Leeds Rhinos nostalgia - Challenge Cup final agony for ex-St Helens and Wigan Warriors star

Since the Lance Todd Trophy was first awarded in 1946, only 10 players from the beaten Challenge Cup finalists have won it.

By Peter Smith
Sunday, 21st June 2020, 4:09 pm

The last two of those, Gary Connolly in 2003 and Kevin Sinfield two years later, were Leeds Rhinos players.

Connolly, who celebrates his 49th birthday on Monday, June 22, was voted the outstanding player of Leeds’ agonising 22-20 loss to Bradford Bulls at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

The full-back was desperately unlucky to finish on the defeated team, having played a big role as Leeds clawed their way back into the contest after going 6-0 down early on.

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The Lance Todd Trophy was scant consolation for Gary Connolly in 2003. Picture by Steve Riding.

He scored their opening try and was in the thick of the action in the second half when Leeds just failed to pull back a 22-14 deficit.

Of the 25 votes cast by the rugby league media, Connolly received 12, one more than Bulls try scorer - and future Leeds legend - Jamie Peacock.

That year’s was the first Challenge Cup final staged in Cardiff, during rebuilding work at Wembley.

Connolly was handed his trophy on the pitch between the final whistle and the Cup presentation - to his obvious despair.

Kevin Sinfield at the end of the 2005 Challenge Cup final. Picture by Steve Riding.

It was the former centre’s seventh Challenge Cup final. He lost two with St Helens - the first in 1989 when he was aged just 17 - and had four wins as a Wigan player following a £250,000 transfer between the arch-rivals in 1993.

Fast, brave and an outstanding defender, Connolly was a key player for Wigan during their dominance of the early 1990s.

He was capped 31 times by Great Britain and signed for Leeds on Boxing Day, 2002.

He had announced his retirement a month earlier and planned to wind down by playing rugby union for Wigan-based Orrell, but his impressive form for Great Britain in a Test series against New Zealand convinced Leeds to make him an offer.

Wakefield Trinity's Don Fox, centre, was man of the match when Leeds won the Cup in 1968.

He penned a two-year contract to add much-needed experience to coach Daryl Powell’s young squad and went on to score eight tries in 33 appearances.

Connolly was a mainstay of Leeds’ lineup during his first season at the club, when he was named in the Super League Dream Team.

But with homegrown youngster Richie Mathers having emerged as new coach Tony Smith’s first choice full-back, Connolly played only three times in 2004. His final appearance before returning to Wigan was a Challenge Cup defeat at St Helens.

He played for Wigan 17 times that year and finished his career with a season at Widnes Vikings in 2006.

Sinfield won his Lance Todd in similar disappointing circumstances when Leeds were pipped 25-24 by Hull at the same ground.

A clear winner of the vote, he created two tries and kicked four goals.

Leeds have twice won the Challenge Cup without taking the Lance Todd Trophy.

In 1968 Wakefield Trinity’s Don Fox was man of the match in the famous Watersplash final, which Leeds won by a point after his last-gasp missed conversion. Ten years later Leeds hit back to win 14-12, but the man of the match vote went to St Helens’ George Nicholls.

In 1982 the Lance Todd Trophy went to Widnes’ Eddie Cunnigham following a 14-14 draw with Hull. Cunningham, who joined the Chemics after a short spell with Leeds, was on the beaten side in the replay 18 days later, at Elland Road.

Other players to have collected the Lance Todd award and a Cup loser’s medal in the same season are Bradford Northern’s Frank Whitcombe against Wigan in 1948; Tommy Harris for Hull against Wakefield Trinity in 1960; Hunslet’s Brian Gabbitas - who shared the award with Ray Ashby of Wigan - five years later; Wakefield Trinity’s David Topliss against Widnes in 1979 and Robbie Paul, of Bradford Bulls when they lost to St Helens in 1996.

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