4 Nov 2021

Season Review: Leigh Centurions

Battling Centurions

In a difficult campaign for the Centurions, however several players emerged with credit and showed their quality.

Thirty-five minutes into their Betfred Super League opening game with local rivals Wigan, Leigh Centurions looked every bit at home at the sport’s top table.

Tries from Liam Hood, Iain Thornley and Ben Hellewell had John Duffy’s newly-promoted side 18-0 up against the previous year’s Grand Finalists, and extensive predictions about the Centurions’ dismal 2021 prospects seemed wide of the mark.

Unfortunately for Leigh, that was as good as it got - not just on that night, but pretty much in 2021 overall. Zak Hardaker scored one try and made another as the Warriors battled back to win 20-18 - and the Centurions never really recovered from what could have been a major opening night high.

Haggerty took charge of the team following John Duffy's departure

“We should have seen out the game,” coach Duffy reflected immediately afterwards. “It was a great effort but not smart enough - we should have built more pressure in the second half when we had the ball.

“We ended up getting burned by a champion team. But I am really proud of the players and their efforts. We've just got to learn from it and move on - these games will come quick and fast. We can get better and we will.”

The Centurions had their moments without doubt, both before and after Duffy left his post in early June. They pushed both St Helens and Wigan close on their own ground before Duffy departed, admitting that he was “gutted” while accepting that the club probably need a change.

“We have not got the results we needed and now it is time for someone else to step in and hopefully get the first win and then some more,” Duffy said.

He was succeeded by his assistant Kurt Haggerty, who oversaw a narrow defeat at Wakefield in his first game in charge, before taking table-topping Catalans to the wire the following weekend. Had either match resulted in a Leigh win, perhaps their season could have played out differently.

Ryan Brierley was probably Leigh's stand out performer in 2021

Instead, they slipped to heavy consecutive defeats to Hull FC, Warrington, Leeds and Wigan, underlining just how tough a competition Super League can be. Another spirited display at home to Hull KR in front of the TV cameras fell just short, and after a second one-sided loss to the Rhinos, Haggerty finally had his first win in a gutsy triumph over Salford at home.

“I’m really pleased for the lads, they work really hard through adversity every week and I thought we were comfortable winners,” Haggerty said after the game.

“In the second half we've been known for falling away from games but we’ve been getting better for weeks. I believe in everything the players are doing and we’ve been rewarded.”

But despite the win, relegation was all but mathematically certain by that stage, and any lingering hopes of a great escape ended with one-sided losses to St Helens, Catalans and Hull KR.

The latter attracted public criticism from owner Derek Beaumont, but Haggerty’s team at least gave their loyal supporters something else to cheer with a stirring home win over Wakefield, Ryan Brierley becoming the second leading try scorer in the club’s history in the process, going above club legend John Woods.

“I’m greatly honoured to be even mentioned in the same breath as John Woods, and this record means a great deal to me and my family,” Brierley said. “I’ve played my best rugby at Leigh and the club means a lot to me.”

Brierley was undoubtedly among the Centurions’ leading lights throughout, when he wasn’t recovering from an horrific facial injury sustained at Leeds in July. He needed his eyelid stitching together after catching a stray boot trying to stop Rhinos prop Tom Holroyd as he scored.

Scrum-half Joe Mellor really stepped up in the second half of the season, consistently taking opposition lines on, while James Bell impressed as a ball playing loose forward after arriving from Toulouse, and Adam Sidlow did his best to lead from the front.

Hooker Liam Hood was another to maintain his efforts throughout the campaign, while Keenan Brand - on a season-long loan from Warrington - grew into the new role of full-back during the period that Brierley was absent for.

Ultimately though, the Centurions’ dreams of competing and staying in Super League were not realised. They were always up against it given the late nature of their promotion and reduced central funding, and an inability to turn those narrow defeats against strong teams early in the season into wins left them with too much ground to make up on their rivals in the lower reaches of the table.

Star man - Ryan Brierley 

Brierley was a constant threat to opposition defences throughout the year. He started primarily at full-back having converted from the scrum-half position he occupied for much of his first successful spell with the Centurions, and was regularly his side’s most dangerous player. His combination of electric pace and intelligent support play saw him continue the try scoring that has been a feature of his entire career, and took him to second on the club’s all-time list ahead of Leigh legend John Woods. It’s not difficult to see why Brierley remains such a popular figure with Centurions supporters, even though he will wear Salford’s colours next season.

Season highlight - Round 1 versus Wigan Warriors 

It has to be that first 35 minutes of the opening game against local rivals Wigan. During that period, Centurions fans could dare to dream that their hastily assembled Super League squad could potentially stand toe-to-toe with the biggest names in the competition in 2021. With Liam Hood influential at hooker, Ryan Brierley dangerous from the back and Iain Thornley providing a genuine threat out wide, Leigh looked an exciting team to watch. Even at full-time there would have been hope for the campaign ahead, but unfortunately for the Centurions faithful their survival hopes dwindled by the week from that point.

Rising star - Keenan Brand

This was undoubtedly a breakout year for Keenan Brand. The former Widnes Vikings academy product joined the Centurions on a season long loan from Warrington Wolves and was expected to spend the season at centre or on the wing, which is where he started. But Brand added another string to his bow during Ryan Brierley’s mid-season absence through injury, switching to full-back and becoming one of the Centurions’ most consistent players. Brave with and without the ball, his career should benefit significantly from his experiences with Leigh in 2021.