For Rugby League World’s Challenge Cup Final issue in 2009, I spoke to Gary Connolly who played in numerous finals for St Helens, Wigan and Leeds.
What are your memories of your first Challenge Cup final in which you played for St Helens against Wigan as a 17-year-old?
It was only my 12th or 13th game for St Helens so it was pretty daunting and I was even still classed as an amateur because the BARLA Under-18s were about to go on tour. There probably haven’t been too many amateurs who have played in Challenge Cup finals! It was an amazing feeling to be picked in the team by Alex Murphy but I had played in all the rounds leading up to the final so, despite my age, I’d have been disappointed not to be picked. I don’t remember too much about the game and only saw it for the first time a couple of years ago in a bar in Wigan. I remember knocking on in the first minute from a long, downtown Wigan kick then I was one of about five players who couldn’t tackle Ellery [Hanley] as he scored his try.
You were back at Wembley with Saints two years later.
I was on the bench that time. I’d been injured and had to prove my fitness a week before the final and when I heard I’d done enough it was a great feeling. In the end I played most of the game because Phil Veivers went off injured after about ten minutes. We may have pushed Wigan a lot closer than in 1989 but they had a lot of injuries and it’s a game that we should have won.
By the time you were next in the final, you were a Wigan player. Do you still get the Judas stuff from Saints fans today?
Yes! I was at the JJB the other week for the game against Saints. I got there a couple of hours before kick off, hardly anyone around but as I walked past some Saints fans, they waited until I’d gone past and started shouting all that stuff. It doesn’t bother me but the truth didn’t come out at the time. St Helens sold me. It wasn’t my choice to leave them and join Wigan. I was playing with the Bulldogs in Australia in 1993 and my manager called to say he’d been told I’d been sold. At the time I couldn’t come out and put the record straight because it might have sounded like I didn’t want to play for Wigan. Because I knew I wasn’t at fault, I totally underestimated the strength of the feeling among the St Helens’ fans. My dad used to organise a bus from the local pub to Saints’ games and when I left the club I went along on it one day. Word got round the ground that I was in the stadium and that’s when all the Judas stuff began! I remember when I first turned up at Wigan, Andy Platt came to thank me because it would take all the heat off him because he’d made the same move. Likewise when Brett Goldspink joined us from Saints in 1999 I thought the same thing might happen but, no, I was still the Judas when we went to Knowsley Road!
What do you remember of the two Wigan v Leeds finals in the mid-’90s?
Martin’s try obviously sticks out from the first final and from a personal point of view it was great to win a Challenge Cup at Wembley after losing my first two finals with Saints. 1995 was more one sided but I had it tough that afternoon, having to mark Kevin Iro.
Were Wigan too blasé in your next final, against Sheffield?
You can’t take anything away from Sheffield and what they achieved that day but we were over confident. After 10 or 15 minutes it was obvious to us that things weren’t going well. We were putting the ball down at crucial times and it just wasn’t our day.
Your next final came four years later when, for once, Wigan were the underdogs in a final. How close were you to playing fullback instead of Kris Radlinski?
The day before the game Kris told me he wasn’t playing and that I’d be at fullback which I wasn’t looking forward to because I hadn’t played there for so long. Then, having accepted that’s what was going to happen, I saw him on the day of the game trying on his boots! He declared himself fit even with a hole in his foot and had to play with one boot a size bigger than the other. But what a game he had! He saved us a few times that day and played incredibly considering the injury. As for me, I scored my first Cup Final try which was satisfying and to get a win over Saints was fantastic. They were favourites and rightly so and that day goes down as one of the most memorable of my career.
The following year, as a Leeds player, you won the Lance Todd but collected the award in tears.
The reason I was upset was because we were the better team and should have won. In the other finals I’d lost we could have no complaints with the defeat but in 2003 against Bradford was different. I was pleased to win the Lance Todd, of course, but as I went to pick it up all the Bulls players were by the stage absolutely jubilant, their fans were all singing whereas we were in tatters. That didn’t make it easy and I just couldn’t manage to look happy! It was the first time the Lance Todd had been presented like that too. But it was a great final, one of the best in modern time and with the roof shut the noise was incredible. The Millennium Stadium is the best I ever played in.