Challenge Cup final: Luke Gale drop goal snatches glory for Leeds Rhinos at Wembley
Rhinos beat Salford 17-16 to secure trophy for first time since 2015 and 14th time in total
By Marc Bazeley at Wembley
Last Updated: 17/10/20 7:14pm
Luke Gale broke Salford Red Devils' hearts with a drop goal five minutes from time which earned Leeds Rhinos a 17-16 win and their first Challenge Cup final success for five years.
Tries from wingers Tom Briscoe and Ash Handley, both converted by Rhyse Martin, saw the Rhinos leading 12-6 at half-time, although Rhys Williams' spectacular long-range try had kept the Red Devils within touching distance.
Salford rallied after the break as Pauli Pauli and James Greenwood both crossed to put them ahead with an hour gone, but Handley's second drew Leeds level and Gale once again showed his coolness in a pressure situation to slot over the winning one-pointer.
Much as had been the case in their semi-final success against Wigan Warriors two weeks ago, some smart in-play kicking from half-back Gale allowed Leeds to slowly build pressure and gain territory early, and they got their reward in the 12th minute.
Robert Lui took them to within striking distance and the ball was then worked wide to the right for Konrad Hurrell to slip out a superb one-handed offload in the tackle for Briscoe, who replays showed managed to avoid brushing the touchline to dot down.
Salford hit back with a devastating piece of counter-attacking rugby seven minutes later though. Ex-Leeds man Kallum Watkins came up with a catch from a Gale kick close to his own line and then offloaded to set in motion a move which saw Welsh winger Williams race 90m to score.
Krisnan Inu's conversion brought the scores level, but Leeds retook the lead just minutes after James Donaldson had a try chalked off for a double movement.
A bullocking run from Adam Cuthbertson brought the Rhinos to within 10 metres of the try-line and this time they went left, moving the ball through several pairs of hands for Handley to continue his recent try-scoring form by going over in the corner.
That was enough to give the Yorkshire side a six-point lead at the break, but Salford hit back 14 minutes into the second half after Briscoe was deemed to have knocked on close to his own line while contesting a high ball with Kris Welham.
The Red Devils wasted little time from the restart, and it was the power and strength of forward Pauli Pauli which saw him break through the defence and score - although Inu's missed conversion meant they still trailed by two.
But on 60 minutes, they went in front after Lance Todd Trophy winner Richie Myler failed to deal with a high kick from Tui Lolohea and the ball was recovered by the Red Devils, with Joey Lussick sending Greenwood over for a converted try which gave them a four-point lead.
The match was now finely poised, and the tension rose as the minutes ticked by, with Gale going for a drop goal attempt from around 30 metres as the game entered the final 10 minutes which went wide of the mark.
Salford then saw a chance go begging when Watkins was sent racing clear by Niall Evalds and tried to find Williams, only for him to fumble the pass.
Then when try-scorer Pauli Pauli was deemed to have played the ball incorrectly around halfway, it allowed Leeds to get into position for Gale to slot the match-winning goal with five minutes to go and bring the trophy back to Headingley for the 14th time in the club's history.
Tweets of the match
To all those players who don’t get the scholarship they want, don’t make it into the academy, don’t make it into the first team look at this man leading his home town club out today at Wembley! Respect @snozzer_gale!Started @leedsrhinos left to grow! Returned to win #GoodLuckLuke pic.twitter.com/CiLP3ycbdQ— Jason Robinson OBE (@Jason15Robinson) October 17, 2020
Fair play @leedsrhinos 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 Gutted for @SalfordDevils Either way, woah, what a final? Quality stuff & no head needs to drop, you all did League proud, a shame fans couldn't be there. We have the best & can share a pint afterwards either way. My team absent but still proud x— Johnny Vegas (@JohnnyVegasReal) October 17, 2020
This was a Challenge Cup final like no other, with the match having to be played behind closed doors as a result of coronavirus restrictions, but both teams served up an enthralling contest which swung one way then the other and was in doubt until the dying minutes.
Overall though, it marked something of a resurrection for the Rhinos after a difficult past two years as they claimed this famous trophy for the first time since 2015. They will hope it serves them well for the rest of the season as they bid to secure a place in the Super League play-offs.
On a personal level, there is plenty for individuals with Leeds to celebrate. Luke Gale claimed his first major honour after long being one of this country's stand-out half-backs, Richard Agar emulated his father in guiding a team to a Challenge Cup success and Richie Myler further underlined how the move to full-back has revitalised him by being voted Lance Todd Trophy winner.
Even though he was on the losing team, Rhys Williams' try immediately went into the pantheon of great cup final tries, joining other memorable Wembley scores from the likes of Martin Offiah, Henderson Gill and Joel Tomkins.
From a Salford point of view, it was a case of what might have been as they fought back from a six-point deficit at half-time to lead with just under a quarter of an hour to go - only to see victory snatched away from then late on.
One particular bone of contention for them will be the decision by referee Liam Moore to pull up Pauli Pauli for an incorrect play-the-ball which allowed their opponents to work themselves into position to set up Gale - although head coach Ian Watson kept his counsel on that after the match.
There were other chances which went begging for them too, most notably try-scorer Williams being unable to gather the pass from Watkins which could well have seen him streaking away for a try to seal the game for the Red Devils.
That is now two finals in a row the club have reached against the odds and although this one was much closer than the Super League Grand Final defeat to St Helens last year, that will not lessen the pain for anyone associated with the Red Devils.