Like most young rugby league fans, Luke Gale dreamed of one day leading his boyhood team out onto the field in a huge game. In 2020, Gale achieved that dream but less than two years later he finds his stint with his home town team over after just 29 appearances in the blue and amber. So, as he moves onto pastures new with Hull FC, we’re answering the question: was he a success at Leeds?
Luke Gale started his career at Leeds. Granted in his first stint at Headingley he never forced his way into the first team due to the presence of Danny McGuire, Kevin Sinfield and Rob Burrow, he did however achieve his lifelong dream of running out at Headingley in a Leeds shirt when he featured in the 2007 Festive Challenge against Wakefield as Leeds prepared for the defence of their Super League crown. Twelve years later, Gale again strode out onto the pitch at Headingley on Boxing Day having returned to the club he dreamed of playing for as a kid.
Gale certainly went the long way round, learning his trade at Doncaster before making the dive to Super League with Harlequins, enduring the financial strife at Bradford before catching lightning in a bottle at Castleford.
People immediately jump to his 2017 season but in truth he was also excellent in 2015 and 2016 being named in the Dream Team in both seasons for underpinning one of the league’s best attacks before claiming the Man of Steel in 2017 after a career best season as the Tigers finished top.
That year also saw the Leeds academy product play in a first Grand Final as well as the World Cup Final as his career peaked but injuries in 2018 would begin to derail his form before his 2019 season ended before it had even begun due to injury.
Castleford fans waited expectantly for him to return in 2020 only for Leeds to swoop in and buy him out of his contract in a deal which was set to see Gale remain with the Rhinos until the end of 2022. That’s no longer the case now that Hull FC have brought him in as the replacement for Marc Sneyd whilst Leeds put their faith in new recruits Aidan Sezer and Blake Austin. But his sudden departure undoubtedly prompts the question at the heart of this piece.
His signing was considered a gamble at the time. When he ran out onto the field for the aforementioned Boxing Day friendly, he hadn’t played since the Tigers lost the 2018 Super League semi-final to eventual Champions Wigan in a disappointing 14-0 defeat.
Tasked with being the halfback Leeds had waited for since the departure of Danny McGuire in 2017, the pressure was high and few believed he’d be able to remain fit long enough to help Leeds turn the corner after two seasons fraught with relegation worries.
He’d ultimately prove them wrong. Despite a disappointing start against the club he’s set to join two years later in the shape of Hull FC, Gale began to show glimpses of his 2017 form guiding Leeds to four consecutive wins with a try against Salford and a brace against Toronto having also conjured up one of the best and most audacious assists of the season only for it to eventually count for nothing when the Wolfpack pulled out of the competition five months later due to financial issues worsened by the pandemic which had stopped the high-flying Leeds in their tracks along with the rest of Super League.
When the competition returned on August 2nd, Gale, now captain due to the issues faced by Stevie Ward following a nasty concussion, still looked sharp. His try helped spark the comeback win over Huddersfield that day and his boot would seal it when he nailed a golden point drop goal. He went on to produce similar heroics to beat the Giants again later that season.
Leeds ultimately finished fifth – their highest finish for three years – and despite a solid play-off performance from the number seven, Leeds were knocked out in the opening week of the play-offs by Catalans.
Expectations were high going into 2021 but things got off to a bad start when a pectoral injury threatened to deny him a place in Leeds’ opening day fixture against Wakefield. He overcame that injury but missed out on the majority of pre-season. However, two games later he again picked up another injury, this time to his hand, and Leeds lost all four games he missed before he returned in time to help Leeds beat Wakefield for the second time.
From their Gale endured an up and down season as more injuries and the odd suspension denied him any sort of form. A falling out with coach Richard Agar didn’t help matters but the word from the camp and from Gale himself was that he was fully committed to the cause and showed it on the field with a few glimpses of quality namely his assist for Brad Dwyer’s try against Warrington.
Leeds were set for a big end of season push when Gale and halfback partner Rob Lui were both fit and available at the same time for the first time all season when the Rhinos took on Leigh. Twelve minutes into the game however Gale went off injured and his season was over as was his Leeds career even if he didn’t know it at the time.
Now, you’re most likely thinking I’ve made a glaring error omitting Leeds’ Challenge Cup success from this analysis, but I’ve left that till last for good reason. Ultimately, this Wembley triumph is the main reason, among others, Gale simply has to be regarded as a success at Leeds even if his return was brief and at times hampered by injury.
Without Gale, Leeds don’t win the Challenge Cup in 2020, it’s as simple as that. He was exceptional in the semi-final win over Wigan as he produced the best performance of his career that day and the best halfback performance of the season from any player. He kicked the Warriors to depth nailing a crucial 40/20 as Leeds eased to Wembley.
Then in the final, Gale was key to Ash Handley’s two tries and nailed the winning drop goal before lifting the trophy as captain. Trophies are the currency of success in sport and that’s no different in rugby league. In the last three years, only three teams have been able to win a major final such is the dominance of St Helens, making this triumph all the more impressive.
It was key for the development of Leeds as well. 2020 was one of the most important years in Leeds’ history. They were a club in the wilderness going into that season after torrid campaigns in 2018 and 2019, and 2020 got them back on track. The added addition of a Challenge Cup gave new life to the club as well as vital experience and confidence to the playing roster as the host of young players in that squad look to develop into the new golden generation.
Moreover, the longer a club goes between winning major trophies, the harder it becomes to win them. That success ensures Leeds are the second most recent team to win a final and kept them from facing down a worryingly long wait between major honours. Without this success, Leeds would go into 2022 having not won a trophy in five years which would no doubt have damaged the club’s DNA.
Gale helped foster a more competitive attitude in the Rhinos squad as well which enabled them to win that final and go onto the Super League semi-finals in his absence last year, a feat they would not have accomplished with the same players two years prior.
He may be on his way out but he leaves a lasting impression one he can be proud of as a Leeds fan himself. He helped win their latest major honour, got them headed in the right direction once more and played a hand in the development of the young players currently at the club who are now set to be the future of the Rhinos.