One of the fine Challenge Cup finals hung in the balance during the breathless last few moments as the ball fell into the hands of Luke Gale. From a right boot, which proved as steady as his nerve, he drove home the killer blow.
It was five minutes from the end and the ball bissected the posts. The Salford dream of victory was withering. The underdogs threw everything at fate in a last-gasp attempt to wrestle back the advantage, but they were spent and Leeds won this venerable competition for a 14th time, by a single point.
The emotion was written in the body language of the players at the end, Leeds full of spring as they cavorted about the lush, green pitch, just about deservedly victorious, while Salford were motionless on their haunches. Gale, a wide smile across his face, was trying to soak it all in. He was, after all, wearing the No 7 shirt, and he and all the Leeds heroes knew of the extra sentimentality that carried.
Leeds celebrate after winning the Challenge Cup at a near-deserted Wembley on Saturday
For the last person to sport the same jersey was Rob Burrow five years ago — a try-scorer that day they blitzed Hull KR 50-0 and Saturday’s guest of honour in absentia as he battles motor neurone disease at the age of 38.
He watched from home. A twice Cup winner, a legend of his club after 492 games, Burrow was the subject of a BBC documentary this week centring on his brave battle.
‘I hope I have made him proud,’ said Gale. ‘If I could do half what he has done at Leeds, I’d be happy. Just seeing his mindset in the programme the other day was inspirational.’
Trailing at half-time, Salford took the lead through two tries in six minutes. Pauli Pauli’s low centre of gravity and brute strength took him and over the line. Unstoppable. James Greenwood then touched down.
It was now Salford in control as Leeds struggled to keep up any consistency. With 15 minutes remaining, the pendulum began to swing again, to Leeds. Richie Myler, a star performer and winner of the Lance Todd Trophy, passed to Ash Handley to make it all-square.
A late drop-goal by captain Luke Gale saw Leeds fight back to beat Salford
The first half was nearly equally riveting as the conclusion. Leeds exerted a hold, Salford played with abandon. The first try fell to Leeds and Tom Briscoe’s twinkling feet.
Salford drew level thanks to Rhys Williams’ lungs, which took him most of Wembley’s acreage. It was a moment worthy of a crowd, but for the first time since this jamboree started in 1897 there wasn’t one.
Leeds went into the break 12-6 up after Handley strolled over.
Leeds coach Richard Agar said: ‘Our spirit got us through in the end.’
It sure did. But respect to Salford. They were gallant losers. Perhaps destiny was against them on this occasion, however hard they might try. As Agar said: ‘With what has gone on with Rob Burrow maybe this was written in the stars for Luke and for us.’
Winger Tom Briscoe broke a Wembley record with his seventh try in a Challenge Cup final