Following their relegation from Super League, Leigh Centurions were installed as one of the hot favourites to return immediately from the Championship. Indeed, they had recruited well with the likes of Papua New Guinea RLWC hooker Kurt Baptiste, Warrington’s Rhys Evans and former St Illawarra Dragons half back Drew Hutchinson joining the club, arguably leaving the squad in a better place than their last promotion campaign in 2016.
However, this season has started in almost the worst possible manner: a 34-12 hammering to a Toronto team full of Centurions past managed by their former coach Paul Rowley, defeat away to newly promoted Barrow and a home loss to Toulouse saw the club fall to three defeats in their first four matches. The last of the three saw the French outfit triumph despite trailing 20-6 early in the second half coupled with a first half red card for visiting forward Eddy Pettybourne. A shocking end to the match saw Toulouse cross for three tries in the last eight minutes and it proved the last straw for head coach Neil Jukes who, following the match, resigned from his role.
Following his appointment to the role in 2016, former Leigh player Jukes took the team into Super League at the first time of asking and, despite a superb 50-34 win over local rivals Wigan Warriors last season, the club fell out of the top tier following defeat in the controversial Million Pound Game to Catalans Dragons. Jukes outlined his belief that he had served the club with distinction following his return to the club a decade ago and, being a local, didn’t surprise anybody when he said that “no one will be more pleased than me if we achieve our Super League goal this year.” Owner Derek Beaumont spoke of his admiration for the former player and explained that Jukes was keen to let him know that he didn’t feel able to get the club back to Super League before Beaumont “got in the position to have to sack him.”
It now sees Kieron Purtill step into the breach as caretaker coach with Paul Anderson assisting him while the club search for a new head coach and, with former St Helens player and coach Kieron Cunningham in a head of rugby role currently, the ex-hooker is understandably one of the names being strongly linked with the role.
Whoever steps up to the plate will now also be able to call on the services of veteran hooker and club legend Micky Higham following his decision to reverse his retirement. After injuries to both Baptiste and Daniel Mortimer, Leigh were short of a first choice experienced hooker to compliment Liam Hood and Higham answered the call, signing a playing deal until the end of the season. Beaumont explained that, in reference to his return, he “thought it was just the tonic this Club needs at the moment.” Futhermore, he added that, as Higham was contemplating playing on for a season before retiring, he himself encouraged the former Super League hooker to sit tight and that “if he was destined to play something would happen to bring that round.”
That something has, indeed, come around and the Leigh faithful will be hoping that he is able to inspire the club to better form as they seek to climb up from their current spot of 9th in the Betfred Championship table.