brought in - and by the start of this season there was an entire team’s worth of 13 new faces - all had points to prove.
Former Man Of Steel Zak Hardaker could have been forgiven for thinking he was joining a noisy new party rather than the start of an unexpected chapter of limelight in his own headline-filled career.
Oli Holmes escaped the madness of Warrington Wolves, as did top try-scorer Josh Charnley, who admits he was ready to give up rugby completely before the Leigh lifeline.
“I was going to quit last year, I’d had enough,” he says. “But I’ve found the love for the sport again.”
Powerful prop Robbie Mulhern was another Warrington cast-off, revitalised in a pack led by the best hooker in the league in Edwin Ipape. It is extraordinary to think that the Papua New Guinea international had never played more than Queensland Cup rugby before flying to the UK.
But talk to any of the Leigh players or staff and they will discuss team unity, bond and the tightness of their unit. The team you see on the pitch is one that fights for each other, and that comes from the very top in Beaumont, whether his detractors care to admit it or not. Sure, his win bonuses and cash-splashing have found an effective way to get the best out of players who will never attain his own riches. But the methods work, and nobody is forcing Beaumont to put his money where his mouth is.
As for the rebrand, Wembley was awash with leopard-print on Saturday. Suits, shorts, hot pants, cowboy hats. Beaumont’s own leopard-print suit had already been beamed into millions of livings rooms via the BBC Breakfast sofa during the week. His leopard-print Lamborghini stayed in the garage during the trip to Wembley.
The rebrand is working better than anyone could have anticipated, but it works because the team is winning. Nobody would be investing in an attention-grabbing brand that is being regularly humiliated. That is Beaumont’s gamble that is paying off.
It hasn’t all been plain-sailing. Controversy surrounding John Asiata’s dangerous tackling technique has cast an unwelcome shadow over the last couple of months.
And once the Wembley hangovers have eased, this is now crunch time for Leigh to show their genuine credentials. A top-four place looks secure ahead of the Betfred Super League play-offs, but can the Leopards genuinely challenge St Helens, Wigan Warriors and title favourites Catalans Dragons for Grand Final glory under the Old Trafford lights?
Beaumont believes so.
“This was a dream and we pulled it off,” he says. “I don’t think it’ll be 50 years until we make this final again. We paid the cup a lot of respect but I think we can do more.”
It is back to reality with a thump this Saturday when Leigh welcome table-toppers Catalans.