When Leeds trudged off the field after being humiliated by Championship Bradford in May last year, they could hardly have been further from Challenge Cup glory.
Richard Agar had been in caretaker charge of the Rhinos for a matter of days when they crashed to a 24-22 defeat, amid heading towards a relegation battle in Super League.
Fast forward 17 months, and having preserved their top flight status with Agar in permanent charge, Leeds have won a 14th Challenge Cup and are firmly in this year’s top four race.
Luke Gale’s 75th minute drop goal sealed a compelling final against a Salford team that played their full part, justifying the scrum-half’s capture from Castleford, the appointment of Agar and a host of other crunch decisions made in the corridors of Headingley.
Leeds were dumped out of last year’s Challenge Cup by local rivals Bradford
(Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
Prop Mikolaj Oledzki was one of eight survivors from that fateful afternoon at Odsal last year, and believes the Rhinos coach deserves the bulk of the credit for the club’s turnaround since.
“He’s been huge, absolutely huge,” Oledzki said of Agar. “What he’s done off the field with us has been amazing – he’s invested a lot of time in that.
“Building back that strong bond between players and creating that family atmosphere and a willingness to work for each other no matter what.
“I feel like since he’s come in we’ve gelled so much, and even when we’re not playing our best rugby and are a bit scrappy, like we were in some periods against Salford, that togetherness and brotherhood pulls us through.
Mikolaj Oledzki celebrates with the Challenge Cup
“What makes this special is how hard we’ve worked and it makes you reflect where we were last year, losing to Bradford. It was one of the worst losses I’ve experienced in my career. Then in a year’s time to come here and win the Challenge Cup is incredible, I can’t believe it.”
Oledzki’s own story, as the first Polish-born player to lift the old trophy, is remarkable enough. He learned quickly after the game that his granddad Stefan had been able to watch on a laptop back in Gdansk, witnessing the completion of an unlikely journey that started after his arrival in this country aged eight.
“As soon as I rang them I had tears in my eyes, I was just so happy,” he added. “For a kid from Poland coming over to England, this doesn’t seem real.”
The Rhinos celebrate their dramatic one point win over Salford at Wembley
(Image: Getty Images)
Oledzki’s side led 12-6 at half-time, with Tom Briscoe’s opening try cancelled out by a stunning response from Rhys Williams before Lance Todd Trophy winner Richie Myler helped create Ash Handley’s first score. The Red Devils then lifted again, and were 16-12 ahead after tries to James Greenwood and Pauli Pauli. But Handley scored a second following more good work from Myler, and Gale stepped forward with his decisive kick.
Oledzki was among several Rhinos players to pay tribute to club legend Rob Burrow, who was watching the game from his Yorkshire home as he continues his battle against motor neurone disease.
Two try-winger Handley also revealed his own personal motivation to mark the memory of his former academy team-mate James Brook.
Handley said: “This is for my family, and my dear friend who passed away. He was in the scholarship with me and died of cancer when we were 18, 19 – I do it for him and his family as well.”