Published in Thirteen in 2005
by Gareth Hodgson
SHEFFIELD EAGLES 10
STONES BITTER CHAMPIONSHIP
27 MARCH 1994
Sit back and think of Sheffield Eagles against Wigan. I know what you’re thinking (Derren Brown’s not needed for this one – even Gavin Brown could read your minds); “Wembley 1998″… “Paul Broadbent lifting the Challenge Cup high above his head”… “Mark Aston pointing out the victory to the whole stadium”… “John Kear grinning at the self-belief he’d instilled in the side”… “Darren Turner lunging over from dummy-half”… “terrible head-ache the next day.” Well, forget that one for the time being, and think back to four years before the Eagles’ greatest day.
Season 1993/1994 was Sheffield’s tenth year as a professional club, and the fourth season in which the Eagles graced Rugby League’s top flight. The tenth season proved to be the Don Valley club’s most successful up until that point as the Eagles hit form towards the season’s end losing only two of the final twelve games, culminating in a highest ever top six finish. Within that run, Sheffield recorded a confident 18-6 defeat of St. Helens (who would finish behind the Eagles in eighth place) and a phenomenal 46-all draw at Headingley against eventual seventh placed Leeds but arguably the biggest win came against the side aiming for their fifth consecutive championship, Wigan.
Despite the good form of the Eagles, on 27th March 1994 5,465 people packed into the Don Valley stadium anticipating a Wigan backlash. The title-chasers had suffered an unexpected defeat away at Hull the previous week, and the Riversiders had not experienced back-to-back defeats for nearly three years. To stack the odds further in Wigan’s favour, they had never been defeated by the South Yorkshire club in their previous eight encounters.
The game itself proved to be fast-paced, incredibly tight, and dramatically tense. The home side’s intentions were apparent from the kick-off, as the Eagles forwards tore into their international-littered opposites. For twenty minutes Sheffield kept Wigan on the back-foot as the Eagles disciplined game-plan forced the Champions to drop-out on two occasions, and brought near four-pointers for both Powell and Jackson. With the Wigan defensive dam seeming close to breaking-point, their opportunistic class came to the fore as future Great Britain captain Andrew Farrell relieved the pressure with a stunning break down the left wing. Although eventually halted by Gamson and Powell, the young second rower quickly played the ball and the quick supporting Wigan backs combined to send Gary Connolly in at the corner for an unconverted score. Perhaps unexpectedly, the Eagles hit back with continued pressure in the face of which Wigan were forced into conceding two penalties which Aston slotted over. Botica missed a penalty for Wigan, but despite being 0/2 with the boot, slotted over a drop-goal to inch Wigan into a half-time 5-4 lead.
The second half opened up somewhat, as both sides showed fatigue from their first-half exertions. Both sides were making a lot more clean breaks, and the Eagles were first to capitalise. At the end of a strong set, Mark Aston sent a bomb out towards the Wigan right wing which Robinson collected comfortably. The Eagles kick-chase however was enthusiastic and full-back Gamson rocked Robinson with a hit which dislodged the ball from the wingers grasp. Livewire Aston had followed his initial kick and was on hand to touch down the loose ball and hand the lead to the home side. He converted to extend this lead, leaving Sheffield with a 10-5 score-line to protect. To their credit, the Eagles defended like titans as they battled and scrambled to keep the improving Wigan at bay, with Lee Jackson in particular producing tackle after tackle. Eventually the pressure began to tell and Wigan’s attack was forced into several uncharacteristic handling errors, as the Sheffield forwards stifled their efforts. The hooter sounded, and history was made. The expansion club had defeated the establishment for the first time, and coach Gary Hetherington declared the result to be the club’s best ever win.
Spurred on by the confidence from this result, Sheffield’s sixth-placed finish saw them qualify for the First Division Premiership for the first time, where they eventually fell 52-18 to Wigan at the semi-final stage. It would be over three years and Super League II until Sheffield again defeated Wigan, but undoubtedly memories of the 10-5 win would have given confidence to the likes of Aston, Carr, Broadbent and Stott as they lined up at Wembley for the second history-making defeat of Wigan.
Sheffield Eagles: Mark Gamson; Richard Picksley, Richard Price, David Fraisse, David Plange; Daryl Powell, Mark Aston; Paul Broadbent, Lee Jackson, Mick Cook, Paul Carr, Bruce McGuire, Anthony Farrell. Subs: Lynton Stott & Ian Hughes
Wigan: Paul Atcheson, Jason Robinson, Va’aiga Tuigamala, Gary Connolly, Martin Offiah; Frano Botica, Shaun Edwards; Neil Cowie, Martin Dermott, Andy Platt, Mick Cassidy, Andrew Farrell, Sam Panapa. Subs: Joe Lydon & Kelvin Skerrett