Andrew Farrar

Andrew Farrar spoke to me about his State of Origin career for Thirteen in 2005

Andrew Farrar was an excellent, tough defensive centre who signed for Canterbury as a 17-year-old in 1979. He was an influential member of the side that halted Parramatta’s grip on the Winfield Cup with Grand Final successes in 1984 and 1985. He was a significant reason why Parramatta’s backs were often nullified by Canterbury in this period not just marking Steve Ella but also facing up to some of the rugby league’s finest attacking three-quarters in Steve Rogers, Mal Meninga, Andrew Ettingshausen and Michael O’Connor.
It was Farrar’s boot that decided the 1985 Grand Final as he plundered the drop goal in the 7-6 win over St George at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Another typically strong performance from him helped his club to the 1988 Winfield Cup with a 25-12 over Balmain Tigers, the first final at the Sydney Football stadium.
That year he also won the World Cup as Australia beat New Zealand in the final.
Underused in Origin, Farrar represented his state on seven occasions, scoring three tries. Two of them came in the 1986 whitewash.

 
Andrew, what are your memories of your 1984 Origin debut?
I remember that well because from the kick off there was an enormous brawl! (above). Chris Close was giving it to Ray Price so I certainly remember it. It was very intense which bought about an elevation in the pace. The toughness of the defence also stood out.

What about the general opinion that Queensland wanted it more? Do you think the Sydney media were just trying to belittle their achievements?
It’s right in saying that particularly in the early years. The extra passion probably came about because they felt hard done by with the Interstate series where they had to face up to Queenslanders playing for New South Wales.

You scored three tries in your next two series in 1986 and 1987. What do you remember about those years?
I was playing on the wing and they were enjoyable times. We won the series in 1986 and there were very good players like Brett Kenny in the side. I also remember being the only Blue to miss out on the Kangaroo tour later that year!

What Origin tries still stick in your mind?
There’s one from my debut at the Sydney Cricket ground when Wally chipped and hit the crossbar and although the game was played in a complete bog Dowling managed to catch it and score.

Who do you think are the best players from the 25 years of State of Origin?
For Queensland you can’t look past Wally. He epitomised what it was all about and other great players were Gene Miles and Alfie Langer but The King stands out as the star performer in State of Origin. For New South Wales there’s Brett Kenny and, in later years, I would say Brad Fittler.

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Parramatta in the 1980s

Published in Thirteen in 2005

by Jason Emery & Bryce Euelnstein

 
Prestige, Glamour and Might

….by Jason Emery who played for the Eels in under 23s Grand Finals in 1984 and 1985 and then in the 1986 reserve grade Grand Final against Penrith Panthers, who he later represented.

All three of the above words can describe what it was really like at Parramatta back in the 1980’s. From the battlers of the sixties and early seventies it all came together for the Western Sydney club when they appointed Jack Gibson as coach in 1981. Big Jack, as he was known, had a unique way of communication which was legendary in itself and he managed to strike a chord with the incredible new wave of young talent which was about to take the rugby league world by storm.

Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Steve Ella and Eric Grothe went on to become superstars of the game and they, along with the experienced Ray Price and Mick Cronin, formed a combination which revolutionised the game. They played an attacking style of rugby league which had never been seen before. With sublime skills and a desire to attack from deep, Parramatta became the team that everyone wanted to watch and be a part of.

Parramatta had always had a very large and fanatical fan base but with the success and the style of football which they were playing in the eighties, that support continued to go from strength to strength and massive crowds turned up every week.

As the momentum built from the success and with superheroes at their peak, the Eels were rewarded with a magnificent stadium in 1986. Parramatta was the place to be. In fact, Parramatta in the eighties was the biggest success story of any sporting club in Australia.

Players would take less money to stay at the club; sometimes a lot less than they were being offered elsewhere such was the feeling of just being at the club and accepting the adulation of the adoring fans.

After home games the players would head back to the Parramatta Leagues Club for dinner and awards from the days games. The fans would get up close to the players who were treated like gods. It was non-stop autograph signings and picture taking for the fans.

Big crowds even turned up for training and the Eels were always in the media. If Sterling had a haircut then you could bet it would be on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the next day. A player once told me as we were jogging onto the playing field for a pre-match warm up that even just walking past the fans in the Blue and Gold shirt was the greatest feeling he ever had and it was what he lived for.

Back in the ‘eighties, Parramatta used to get over 10,000 crowds for the third-grade (under-23) games which were the lead up games to reserve-grade and first-grade so the supporters had immense knowledge of each and every individual throughout the club. It wasn’t unusual for fans to have players’ names on their shirts from the lower grades.

With four Premiership victories and a host of star players who have gone on to be legends, the 1980s will always be remembered as the era of one of the greatest sporting teams ever; the mighty Parramatta Eels.

 

 
The Cumberland Oval Fire

…by Bryce Eulenstein, a lifelong supporter.

When a club wins its first premiership, it usually sparks scenes of wild celebration, fuelled by euphoria, relief and sometimes alcohol. Rarely, however, do they reach the heights that the celebrations in Parramatta did on the night of 27th September 1981; the night they burned down Cumberland Oval.

Originally designed for suburban cricket in the late 1800’s, Cumberland’s grassed hill, wooden plank seating and small, antiquated grandstand could never cope with the 20,000 crowds that would cram in to see the Eels in the late 1970’s. Since 1975 they had been on the verge of that elusive premiership, and crowds had swelled accordingly. On matchday, patrons seeking a seat would need to arrive mid-morning, hours before the 3pm kick off. While facilities at other suburban grounds, such as Brookvale, Belmore and Leichhardt ovals improved with the times, Cumberland didn’t.

So, when the people of Parramatta finally got their champion team in the 1981 Grand Final, it didn’t take long for them to decide that they deserved a champion’s home ground as well. Some minor discussion in the press about the possibility of upgrading Cumberland was the only seed that was needed.

I was at the Sydney Cricket Ground for the Grand Final – a day I’ll never forget – with some mates from school. As the SCG erupted in a massive cheer at fulltime, we decided to hightail it back to Parramatta. So we piled into my mate Wazza’s blue-and-gold decorated Austin, and off we went. Arriving at the Leagues Club, we noticed some commotion at the Oval, and a small plume of smoke developing above the grandstand. Leaving the Austin, we wandered over and walked into history.

There were groups of people in various parts of the ground who were quite simply going berserk. The old seats around the oval were being ripped up. The fences were pushed down, the fittings removed from the dressing rooms and the walls smashed. Water sprayed out from broken pipes, and whatever could be found was either looted or destroyed. People were using the timber from the seats and fences to start fires, some of which ignited parts of the grandstand. Amidst these scenes, people simply sat quietly in the grandstand and reflected upon the moment.

My most vivid memory was the destruction of the scoreboard. Set on a ten-foot brick base, the scoreboard was of fibro construction. A group of youths were plundering the scoreboard like a gang of Mongol hoards in a fit of rage. Beneath them another enraged gang decided to pile timber up against the brick pedestal and set fire to it. The gang on the top continued their raging destruction. Then, one by one, they stopped, looked at each other, and said “Oh shit!” as the flames started licking at their shoes. Suddenly the shouts of fury turned into meek cries for help. They eventually escaped harm, which is more than can be said for the scoreboard.

The destruction of Cumberland Oval was complete and much to the joy of Eels fans everywhere, it had to be completely rebuilt. However, instead of a quick start to the new stadium, a legal wrangle broke out between the pro stadium lobby and the ‘Friends of Parramatta Park’, who claimed that the size of the stadium would impinge upon the aesthetics of the park. While the dispute dragged on, the Eels trained at Granville Park, and played at Belmore Sports Ground. Eventually, after four long seasons away, the Eels returned home to the new Parramatta Stadium in 1986.

In the long lean seasons since those days, we have seen other clubs, such as Penrith, Canberra, Brisbane, Newcastle and Melbourne break their premiership ducks. Each clubs’ fans have celebrated in their own way I guess, but it has to be said, that no club celebrates a premiership win quite like Parramatta!

 
Cronin’s Final Year
1986 was a year of frustration for Mick Cronin. It all started in a pre-season trial and a tackle involving teammate Mark Laurie. In the tackle, Laurie’s finger accidentally poked Cronin in the eye and the champion goal kicker suffered a detached retina which consigned him to the sideline for four months!

Coach John Monie decided against rushing ‘The Crow’ back, giving him plenty of time to test his vision. He came back in Round 10 (making his reserve grade debut after 10 seasons at the club!). In that match, however, he broke his ribs and was out of action until the Major Semi final. That game became the first full first grade game that he played in a year, and with great relief, it seemed that the year when everything went wrong was behind him. But a bizarre incident was just around the corner that would almost end in disaster.

 

Cronin hailed from the small south coast town of Gerringong, where his family owned the local pub. When he signed with Parramatta in 1977, he decided against moving so he could stay and help run the business. That meant a two hour one-way trip to Parramatta for every training session, team meeting or game. In ten seasons, he was never late and never missed a session. So the Eels’ dressing room was certainly in a panic half an hour before kick off for the 1986 Grand Final when their star goal kicker hadn’t arrived!

Mick Cronin was stuck in traffic. A six car pile up on the notoriously foggy F6 freeway had brought traffic to a standstill and ‘The Crow’ was stuck in the middle of it. Cronin was never one for melodrama, however, and he did the only thing he could do. He pulled his car off the road, walked to the crash site, and politely asked a policeman if there was any way he could get to Sydney in a hurry. The policeman freaked when he saw Australian Rugby League’s greatest ever point scorer standing there on grand final day no less! With some urgency, he organised a police car to get him to the Sydney Cricket Ground. Bypassing the crash scene, and tearing up the F6 with sirens wailing, was how Cronin prepared for the match. He arrived half an hour before kick off!

And the rest is history. It was Cronin’s two penalty goals that won the final and the last was one of the most memorable in living memory. Not only did it provide the match winning points but it set the record for the most points ever scored in first grade (1971), and was the first time anyone had broken the 2000 points barrier in all grades. He finished his career that afternoon with 2001 points in all grades for the Eels, as a Premiership winner and a club legend.

He did eventually return to the F6 to collect his abandoned car!

 
Peter Sterling Profile
Legend has it that at the birth of Peter Sterling in Toowoomba, the doctor made comment about the large lump of new born baby. “Mrs Sterling”, he started, “one day he’ll play for Australia!” The first big step towards fulfilling this destiny was the day in 1978 Parramatta coach Terry Fernley drove to Wagga Wagga in southern NSW to lure him into the Eels juniors.

It was a big year for the blond halfback who became the player of the series for Fairfield Patrician Brothers in the Commonwealth Bank Cup. He also made his first grade debut in the semi final against Many, at fullback, which the Eels lost under controversial circumstances. The following year, he made his debut at halfback, and stayed there for 15 seasons.

Despite a big step (off both feet) and speed off the mark, his greatest satisfaction was putting players through gaps. In his formative years with the Eels, he developed the unique ability to know where every player on the field was by only looking one side of the ruck. Coupled with a magical kicking game, it was only natural that he made his State of Origin debut in 1981. That year, he was instrumental in the club’s brilliant grand final win, setting up four tries in the 20-11 win over Newtown.

He usurped Steve Mortimer as the code’s top halfback in 1982, and was the mastermind behind the 21-8 belting of Manly in the 1982 decider. He made his test debut on the Kangaroo Tour, and his partnership with Brett Kenny kept the incumbent Mortimer and Wally Lewis out of the side. Another premiership in 1983 followed, and he was lured to Hull to spend the 1984 and 1985 off seasons.

Sterling was a noted big match player and his efforts in the loss to Wigan in the magical Challenge Cup Final of 1985 led many people to believe that he should have beaten his great friend Brett Kenny to the coveted Lance Todd Trophy. With the game seemingly over, Sterling led a superb Hull comeback but the Humbersiders narrowly lost 26-22.

This was followed by the first ever Clive Churchill Medal in the Eels’ grinding 4-2 win over arch rivals Canterbury in the 1986 grand final. In that game, Sterling was masterful, pumping out majestic kicks from right in the teeth of the brutal Canterbury forwards, giving deft passes and producing timely defence.

He captained New South Wales in the Los Angeles State of Origin in 1987, and was vice captain on the 1986 Kangaroo Tour. Later in his career, with a nagging shoulder injury and a decline in the Eels competitiveness, Sterling took over the Parramatta captaincy. He scored three perfect ‘10’ ratings from Rugby League Week, one against Easts at Parramatta Staduim in 1987, one against Brisbane in 1989 but probably his best ever display was his first ’10′ score. This came in the round one match of the 1986 season, in the sold out opening of Parramatta Stadium, when the Eels belted previous season’s grand finalists St George 38-6.

His list of awards is impressive:
Rothmans Medal (the best and fairest player in the Sydney Premiership): 1987 & 1990
Dally M Player of the Year: 1986-7
Clive Churchill Medal: 1986
Adidas Golden Boots award (best player in the world, shared with Hugh McGahan): 1987

His career ended sadly in 1992, when his shoulder gave way for the last time in a big tackle by Wests’ prop David Gillespie.

After 229 brilliant performances for Parramatta he announced his retirement. Today he has a successful media career with Channel 9 as a commentator and as a co-host of The Footy Show.

 

The Premierships:

1981:
PARRAMATTA 20 (Kenny 2, Atkins & Ella tries. Cronin 4 goals)
NEWTOWN 11 (Hetherington, Raudonikis & O’Grady tries. Morris goal.)

Team: Steve McKenzie; Graeme Atkins, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe; Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling; Bob O’Reilly, Steve Edge, Ron Hilditch, Kevin Stevens, John Muggleton, Ray Price. Subs: Steve Sharp & Paul Taylor.

1982:
PARRAMATTA 21 (Kenny 2, Grothe, Ella & Hunt tries. Cronin 3 goals)
MANLY 8 (Blake & Boyd tries. Eadie goal)
Team: Paul Taylor; Neil Hunt, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe; Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling; Geoff Budgen, Steve Edge, Chris Phelan, Steve Sharp, John Muggleton, Ray Price. Subs: Peter Wynn & Mark Laurie.

1983:
PARRAMATTA 18 (Kenny 2 & Grothe tries. Cronin 3 goals)
MANLY 6 (Sigsworth try. Eadie goal.)
Team: Paul Taylor; David Liddiard, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe; Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling; Stan Jurd, Steve Edge, Paul Mares, Peter Wynn, Steve Sharp, Ray Price. Subs: Mark Laurie & Gary Martine.

1986:
PARRAMATTA 4 (Cronin 2 goals)
CANTERBURY 2 (Lamb goal)
Team: Paul Taylor; Mick Delroy, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Eric Grothe; Brett Kenny, Peter Sterling; Terry Leabeater, Michael Moseley, Geoff Budgen, John Muggleton, Mark Laurie, Ray Price. Subs: Tony Chalmers & Peter Wynn.

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1994 Batley v Doncaster

Published in Thirteen in 2005

by Gareth Hodgson


Stones Bitter Division Two
Batley v Doncaster
24 April 1994 


A Fantastic Bloody Sunday!

Few clubs in professional sport have experienced as many lows as Doncaster. Since the clubs first season in 1951-52, Doncaster have spent more seasons struggling at the foot of rugby league than their hardened fans would care to remember. From 1956-1961, Doncaster finished every single season as the bottom side in rugby league, and remained consistently in the bottom three from 1963-1968. The seventies and early ‘eighties proved to be no better, with Doncaster only escaping a bottom-three finish on two occasions between 1970 and 1985.

This month in Thirteen we look back to April 24th 1994, when, Doncaster travelled to Batley’s Mount Pleasant on the last day of the season knowing that a victory would clinch their promotion to the old First Division, and potentially even clinch the Second Division Championship.

Doncaster had been in the driving seat after winning eight consecutive games but in the penultimate game of the season they fell to a shock 20-2 defeat at Spotland to mid-table Rochdale Hornets as Workington Town capitalised and trounced Keighley Cougars 54-2 to take top spot. Although mathematically Doncaster could still clinch the Championship at Batley, Town’s final game appeared to be a straight-forward win, away at second-bottom Bramley so realistically Doncaster knew that promotion was the real prize. To add extra spice to the occasion, both Doncaster and Batley were tied on 43 points going into the game, so effectively it was a promotion eliminator. Even more amazingly, if the game at Mount Pleasant ended in a draw, both sides would miss out on promotion if London defeated Carlisle! Plenty to play for then, and plenty for the mathematicians in the crowd to be concerned with!

So the scene was set. A capacity 4,500 fans packed into the famous Mount Pleasant stadium, with fans of both sides not wanting to miss a potential promotion party. Amazingly, the scoreboard role remained redundant for the first forty minutes as the two sides returned to the dressing rooms still with all to play for. The defensive effort on both sides was formidable, with nobody wanting to be responsible for their line being breached.

The fiftieth minute of the game saw the 45 year old former Great Britain International Jeff Grayshon introduced to the fray by Batley coach David Ward. Expected to add extra steel and experience for the last half hour, Grayshon was instead sent off in controversial fashion only three minutes after replacing Wayne Heron. Instead of deflating the Gallant Youths, Grayshon’s dismissal seemed to galvanise Batley, as they pulled together and upped the tempo and expanse of their game.

The clock kept ticking, and still the score remained 0-0. With neither defence looking like wilting, Batley full-back Simon Wilson slotted over a drop goal with ten minutes remaining, to give the Mount Pleasant side an unlikely 1-0 lead. This seemed to give Batley another big lift as two minutes later a try was finally scored as Glen Tomlinson and Darren Moxon combined for Tomlinson to run in a four pointer. Wilson failed to convert, but with less than ten minutes now remaining, Batley led 5-0 and promotion was looking more and more likely.

Doncaster had other ideas, and whether it was the fatigue of only having twelve men, or the pressure getting to them, Batley started to make errors. After holding out Matautia and Pennant, the Batley defence could do nothing as Brendan Carlyle stepped and touched down close to the posts. Rocky Turner converted and the tide had turned. Now Donny were 6-5 up and looking promoted. Batley launched one final attack, but a dropped pass saw Turner pick up and race away to clinch the game for Doncaster, along with promotion.

The final score of 10-5 reflected the closeness of the game and indeed the closeness of the promotion chase. Workington won easily at Bramley, as expected, to seal the title but promotion was a Championship in itself for everyone at Tattersfield.

April 24th 1994 was a day which long-time Doncaster fans never felt they would experience and after the years of disappointment and failure, the highs that Doncaster supporters felt in season 1993/94 must surely be up there with the best experiences of any supporter in the world of sport. Coach Tony Fisher and the players involved that day will go down in Doncaster folklore forever.

 
Doncaster: Brendan Carlyle; Dave Evans, Rocky Turner, Vila Matautia, Max Tomlinson; Tony Zelei, Andy Gascoigne; Glynn Lingard, John Evans, Tony Bowes, Audley Pennant, Sonny Whakarau, Tony Miller. Subs: Jamie Bloem & Richard Pell.

Batley: Simon Wilson; Gary Thornton, Darren Moxon, Jimmy Irvine, Steve Walker; Michael Booth, Glen Tomlinson; Andy Parkinson, Mark Scott, Richard Brook, Wayne Heron, Tony Walton, Mick Cameron. Subs: Shaun Wilkinson, Jeff Grayshon.

 
The final table:

P W D L F A P

1. Workington T 30 22 2 6 760 331 46
2. Doncaster 30 22 1 7 729 486 45
3. London C 30 21 2 7 842 522 44
4. Batley 30 21 1 8 707 426 43
5. Huddersfield 30 20 0 10 661 518 40
6. Keighley C 30 19 1 10 856 472 39
7. Dewsbury 30 18 1 11 766 448 37
8. Rochdale H 30 18 0 12 704 532 36
9. Ryedale Y 30 17 1 12 662 516 35
10. Whitehaven 30 14 4 12 571 437 32
11. Barrow 30 13 1 16 581 743 27
12. Swinton 30 11 0 19 528 681 22
13. Carlisle BR 30 9 0 21 540 878 18
14. Hunslet 30 3 1 26 445 814 7
15. Bramley 30 3 0 27 376 957 6
16. Highfield 30 1 1 18 267 1234 3

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1994 Sheffield v Wigan

Published in Thirteen in 2005

by Gareth Hodgson

SHEFFIELD EAGLES 10
WIGAN 5
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

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2001 Bradford v Wigan, The Grand Final

Published in Thirteen in 2005

by Rob Shaw

Super League Grand Final
Bradford Bulls v Wigan Warriors
13th October, 2001
Old Trafford, Att: 60,164

Great memories don’t always stem from great matches.

The 2001 Grand Final was an uncompetitive affair, played in dismal conditions one October evening, and was not the type of match the RFL had in mind when they inaugurated the finals system back in 1998.

But for Bulls fans this final provided an abundance of great memories, and perhaps more importantly it was the match where Noble and his troupe managed to rid themselves of the metaphorical ‘monkey’ on their backs.

Losses to Saints at Twickenham and two years previously in the 1999 Grand Final had earned the Bulls the unenviable tag of ‘Chokers’ – and what a way to stuff that tag down the critics throats – with the biggest Grand Final victory to date!

For myself, the match started with a desperate hunt for a ticket tout to swap my tickets for a pair in the Bradford end, with mission accomplished I headed into the stadium and wasted another tenner on some first try-scorer bets. Jimmy Lowes at 25-1? That’s godda be worth a few quid!

Bradford applied pressure to the Wigan line from the off, and just a few moments in and Wigan were dropping out from under their own posts.

It seemed like we’d hardly found our seats before Jimmy Lowes was diving over for the first try of the evening. Jimmy Lowes?? I was nearly falling over the concrete parapet on the second tier. It couldn’t get any better than this, could it? It could. With the beer and ticket paid for with change left over, the evening went from great to seventh heaven.

Bradford continued to dominate with Robbie and Henry linking up in midfield for their last time together in the red, amber and black vees.

Henry’s 50-metre break down field was halted by some desperate scrambling defence, but the damage had been done. Withers went over in Jimmy Lowes’ style for the opening try of his first half hat-trick, and Wigan’s Irish speedster, Brian Carney, left the field haemorrhaging blood from a knee wound, not to return.

Wigan threatened to make a game of it at this point, and applied a little pressure of their own, but as Stevo would say, the fish-and-chip wrappers indicate the Bulls withstood the assault and answered with an attack of their own.

Naylor down the right flank shattered the shackles of the Wigan defence and set Vaikona free who sent Withers ghosting over for his second. At 22-nil it was beginning to look easy now, but Bradford fans will never take a big lead in a final for granted after Wembley ‘96.

The fans’ were still hugging each other in glee when Withers completed his hat-trick just moments later. Cheers were now turning to incredulous exclamations rather than the exuberant roar that would normally escort a Grand Final try.

26-nil at half time, Bradford had the match sewn up. Hadn’t they? There was still a nervous tension amongst the Bradford supporters as they watched the clock count down. Those 40 minutes were the longest 40 minutes in the club’s history – especially when Lam reduced the arrears to 20 points with just less than 20 remaining. The 20,000 Bradford fans checked their watches and simultaneously performed a bit of mental arithmetic: 20 points in 20 minutes? 4 tries? Its not our title yet!

Thankfully, Fielden dived over in the corner into a litter of ticker-tape and unravelled loo roll to wipe out any flicker of a Wigan comeback.

Henry Paul slotted over a drop goal to make it 31-6 and Mackay completed the scoring with a try and conversion to mark his last, emotional appearance in a Bradford Jersey.

With a new record crowd that broke through the 60,000 mark, the feel good factor lasted a good while in Bradford. Personally, I can’t remember much more of that particular night apart from the beer tasting particularly sweet.

A large panoramic print in my hallway shows Fielden going over for the 65th minute try that sealed it, and each day brings back a small part of the feel good factor from that wet October evening at the Theatre of Dreams.

Bradford: Michael Withers; Tevita Vaikona, Scott Naylor, Graham Mackay, Leon Pryce; Henry Paul, Robbie Paul; Joe Vagana, James Lowes, Brian McDermott, Danny Gartner, Jamie Peacock, Mike Forshaw. Subs: Paul Anderson, Shane Rigon, Paul Deacon & Stuart Fielden

Wigan: Kris Radlinski; Brett Dallas, Gary Connolly, Steve Renouf, Brian Carney; Matthew Johns, Adrian Lam; Terry O’Connor, Terry Newton, Harvey Howard, Mick Cassidy, Dave Furner, Andy Farrell. Subs: Neil Cowie, Denis Betts, Paul Johnson & Chris Chester

 

 

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1997 Sheffield v Bradford

Published in Thirteen in 2005

by Rob Shaw

Do you remember the season ….
Which started with a hat trick from Robbie?
When we had a winger who would do back-flips?
When Danny Peacock would burst onto the ball at pace?
When beating Leeds was a mere formality?
When attendance records were annihilated?
When Bradford made back-to-back visits to Wembley?
When Robbie wore Golden boots?
When Bradford’s fixtures included French, Australian and New Zealand teams?
When Bradford went on a 20-match unbeaten rampage?
When Wittenberg would smash the opposition?
When Saints, Wigan and even London finished above the Rhinos?
When a Bradford prop was chaired off the pitch by the fans?
When 17,000 crammed into Odsal for the visit of Paris?
When Bradford lifted their first Championship for 16 years?
When to be a Bradford fan was the best feeling ever?
Do you remember 1997?

 
Recall…

 
SHEFFIELD EAGLES 12
BRADFORD BULLS 32
Stones Super League
16th August 1997

It was a hot summer’s day when the expectant mass of Bradford fans took to the road. With the Odsal trophy cabinet bare, the opportunity to see the first title for 16 years was too good to be missed by Bradford’s new army of colourful fans.

The Don Valley Stadium, so often an empty white elephant, came alive for the evening like never before with the modern architecture the perfect backdrop for the revitalised Bradford rugby machine. The record crowd of almost 11,000 witnessed a tense but exciting match played in perfect conditions that epitomised the modern era.

They faced an Eagles team who eight months later would win the Challenge Cup. Waisale Sovatabua had been the star of Fiji’s 1995 World Cup campaign, Nick Pinkney had represented England in the same competition and Whetu Taewa, Paul Broadbent, and Keith Senior also had international experience. They would be no easy beats.

It looked like Sheffield might play to the script though, allowing centre Danny Peacock over in the 17th minute from Steve McNamara’s pass.

Peacock’s seventh try of the season was never going to be enough though, and a tense first half ended with Sheffield going into the break with a 10-4 advantage after tries to Whetu Taewa and Danny McAllister.

Shortly after the break Bradford clawed back the score with James Lowes at dummy half feigning the long pass and popping up a short ball for Dwyer to run onto. Dwyer went under the sticks unopposed. 10-10. It was never likely to stay at that score but a draw would have been enough to secure the title. An exchange of penalties made it 12-12, before McNamara finally put Bradford back into the lead with his third goal of the night.

Bradford’s props created the next try between them with McDermott managing to reach all the way to the floor, never an easy task for Macca, to fire the pass out to Wittenberg from dummy half. Wittenberg fended off some feeble Eagles defence to power over for a great prop-forward’s try.

The break of the game came from Peacock, who, in typical fashion, ran on to Robbie Paul’s short pass to burst 70 yards up-field. Sovatabua delayed the inevitable with an excellent try-saving tackle only for Tomlinson to send Lowes over the try line on the next play.

With the game and the title now secure, Bradford registered one more try in the corner after Tomlinson put the bomb up with Forshaw scoring and beginning the celebrations from Sheffield to Bradford.

The fans counted the clock down to the biggest night in the club’s history for 50 years. The spontaneous pitch invasion, the likes of which will never be seen again, completed the spectacle and marked the beginning of a glittering period of the club’s history.

SHEFFIELD EAGLES: Waisale Sovatabua; Nick Pinkney, Willie Morganson, Whetu Taewa, Matt Crowther; David Mycoe, Mark Aston; Paul Broadbent, Marcus Vassilakopolous, Alex Thompson, Keith Senior, Danny McAllister, Rod Doyle. Subs: Jean-Marc Garcia, Dale Laughton, Ricky Wright & Jason Erba.

BRADFORD BULLS: Stuart Spruce; Abi Ekoku, Danny Peacock, Paul Loughlin, Jon Scales; Graeme Bradley, Robbie Paul; Brian McDermott, James Lowes, Jeff Wittenburg, Sonny Nickle, Jeremy Donougher, Steve McNamara. Subs: Glen Tomlinson, Mike Forshaw, Bernard Dwyer & Tahi Reihana.

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The 50 Greatest Challenge Cup Moments

Published in Thirteen in 2005.

by Gareth Hodgson

THE 50 GREATEST MOMENTS IN CHALLENGE CUP HISTORY

The first question you need to ask yourself when deciding upon a list of greatest moments is, “what defines greatest?” The basis for this feature is that each moment somehow is representative about all that is great about the Challenge Cup. This can be anything from a brilliant or disappointing performance or incident, a history making moment, or a bold or brave decision, to an early-round win on a wet Sunday in January.
Hopefully the entire 50 captures the reasons why the Challenge Cup remains a vital part of rugby league, and some of the magic associated with the greatest Cup competition in the world.

 
NUMBER 50 – The first final
Cup knockout competitions were not a new feature to the Northern Union break-away clubs as regional competitions had been running for many years, but the Rugby Football Union had always resisted attempts to develop a national-based knockout competition for the fears that it would stoke the fires of the arguments for professionalism. So much for leagueies being the non-expansionists!
Shortly after the breakaway to form the Northern Union in 1895 it was agreed that such a competition be formulated for all membership clubs to contest. £60 was the sum paid to Fattorini & Sons for the production of the grandest of trophies, along with 15-carat gold medals for the winners at £3 3s apiece.
The first ever round began on 20th March 1897, and a month later on the 24th April 1897 the first ever Challenge Cup Final took place. The two teams contesting the final appropriately came from either side of the Pennines with Batley seeing off Warrington 6-0 at Huddersfield, and St. Helens downing Swinton 7-0 at Broughton. Headingley was the chosen venue for the Final and 13,492 people were in attendance for the history making moment, with very few probably aware of the magnitude of the competition’s future!
Batley lined up in consistent white shirts, whereas the Saints wore a mish-mash of fading blue hoops that had been worn throughout the last month and been deemed as lucky! Saints’ luck would prove to run out however at Headingley as Batley took the spoils 10-3. The honour of being the first-ever point scorer in the first final went to Batley’s ‘fly-half’ Oakland, who dropped a goal (then a four-pointer) to give Batley a 4-0 lead. The first try-scoring honours went to Batley’s skipper John Goodall who touched down to give the side a 7-0 half-time lead. Traynor scored after half-time to prompt a Saints fight back but a Munns try sealed the cup and an eternal place in rugby league history for the Gallant Youths.

NUMBER 49 – The 100th Final takes place at the home of Rugby Union
In 2001 the 100th Challenge Cup final was one of the most controversial finals in rugby league history, not because of any actual incident which occurred during the match, but because of the decision to play the game at rugby union HQ Twickenham. The reconstruction of Wembley, the Challenge Cup final’s home for the previous 54 years, meant that new venues had to be found and the RFL decided to take the occasion on the road. The previous year’s final had proved to be a success at the home of Scottish Rugby Union, Murrayfield, but Twickenham represented something completely different to rugby league fans.
The Union game was now openly professional, but that didn’t erase the years of bigotry and repression from the minds of the rugby league community. Although Twickenham had been used as a venue in the 2000 World Cup, it seemed bizarre that the historic 100th Challenge Cup would be celebrated within the walls of the very place from where so much hostility to the 13-a-side game had been launched over the years. Unbelievably it was still less than eight years since both Steve Pilgrim and Ady Spencer had received one-year bans from the RFU for breaking the law “No person shall play in a trial or play with a non-amateur club or a non-amateur organisation involved in the playing of any other type of rugby football”, and now Twickenham would house the showpiece event of the sport it had tried to repress for years.
It somehow seemed more of a tribute to the history of the occasion that St. Helens were one of the sides involved, having been defeated by Batley in the first ever final in 1897, and they celebrated by taking the Cup back to Knowsley Road. A 13-6 score line meant that Bradford Bulls were defeated by Saints for the third final in six years but the spectacle was a shadow of their previous Wembley clashes. Arguably in fitting with the sport usually seen at the venue, the game itself proved to be a dull and disappointing affair more remembered for the torrential downpour of rain than exciting play which evoked memories of the England v Australia World Cup clash at the same venue a year earlier. Many wondered whether a higher power was sending out a message!

NUMBER 48 – Haven finally win a game!
Such is the romance of the Challenge Cup that it’s not just finals and semi-finals which evoke extreme passions and joy. The knock-out format ensures that a first-round meeting of two teams in the same division can take on so much more significance than what otherwise may be a stale fixture in the league, and arguably the greatest example of this was in January 1987 when Whitehaven travelled to Arena 84 to face the then Huddersfield Barracudas. It was history that made this clash all the more interesting and significant, but not for anything that existed between the two participants, more Whitehaven’s history in the competition.
Whitehaven ran out for this fixture on the back of a run of Challenge Cup defeats going back to 1966! For twenty years the club had continuously failed at the first hurdle of the competition, and the people of West Cumbria wondered if the club would ever break their first round hoodoo! 1987 however saw a different Haven lining up for the first round, they were on a seven-game unbeaten run in the league, pushing for promotion, and confidence was high. In the end, the jinx wasn’t just broken but was shattered as Haven romped to a 32-10 victory in front of 859 people who witnessed a little piece of Challenge Cup history. Tony Solarie and Gary McFarlane were the heroes running in two tries apiece.
Having waited 21 years for a win, remarkably the next win would come just seven days later away at First Division Wakefield in the second round. Again Haven produced an outstanding performance to demolish their divisional superiors by 25-2, and unbelievably the Recreation Ground outfit were in the quarter-finals. The tie saw them paired with giants St Helens, but unfortunately the newly developed cup heroics couldn’t be repeated at Knowsley Road as Haven valiantly went down 41-12 to the eventual finalists. Not that it mattered to the Haven faithful who basked in finally having a Cup run to enjoy!

NUMBER 47 – Beverley eliminate Highfield
In season 1908/09, the amateurs of Beverley defeated professional club Ebbw Vale in the first round of the Challenge Cup. Remarkably it would be another 86 years until another professional club would be eliminated from the competition by amateur opposition, and even more remarkably it would be the Humbersiders of Beverley who would repeat the feat.
In the third round in season 1994/95, Beverley were drawn away to perennial Division Two strugglers Highfield after close victories of fellow amateurs Chequerfield and Normanton in previous rounds. Despite Highfield’s status in the professional ranks, it was expected that they would record a win, especially after having downed Barrow earlier in the month for their first league win of the season. Beverley had other ideas.
From start to finish, Beverley completely dominated their league counterparts and converted early pressure into two early tries by centres’ Sean Olsen and Scott Sullivan. A Paul Hunter conversion and drop goal, followed by a Steve Larvin try meant the amateurs led 15-0 at half-time, and comfortably so. Any inspirational words offered by Highfield coach Chris Arkwright during the interval were quickly erased from his side’s memories four minutes into the second half as Mike Cator played the ball to himself and bullocked over from ten yards to stretch the Beverley lead to 21-0. Norman Barrow soon added what would be a consolation for the professionals, but Beverley again extended their lead ten minutes later through a penalty try awarded to Lee Stainforth while Barrow himself was in the sin bin.
The final score line read 27-4 which represented the extent of Beverley’s dominance. Coach Len Casey had been a winner with Hull KR in 1980, but he must have felt an equal amount of pride in his team’s record breaking day as he did at Wembley 15 years previously. After 86 years, an important barrier had been broken and showed the strength of rugby league being played on a weekly basis purely for the love of the sport. The door was unlocked for more amateur clubs to enter the Challenge Cup with a positive outlook.

NUMBER 46 – Cumbrian amateur triple K.O.!
In the years since Beverley made history, Thatto Heath, West Hull and Dudley Hill joined the ranks of amateurs disposing of professionals, and in February 1998 Egremont Rangers, Ellenborough Rangers and Featherstone Lions added their names to the list. Featherstone Lions put paid to Doncaster’s hopes, but arguably it was the two West Cumbrian clubs who made the biggest news in a year of cup shocks, with both earning a place in the fifth round.
In terms of overall impact on the competition, Ellenborough arguably made the biggest dent as they defeated not one, but two professional sides in their run to the fifth round. With first and second round defeats of Crosfields and Queensbury respectively behind them, the third round presented them with a trip to then Second Division outfit Bramley who were disposed of by 16 points to 10 in a close encounter. The fourth round provided another Leeds opponent but the outcome was no different as Hunslet Hawks went down 14-12. Elbra’s performance was outstanding against a side that would finish sixth in Division One that year, with Paul Southwell the hero with a brace of tries.
In terms of local impact, Egremont Rangers rocked West Cumbria’s biggest club Workington Town to their core in the fourth round. The run to the fourth round had provided only other amateur opposition, but Egremont more than took their opportunity against the big boys from down the A595. On the Friday night in front of a crowd of over 3,000 people at Whitehaven’s Recreation Ground (more than watched Haven play Leeds at the same stage of the competition 12 months earlier), the side who two years previously were gearing up for Super League went down 18-0. Future London Bronco Rob Purdham ran the show for the amateurs, and scored early on, with Mark Beckwith and Geoff Blacklock adding the others.
Neither side could carry on their heroics in the fifth round as both fell to Super League opposition, with Elbra going down to Hull Sharks, and Egremont being ousted by eventual winners Sheffield Eagles. Facing up to Super League sides however was the amateur’s own well deserved Cup Final.

NUMBER 45 – Featherstone defy the bookies
When the bookies laid out their odds at the start of the 1983 Challenge Cup, Featherstone Rovers were an outside bet at 33-1. This seemed totally justified at the time given that it was a decade since they had recorded a Wembley win, and in the previous four years a tenth placed top division finish was the highest league position achieved by the club.
In a year of shocks, the competition was thrown wide open in the first round however as three favourites Widnes, Wigan and Hull KR were disposed of by Leeds, Castleford and Hunslet respectively. Meanwhile Featherstone eased past Batley. The shocks continued in the second round as league leaders Leeds fell to St. Helens and Hunslet continued their giant-killing by eliminating Halifax. Featherstone squeezed past second division Salford, to find themselves in the last eight and facing an away tie at St. Helens where they recorded a shock of their own. Despite battling against relegation, Peter Smith and Terry Hudson inspired Rovers to victory, although John Gilbert was the hero of the day with two tries.
The semi-finals paired the Post Office Road outfit with Yorkshire rivals Bradford Northern, who included the prolific youngster Ellery Hanley. The game itself is probably more remembered for Hanley’s televised 85-metre “try of the century”, but it was the tries by Gilbert, Hudson and John Marsden that proved the most important in an 11-6 Rovers upset. Against all the odds, Featherstone were at Wembley for the first time since their 1974 defeat by Warrington.
The opponents at Wembley were Hull, and the bookies decided to run with form as opposed to the year’s trend for upsets, making the Boulevarders 4-1 on favourites and as cup holders and league champions few would have disagreed. Form also showed that Hull had been victorious in the three previous encounters by the sides earlier that year. The shock looked on the cards at half-time as Rovers led 5-0 through a David Hobbs converted try, but twenty minutes after the interval, it looked a distant memory as Hull turned things around to lead 12-5. With twenty minutes remaining and captain Terry Hudson in the sin bin, the wheel turned and another Hobbs try and two Steve Quinn goals brought the tie level. With three minutes remaining Quinn slotted over another penalty, and Allan Agar’s Rovers had shocked the rugby league world taking the cup home in a 14-12 upset.

NUMBER 44 – Bumper crowd watch Fulham’s cup debut
Season 1980/81 saw the return of rugby league to London after a 43-year absence, with the establishment of the Fulham club playing in Division Two out of Craven Cottage. Over the course of the season crowds would average out at an impressive 6,096, but no crowd would top the one achieved for the clubs debut in the Challenge Cup, a first round clash with First Division title chasers and 1979 losing finalists Wakefield Trinity. 9,552 fans had watched the league opening 24-5 upset win over Wigan, and a further 12,583 packed in to watch the 9-3 John Player Trophy surprise defeat of Leeds, so when a phenomenal 15,013 fans packed into Craven Cottage for the visit of Trinity, expectations of another giant-killing act were high.
Fulham sat in the promotion places led by experienced big names like player/coach Reg Bowden, Mal Aspey, Iain McCorquodale, David Eckersley, Adrian Cambriani and John Risman among others, so the massive crowd believed that an upset was distinctly possible. In the end Wakefield’s extra class told and Allan Agar, a Wembley winner with Hull KR less than 12 months earlier, inspired a 9-5 win as he dropped a goal and combined with David Topliss to send Andrew Fletcher in for what would ultimately be the winning score.
Although not memorable for the result, the occasion is remembered as a pivotal moment in rugby league’s efforts at expansion during the 80’s. To have a London-based club competing in the Challenge Cup was a significant enough moment, but for the fixture to attract 15,013 fans can still be considered incredible in an era where few Super League teams can achieve such support. Throughout all the London club guises this attendance remains a club record and as successful as the Harlequins alliance may eventually prove to be, redevelopments to The Stoop will only provide a 13,500 capacity, so the record will be maintained for many years to come.

NUMBER 43 – The year of firsts
In the post-war years, the Challenge Cup began to develop an increased level of momentum with the final moving back to Wembley in 1946, as Wakefield Trinity edged Wigan 13-12 in front of 54,730 people. One year later, the crowd improved by 42% to 77,605 for the Bradford Northern v Leeds encounter, and then again by a further 18% in 1948 for the Wigan v Bradford final.
The 1948 final was very much a “year of firsts” for the Challenge Cup Final, as the game boomed. Wigan’s 8-3 defeat of Bradford was watched by a then unparalleled crowd of 91,465, which was the record crowd in the history of the competition to that point and was the first ever final held at Wembley to be declared all-ticket. Inevitably the highest gate receipts ever were also recorded.
Obviously inspired by the progress being made by the sport, the 1948 final was attended by King George VI which represented the first ever time that a reigning monarch was in attendance at a rugby league game. Other members of the Royal Family would also have been able to watch the game, as if they couldn’t get a seat for the first all-ticket affair, for the first time ever they would have been able to watch the game on television. As rugby league developed, so did the televisual revolution and the final was accessible to people for the first time from the comfort of their own homes. Paradoxically for ‘the northern sport’, the game was only televised in the London area so although the Royals could have tuned in at home, Wigan and Bradford fans unable to get a ticket wouldn’t have had the pleasure!

NUMBER 42 – The oldest winner in Town
In 1946 Workington Town prepared for their second-ever season as a professional club by making arguably the most important decision in the club’s history as they appointed Gus Risman as player/coach. The legendary Risman had just returned from captaining Great Britain on their tour of Australia and New Zealand, and despite being 35 years old, he still had few equals in the game.
Under Risman’s guidance on and off the pitch, Town began a meteoric rise and in 1951 (the club’s sixth season) they took the rugby league Championship to Cumberland for the first time by defeating Warrington 26-11 in the play-off final at Maine Road.
One year later Town qualified for their first ever Challenge Cup final, and Risman was able to make his own personal piece of history. Now aged 41 years and 29 days, Gus lined up at Wembley to face Featherstone Rovers as the oldest ever player to grace the hallowed turf in a final, and he left the field at the end as the oldest ever winner. Putting his years behind him, Risman was an inspiration from beginning to end as he kicked Town into a first minute lead and then later added two conversions to tries by Johnny Lawrenson, Johnny Mudge and George Wilson in an 18-10 victory. Risman retired two seasons later, despite playing 45 times in his final season and kicking a club record number of goals.

Risman had won the Challenge Cup 14 years earlier as Salford defeated Barrow in the 1938 final, and archives from this game perhaps hint at one reason behind Risman’s longevity as he is the only person on the team’s lap of honour photo not to be smoking a cigarette! In the modern era, few players are able to maintain the standards required to play at the top level beyond their early thirties. As a consequence, Risman’s record is unlikely to ever be broken.

NUMBER 41 – Kurt Sorensen finally gets to Wembley… and scores!
In 1985 Kurt Sorensen joined Widnes from the Cronulla Sharks and in the ensuing eight years built up a reputation as one of the best, hardest and most likeable men in the sport. Sorensen’s arrival followed Widnes’ 1984 Challenge Cup win over Wigan, the Chemics seventh Wembley appearance in ten years, but few would have expected that it would be nine years before the club would return to the twin towers.
In his time at Naughton Park, Sorensen led the club to two league championships, three Premierships, successes in the Regal Trophy, Lancashire Cup and most famously the World Club Challenge, but his greatest wish, a trip to Wembley, remained elusive. Widnes were denied at the semi-final stage on three occasions losing in close encounters with Halifax and St. Helens in 1987 and 1989, and then again to Saints in 1991.
Season 1992/93 realistically was last chance saloon for the giant Kiwi as Widnes, riddled with financial difficulties, saw the stars of previous years either off-loaded or on the verge of leaving and Sorensen himself was now 37. The first two rounds of the competition saw comfortable wins over Whitehaven and Sheffield, and a replay victory over Hull K.R. saw Sorensen win through to his fourth semi-final. Opponents Leeds were demolished as Widnes fans saw Jonathan Davies and Bobbie Goulding turning it on in a 39-4 rout which set-up a final clash with Wembley king-pins Wigan.
Having eventually fulfilled his dream Sorensen announced that he would retire at the end of the season, and in the 17th minute of the big occasion he seized the moment bursting through the Wigan line for a 25 yard try sending Widnes into a 12-6 lead. The moment would prove to be the highlight for Sorensen and Widnes fans, as Wigan responded with two tries of their own to turn Sorensen’s day into a losing one. Despite the result Sorensen revelled in the occasion and stated in Open Rugby that year, “I didn’t find that the game flashed by as many players have said, instead I enjoyed the experience. I know that. I was mentally prepared to enjoy it, in the right frame of mind and the match fulfilled my expectations.” Few would have denied him his moment.

NUMBER 40 – Millennium expansion
The year 2000 was billed as a new era for society, and once midnight struck on December 31st 1999 and we could all unlock ourselves from our Y2K/end-of-the-world bunkers, society realised that life would be the same as it was yesterday. But not for rugby league! The 2000 Challenge Cup embraced the new era by making further efforts towards the expansion of the game by opening the doors of it’s greatest competition to a new generation of competitor. This was in fitting with the decision to take the final outside of England for the first time, with Wembley’s reconstruction prompting a relocation of venue to Edinburgh’s Murrayfield.
The seeds were sown in the final month of the old century as in the first round the game was represented for the first time by all corners of the country and even by the countries three forms of defence. Ireland saw the Dublin Blues lose to Widnes amateurs Farnworth 54-2 and Scottish representatives Edinburgh Eagles ran Woolston close before going down 17-12. The Welsh and Armed Forces faired better with the Cardiff Cougars defeating Durham, The Army hammering BARLA Yorkshire Cup Finalists Dewsbury Celtic 54-7, The RAF knocking out Normanton, and the Royal Navy edging past Hull Dockers 4-0.
Cardiff and The Army continued through to the third round, where they joined the professionals in the bag, along with a further level of expansion. Although Super League side Paris Saint-Germain had competed in the competition in 1997, no club from the French Federation had ever participated and 2000 saw champions Villeneuve along with St. Gaudens entering the third round. Only one of the four would survive at this level, with Cardiff losing to Keighley 90-0 in a clash of the Cougars, and The Army and St. Gaudens falling to Rochdale Hornets and Doncaster Dragons respectively. Villeneuve would fair better eventually winning through to round five by defeating amateurs Lock Lane and Cardiff conquerors Keighley, before bowing out to eventual NFP champions Dewsbury Rams.
The opportunity to participate in the Challenge Cup has proven to be a real fillip for the French game and a fundamental cog in the development of a French Super League club being an operational feasibility and reality.

NUMBER 39 – From expansion to establishment… to overturning the establishment
If 2000 was the year that the Challenge Cup broadened its horizons, then 2005 is the year that clubs in expanded areas of the country, and across the world have become established attractions of the competition. In addition to the Armed Forces, the early stages of this year’s competition saw sides from Fife, Loughborough, Cardiff, Essex, Coventry, Gateshead and even a West London v South London clash. As well as the professionals this year the third round of the competition again brought French clubs in St. Gaudens, Pia, Toulouse and UTC, alongside returning Russian entrants Strela Kazan and Locomotiv Moscow. Quite a jump considering that is less than 20 years since English amateur clubs were invited back as participants!
The biggest impact on the cup this season was made by Toulouse. While 17,467 fans queued outside and filtered their way into Knowsley Road to watch traditional rivals St. Helens and Wigan do battle (kind of), 700 miles away at the Stade de Minimes a much more ground-breaking event than Saints’ waltz through Wigan’s turnstile-like defence was taking place. If ever an example of the success of the Cup’s expansion was needed, the defeat of the seven-times Challenge Cup winners and 13-times finalists Widnes by a team who had never hosted a top-flight English side in their 68-year history was it.
Many cited the energy-sapping effects of the searing heat in the South of France on the Widnes performance, but surely that couldn’t have been a factor in the first twenty minutes of the contest when tries from Sam Murphy, Fabrice Estebanez and Cedric Gay contributed to an early 20-0 lead over the full-time professionals? Or in the ten minutes after the players’ half-time break when Nicolas Faure and Gay again added further scores? Arguably these scores all came when the Widnes players would have been least exhausted!
Ultimately the 40-24 result showed the quality of execution, strategy and fitness operating across the channel; a standard that without the Challenge Cup’s expansion we would be oblivious to, and arguably would be unachievable. Despite Toulouse’s semi-final demolition at the hands of World Champions Leeds Rhinos, the Quarter Final upset provided confidence in, and anticipation of, Les Catalans’ arrival in Super League and of a French rugby league revolution.

NUMBER 38 – First-ever substitute
In 1964 the RFL followed the trend already seen in Australia as substitutes were introduced to rugby league for the first time. They were however only permitted to replace players who were injured prior to half-time. A year later, this was adapted to allow substitutions up to half-time for any reason, and in 1969 was adapted further to allow the use of substitutes for any reason at any time. Remarkably however it was six years after the introduction of substitutes when the first one would take place in a Challenge Cup Final.
The 1970 final was contested by Cup holders Castleford and Wigan, and after 16 minutes Cliff Hill of Wigan entered the field of play with his name going down in history as the first Challenge Cup Final substitute. Hill’s entry wasn’t a proactive decision or part of Wigan’s strategy; it was forced on them after the actions of Castleford’s International scrum-half Keith Hepworth. In the early stages of the game Wigan full back Colin Tyrer had slotted over a penalty, but Hepworth was soon to ensure that the kicker would play no further part in proceedings when he jumped and caught Tyrer with a stiff arm to the jaw, despite Tyrer not having the ball. The fullback lay motionless with blood pouring from his mouth, before being led from the field, whereas Hepworth was allowed to carry on playing much to the grievance of the Cherry and White’s fans. Wigan would add no further points, as Castleford took the cup back to Yorkshire in a 7-2 win. Tyrer’s jaw was found to be broken.

NUMBER 37 – If only for substitutes!
Despite losing the game, Wigan at least had the luxury of being able to use a substitute in the 1970 final but twelve years earlier Workington Town didn’t have such benefits. Ironically Workington’s opponents in the 1958 final were Wigan, but this time it was the Riversiders who were the aggressors.
Going into the game, there was little to choose between the two sides. Town were the form side having finished third in the league on the back of 22 consecutive league and Cup wins from the previous year. Although Wigan’s form was patchier, they had finished in fifth place in the league and only four points behind Town so a tight encounter was anticipated.
World-record signing Mick Sullivan was involved in two incidents which would impact the game, one being something that £9,500 was paid to Huddersfield for him to do, score a try (his 50th of the season), but the other arguably swung the game more in Wigan’s favour. As Town’s influential international stand-off Harry Archer released a pass, Sullivan flew at him with a stiff arm to the head. Being a much more common feature of the era, Sullivan escaped unpunished and Workington ultimately ended up as the penalised side as Archer’s severe concussion forced him to leave the field, and Town to battle on with only 12 men. As if to prove that this was more a tactic than an accident, Brian McTigue levelled Town’s Brian Edgar with a similar high shot although Edgar was able to play on. In the end, Wigan edged home 13-9 with Ike Southward’s incredible length-of-the-field try and three goals the only cheering points for the Cumbrians.

NUMBER 36 – Substitute not required!
In Issue One of Thirteen there was a flashback feature to the 1980 Challenge Cup Final between Hull KR and Hull, and it was in this game that a hat-trick of unpunished, unsavoury moments at Wembley occurred. In the first twenty minutes of the game, Hull KR mounted consistent pressure and took an early 5-0 lead. As Rovers again attacked the Hull defence, Allan Agar looked to move play out to the left as he passed the ball to his half back partner Roger Millward. Millward released the pass further left but Ron Wileman flew at him after the pass was made with a clean head tackle, breaking the Rovers legend’s jaw in the process.
Ironically, a squad member of Wileman’s at Hull was 1970 villain Keith Hepworth, so maybe he’d passed on some advice from his previous Wembley experience’s before the game? Either way, Wileman didn’t get the job done in the same way that Hepworth had in 1970. Despite having suffered a broken jaw on two prior occasions in the year prior to the final, Millward wasn’t going to bow out so early. He had waited his entire career to get to Wembley and wasn’t going to let something as trivial as a broken jaw ruin his day! Hubbard converted the penalty that was awarded by referee Lindop to peg Rovers into an eventually unassailable 7-0 led lead, before Millward left his own mark on the game as he dropped a goal from dummy-half before half-time.
Millward cited the adrenalin of the occasion and a kick to the jaw from ‘Knocker’ Norton as the key factors in seeing the game through! Unlike the previous finals where the victim and his side ended up as losers, Rovers’ bucked the trend with Millward leading the side to a 10-5 victory in what would turn out to be his final ever senior appearance, as another off the ball incident saw his jaw re-broken in his A-team comeback against Batley the following year.

NUMBER 35 – 94’ Final length-of-the-pitch try (mark two)
Thinking back to the 1994 Wigan v Leeds clash at Wembley the majority of fans, Leeds fans included, will think of only one name when asked to recall a length-of-the-field try from that game – Martin Offiah. Moment 35 however remembers the one that happened late in the second half which although amounted to little more than a consolation in the context of the final result, stands today as a piece of Challenge Cup history.
In addition to his own long-range effort, Offiah had crossed for a second early in the second half. With no player ever having scored a hat-trick in a Wembley final, and Silk Cut offering £1,000 for the first player to do so, Offiah spent the last twenty minutes of the game with one thing on his mind; making history! With time running out, Offiah started to venture away from his own wing looking to get involved near the line. As Wigan moved the ball right Offiah appeared outside Dean Bell and he looked set for a place in history…and he did… well, he had a hand in it anyway. Offiah fumbled and Francis Cummins scooped up the loose ball and sprinted 85 metres out-running a valiant chase from Bell to touch down for four points.
Merely by stepping foot onto the hallowed turf, Cummins had already entered the game as a record breaker without actually needing to make an impact during the game. At the age of 17 years and 200 days he had become the youngest player to ever appear in a Challenge Cup Final beating the record that Shaun Edwards set playing for Wigan against Widnes in 1984 by just one day. Now, by crossing the whitewash he had set another record as the occasion’s youngest scorer and ensuring that if his first record was to be broken, it would take a significant effort from this individual to eliminate him from the record books completely.

NUMBER 34 – The pointless semi-final
Although one of the 1988 semi-final’s was pointless, that’s not to say there was no point in playing it! When Halifax and Hull lined up at Headingley each trying to win a place at Wembley, people were anticipating a tight game, but not as close as it turned out. In the sides’ two previous encounters in the League that season, Hull had taken the spoils on both occasions with a close 20-16 win at Thrum Hall before Christmas and a 22-12 narrow victory a fortnight before the semi-final, but given that Halifax were the current cup holders, Hull had just lost coach Len Casey and that both sat in similar mid-table league positions a level encounter was expected.
The two sides battered away at each other for the full 80 minutes, but neither defence was intent on buckling. If strong defence was preventing try scoring, it was the attack that was to blame for an inability to add points any other way. Seven drop-goal attempts were missed in total, with Hull missing four of them. With each miss an air of inevitability that a replay would be required crept around the terraces, and as the siren rung around the ground with the scoreboard reading 0-0, fans prepared to purchase their tickets for the re-match.
Remarkably it wasn’t the first time that the rarest of rugby league score-lines appeared in a Challenge Cup semi-final. The first one occurred in 1937 as Keighley and Wakefield Trinity shared the spoils at Headingley, and then again in 1968 when Wakefield again were involved drawing with Huddersfield at Odsal.
In the replay at Elland Road four days later, the scoreboard operator was almost as redundant as in the first encounter. Hull led 3-0 after 65 minutes through a Gary Pearce penalty and drop-goal, but as the tie closed in on a try-less two and a half hours, Tony Anderson pounced on a short Keith Neller kick to break the duck. The score gave Halifax a 4-3 lead and that was the way it would remain until full-time as the Thrum Haller’s booked their second consecutive trip to Wembley.

NUMBER 33 – Gerry the brace-maker!
The Lance Todd Trophy was first introduced to the Challenge Cup Final in 1946 as the final returned to Wembley in the post-War era. The trophy is presented to the man of the match chosen by the Rugby League Writers’ Association members, and is named after the New Zealand born ex-Wigan player and Salford manager. Todd was killed in a road accident during the World War Two, and the award was introduced to commemorate and celebrate his contributions to the sport. Efforts by The Red Devil’s Association of Salford provided the funds for the Trophy, and replicas for each winner, and the award is presented at the Willows each year in a celebratory dinner.
The honour was less than ten years old before it was won on two occasions by one individual. The player in question was Warrington scrum-half Gerry Helme who first scooped the award in the 1950 19-0 demolition of local rivals Widnes.
Four years later Helme took the award for the second time, but it was his performance in the historic replay at Odsal that earned him his place in history. After a 4-all draw at Wembley the Wire and Halifax met again at Bradford Northern’s home ground in front of a record crowd in excess of 100,000 people. As the crowds poured through the turnstiles, Warrington took an early lead through a Challinor try. Halifax got back into the game through two penalties but it was Helme who sealed the victory with a match winning try.
Helme’s feat would never again be repeated in this manner as the Red Devil’s Association deemed that the Trophy should in future be awarded only to the man of the match in the Wembley game in the case of a drawn Final. Another scrum-half Andy Gregory became the first to win the award twice at Wembley, being honoured in 1988 and 1990. Martin Offiah and Sean Long later also achieved the dual-winner status.

NUMBER 32 – Always the Wembley bridesmaid
No player in the history of the game has experienced as much Wembley heartbreak as Paul Loughlin. On five occasions the international centre won through to the Challenge Cup final, but on five occasions he headed home with nothing more than a loser’s medal to show for it.
Loughlin first won a place at the Twin Towers with his home town club St. Helens in 1987 when he kicked a goal in the 14-8 semi-final defeat of Leigh. Despite scoring a try in a late comeback, the Saints went down 19-18 to a Graham Eadie inspired Halifax (see moment 20) and Loughlin had his first taste of Wembley disappointment.
Within the next four years, Loughlin would twice face Wigan in the showpiece event. The first game in 1989 was one to forget for Saints’ fans as Wigan demolished them 27-0 and despite running the Riversiders closer two years later, a 13-8 score-line provided Loughlin with his third piece of Wembley heartbreak.
In November 1995 with the Super League era dawning, Loughlin joined Bernard Dwyer and Sonny Nickle in making the move to Bradford Bulls as make-weights in the £500,000 player plus cash deal that saw Paul Newlove move in the opposite direction. Half a year later he would be lining up against his former team-mates in the 1996 Challenge Cup Final. With 27 minutes remaining and the Bulls leading 26-12, it looked like Loughlin would finally achieve his Wembley glory, but a series of Bobbie Goulding kicks which Bradford didn’t deal with put paid to his hopes and Loughlin joined Bill Ramsey as a four time Wembley loser.
One year later, Loughlin moved ahead of Ramsey who despite his four defeats had actually managed one winner’s medal, when the Bulls lined up for the 1997 final to again face St. Helens. A victory looked less achievable than the previous year with Saints more dominant throughout in a 32-22 win, but this wouldn’t have lessened Loughlin despair. The game proved to be his final appearance and defeat on the hallowed turf, and the irony that his home town club had denied him in one way or another in all five games was lost on few.

NUMBER 31 – Never even the Wembley bridesmaid!
In terms of bad luck in the Challenge Cup, few can match the Wembley curse that appears to have been on the Oldham club when it comes to semi-finals. Despite having won four Challenge Cups, they all came in the pre-Wembley era, and in the Wembley era the club lost no less than seven semi finals.
Some of the results can be called close, with a 7-4 defeat to Widnes in 1934, a 12-9 defeat to Hull in 1960, and an 18-7 loss to Castleford in 1986, and more recent results can be deemed comprehensive (30-16 and 48-20 defeats to Wigan in 1991 and 1995 respectively), but two other results arguably display the full extent of the curse!
The first is the 1964 defeat to Hull KR in a game that took three attempts. The first game at Headingley was a tight run affair, with the teams eventually tied at 5-all forcing a replay at Swinton. The two teams were equally hard to separate in the replay, and again after 80 minutes a tied score-line was recorded with each team scoring 14 points. This led to a period of extra-time in which Oldham scored to take the game to 17-14. Then with 12 minutes gone, and the Roughyeds having a toe at Wembley the game was abandoned due to bad light! A second replay was scheduled at Huddersfield but Rovers eased through 12-2.
The second incident was in the 1990 semi-final when a confident promotion chasing Oldham lined up at Central Park to face First Division Warrington. Richard Irving had scored for Oldham, but Martin Crompton and Mark Forster efforts nosed Wire in front 10-6. With one minute on the clock, man of the match Oldham half Mike Ford kicked through and wingman Paul Lord touched down. Controversially referee John Holdsworth deemed that Lord was offside, and the score was disallowed. Oldham’s Wembley dreams again came close enough to taste only to be snatched away.

NUMBER 30 – Go Rees lightening!
Quiz question: Which player scored a try at Wembley before the official kick-off?
Graham Rees of St Helens is the man in question, who proved that you don’t need to be the quickest player in the world to break records for speed. The 1972 Final between St. Helens and Leeds kicked off slightly before the clock struck 3pm, and 35 seconds after the ball left Kel Coslett’s boot, Rees placed Saints into a 3-0 lead and earned a place in Challenge Cup folklore as the fastest-ever scorer in a final.
Coslett’s long kick-off had penned Leeds close to their line, and Saints blocked their progress with the first two tackles of the game. Leeds hooker Tony Fisher threw a week pass to scrum-half Keith Hepworth who had no option but to try to boot the ball clear. Welsh international prop Rees threw himself in the way of the kick, charging it down and scooping up the loose ball to go over the try line for an unprecedented start. Although on the day people timed the try anywhere between half a minute and one and a half minutes, 35 seconds in now the accepted time.
Rees’ moment of history set Saints on their way, which they extended 15 minutes later as Les Jones went past John Atkinson to score in the corner handing the Knowsley Road side control. The Jones try would prove to be difference as Coslett and Leeds’ Terry Clawson each landed five goals in total, with Phil Cookson crossing for the Loiners only try in a 16-13 Saints win remembered more for the first half minute than the full 80.

NUMBER 29 – Broncos break Tigers’ hearts
After Castleford Tigers’ 1999 semi final defeat to the London Broncos, Stuart Raper stated that “People say they don’t remember losing semi-finalists, but I think they’ll remember us in this game.” A truer word could not be spoken, because although the game signalled the most significant moment in the history of the London club, it is remembered as much for the contribution of, and emotional impact on, the Castleford players in one of the most thrilling semi finals in the competition’s history.
The game had a unique atmosphere and flow throughout as the injury ravaged Broncos went head-to-head with their more physically dominant counterparts. Wembley veterans Karle Hammond, Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards joined Robbie Beazley in scoring for the Broncos while Michael Eagar, Darren Rogers and two Richard Gay efforts levelled things up for the Tigers in a see-saw battle. Going into the last ten minutes, only a Beazley drop goal separated the sides as the Broncos led 21-20.
Castleford grabbed the game by the horns, led by eventual 1999 Man of Steel Adrian Vowles who surged forward and in mid-tackle got the most miraculous of over the shoulder passes away to centre Michael Eagar who scorched down the Headingley turf to score what many believed to be a deserved match winner. Orr converted and the Yorkshire side led 26-21.
The Tigers held out for five more minutes, but again the dam burst as Peter Gill went over in the corner to bring the Broncos within a point. Brett Warton had kicked averagely throughout the game but from somewhere summoned his best of the day to put London close to victory with less than three minutes remaining. As the clock clicked onto the 79th minute Danny Orr breathed new life into the dejected Tiger’s fans as he slotted over a one pointer for what appeared set to take the game into extra-time.
With a set of tackles left, the Broncos pushed their way forward with the whole ground expecting their own one-pointer. Against all odds, Steele Retchless ghosted through a gap for a not only a dramatic last-second winner, but a try that clinched the Broncos’ first-ever final, and fittingly a place in the last final to be played in the capital’s Wembley stadium before redevelopment. This was no consolation for the Cas fans who shared the tears of veteran Tigers’ prop Dean Sampson who sat a solitary figure on the bench and denied a last stab at the big time.

NUMBER 28 – Dorahy’s despair
John Dorahy experienced some Challenge Cup misery as a coach in 1995 when he was sacked from his position at Wigan despite having just led the team to glory, but he arguably experienced a greater low in the 1986 Final when he had the opportunity to bring the cup to Hull Kingston Rovers in the last minute of normal time… but couldn’t deliver.
The Robins opponents at Wembley were Castleford but despite finishing four places higher than the Wheldon Road outfit in the league, their form was worse. In the ten games separating the semi-final replay victory and the final, Rovers had won only three games, and went into the final missing International second row pair Chris Burton and Phil Hogan and with fitness worries over George Fairburn, Gavin Miller and Dorahy himself. Cas meanwhile had confidently named their starting line-up days before the game.
The match itself was a tight affair with Lance Todd winner Bob Beardmore’s 32nd minute drop goal separating the sides at both half and full time. The interval scoreline read 7-6 to Cas with Rovers’ Gary Prohm scoring in the last minute of the half to cancel out Tony Marchant’s earlier outstanding try as he ran 60 metres to touch down after using David Plange as a decoy. Second half tries as Beardmore followed up his kick to score, followed by miniature wing-man Jamie Sandy evading three tacklers to cross the whitewash in the corner made the score 15-6, and with just 18 minutes remaining the trophy looked set for a place in the Wheldon Road trophy cabinet.
With little time remaining, Rovers upped their game and five minutes after the Sandy score, Prohm powered his way through three tacklers to score in the left-hand corner. Dorahy failed to convert from the touchline, but was given another opportunity when John Lydiat crossed in the 79th minute. Now trailing just 15-14, Dorahy lined the kick up knowing that he was one kick of the ball away from being the Wembley hero and bringing Rovers only their second Challenge Cup. Dorahy had kicked the second highest number of goals by a First Division player that year so he was capable enough, but with only one previously success that day he looked unconfident. The ball sailed to the left of the posts and Cas had the cup. Dorahy could only reflect on what might have been.

NUMBER 27 – Offiah completes the set in style
After signing for Widnes in 1987, Martin Offiah quickly made his mark on most aspects of rugby league. He broke try-scoring records, was Man of Steel, won the League, World Club Challenge, Regal Trophy Premiership and Lancashire Cup, starred in Australia and was a key member of the Great Britain set-up. One accolade that remained elusive however was a Challenge Cup winner’s medal. In his four years at Widnes Offiah had missed out at the semi-final stage on two occasions to St. Helens (1989 and 1991) and had fallen at the third round stage to both Wigan and Oldham (1988 and 1990).
After demanding a transfer and sitting out the first five months of the 1991/1992 season, Offiah signed for Cup kings Wigan for a world record £440,000 fee presenting him with the opportunity to make his first real impression on the competition.
Quickly finding himself again at the semi-final stage, Offiah was determined to finally go one further and win a place at Wembley. League strugglers Bradford Northern were the opposition, but with three consecutive wins and a strong quarter final performance against Halifax in the last month, hopes of an upset were high. Offiah had other ideas however and formed an irresistible pairing with man of the match Gene Miles as they scored seven tries between them, with Offiah bagging five in 71-10 annihilation.
Offiah’s influence was further felt five weeks later at Wembley when he finally got his hands on a winner’s medal as Wigan cruised past Castleford 28-12. Typical of the man, Offiah electrified the occasion as he had done so many others scoring two tries, and just being denied a record breaking Wembley hat-trick. Not content with winning the game, Offiah also marked his Challenge Cup Final debut by winning the Lance Todd Trophy and adding another notch to his legendary status.

NUMBER 26 – A Quirk of fate
Moment 27 describes Martin Offiah’s failure to make it to Wembley in a Widnes shirt, and in the 1989 semi final it was his opposite number five who denied him in dramatic fashion.
Widnes were pitted against St. Helens in the fixture played at Central Park Wigan, with the Chemics on the Championship charge and the Saints in mid-table mediocrity. The form book suggested that the dream Widnes v Wigan final would be played out five weeks later, but the Knowsley Road side had designs on taking the cup out of their local rivals’ hands.
The Saints side was injury-ravaged, but the playing field was somewhat evened after 20 minutes when a trip saw Great Britain International Richie Eyres sent from the field for a trip. The game swung from one side to the other, with the lead changing hands on numerous occasions with Darren Bloor and Les Quirk scoring for the Saints, and Darren Wright and David Hulme crossing for Widnes. Currier’s superiority with the both gave the Chemics a slight advantage.
Then, with Widnes believing they had one boot at Wembley, the lead changed once more as out of nowhere Quirk darted down the wing and crashed in to score a spectacular effort. Saints had the lead right at the death and Widnes had no time to reverse the result as the Saints marched on to Wembley for the second time in three years and to a second defeat.

NUMBER 25 – A positive final break for Hampson
Despite being a regular fixture in the Wigan number one jersey after signing from Vulcan Rugby Union in 1983, remarkably it would be 1989 before Hampson would make his Challenge Cup Final debut. In an era when Wigan were reclaiming Wembley as a second home, Hampson had the misfortune of missing out on each of the 1984, 1985 and 1988 finals through injury. In 1984 a broken leg a month before the final put paid to a dream Wembley appearance in his debut season, and this was followed by a broken arm before the 1985 final.
The 1988 final was arguably the most heartbreaking for the international full-back. No player pulled on the cherry and white more than Hampson in the 1987/88 season, and after one of his best seasons in the game he looked set to finally have an impact on Wembley. Two games from the clash with cup holders Halifax however, Hampson’s dreams turned into a nightmare as he suffered another broken arm to miss his third final.
The following season saw Hampson finally arrive on the big occasion in style. Wigan lined up for the 1988/89 final against their bitter rivals St. Helens aiming to win consecutive finals for the first time since 1959, and blew their neighbours off the park in a 27-0 thrashing. A third-minute Kevin Iro try kicked off the rout, followed by a Hanley score which gave Wigan a 12-0 half-time lead.
Further scores from Iro and Andy Gregory sealed the game in the second half, and with four minutes remaining Hampson made up for his years of frustration as the ball was fed across from the right wing through the hands of Gregory and then Lydon before Hampson collected to dive over the try-line in the left hand corner. The personal importance was written all over Hampson’s face as he punched the air and celebrated finally winning at Wembley, a moment he would repeat in each of the following four years as Wigan dominated the competition.

NUMBER 24 – Wembley Captain, Coach and Chairman
When Eric Ashton led his team back down the Wembley tunnel to the dressing rooms after the 1966 hammering by St. Helens, his extended place in history would have come nowhere near to lifting the disconsolate mood. Although Wigan’s player-coach had to face the 21-2 score-line, the game represented a record sixth time that Ashton had captained a side at Wembley, each occasion being with the Wigan club.
Ashton’s six finals were spread over just eight years with Wigan fans as familiar with the route to Wembley in the late ’50s and early ’60s as they were in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The first was a win against Workington Town in 1958 (moment 36), and he followed this with a second success twelve months later as Hull were hammered 30-13.
It would however be a further six years before Ashton would lead a side to victory again when he coached and skippered the classic 1965 defeat of Hunslet. This victory also saw Ashton take a place in history as he equalled the record of Wakefield Trinity’s Derek Turner by captaining a side to three Wembley successes, later joined by Alex Murphy, Dean Bell and Ellery Hanley. In between, Ashton led Wigan to a 1961 narrow 12-6 defeat, again to St. Helens, and a 1963 defeat to Wakefield Trinity in which Turner himself first made his historic 3-peat.
Some 30 years after his momentous sixth captaincy, Ashton made history again when ironically he led St. Helens out of the tunnel as chairman for their clash with the Bradford Bulls to become the first man to ever captain, coach and be chairman of a side in the Wembley final. In between his record-making days, Ashton’s Wembley relationship had been further extended as a winning coach with St. Helens in 1976, and losing coach with both Wigan and Saints in 1970 and 1978 respectively. Ashton also returned as Saints chairman in 1997, extending his involvement with the occasion to nearly 40 years.

NUMBER 23 – Monie develops the legacy
When John Monie left Parramatta Eels in 1989 to step into Graham Lowe’s shoes at coach at Central Park, he inherited the beginning of a Wembley legacy. With final victories over Halifax and St. Helens achieved in the previous two years, Wigan fans demanded a continuation of the success and Monie delivered on a spectacular scale. It wasn’t the first time Monie had filled big shoes having replaced the legendary Jack Gibson at Parramatta and won a Premiership.
By the time his three and a half years at the club was over, Monie flew out to take over at the Auckland Warriors with his name in the record books. The 20-12 final defeat of Widnes in 1993 was the fourth consecutive win that he had plotted, and signified a record which stands today as the largest number of Wembley victories achieved by a coach. Not content with four successive Cup wins, it was actually the fourth consecutive league and Cup double too!
Monie’s reign began with the Andy Gregory inspired 1990 destruction of Warrington, and was followed by the 13-8 defeat of St. Helens and the 28-12 easing past Castleford. By the time Widnes lined up as 1993 opponents, the air of invincibility surrounding Wigan was so strong that people questioned when they would ever not be in the final! Although the Chemics ran them close, the victory proved a fitting finale for Monie.
In 1997 he returned to the club, and again worked his Challenge Cup magic as Wigan returned to Wembley after missing out in the two previous seasons. Unfortunately for Monie, John Kear worked his own first Wembley miracle that day and he experienced defeat for the first time. Despite failing to extend his record, his mark on history remained intact, and given that his four finals wins were achieved consecutively, he effectively created another record. It’s fair to say that it will take an almighty effort to remove him from the record books completely!

 

NUMBER 22 – The first ‘greatest ever final’
When people look to the great Challenge Cup finals, a match that frequently talked about in the same breath as classics such as the Wigan v Hull game from 1985 and the St. Helens v Bradford clash of 1996 is another East v West of the Pennines encounter, the 1965 end to end thriller between Wigan and Hunslet in the last ever final played under the unlimited tackle rule.
Typically, Wigan were the favourites for victory. The Riversiders were making their ninth trip to the Twin Towers whereas the Parksiders were making only their second visit, and in league terms, Wigan had finished in second place compared to Hunslet’s mid-table 14th.
Plucky Hunslet took their underdog status on the chin, and with twelve Yorkshiremen in their team with immense pride in their jerseys they always had a chance. It was however the only non-local in the side, Welshman John Griffiths, who made the earliest impact when he powered past Rhodesian Trevor Lake to almost score. This early effort showed Wigan that the win couldn’t be taken for granted, and this proved the case throughout the game, with Griffiths eventually adding a score. Down just 12-9 at half time, the two sides continued to hit each other back and forward in a tit-for-tat battle.
Although Wigan managed to score double the number of tries through Lake (2), Holden, and Gilfelder, compared to the scores of Griffiths and Geoff Shelton, it was the goal kicking of Billy Langton that kept the Yorkshiremen in the game. Ultimately however Wigan would hold on for the win, taking the spoils 20-16.
The closeness of the game is emphasised by the co-award of the Lance Todd trophy to Wigan full back Ray Ashby and Hunslet stand off Brian Gabbitas, the first and only occasion on which this has occurred. Gabbitas may have joined Frank Whitcombe and Tommy Harris as Lance Todd winning losers, but rugby league itself was the overall winner with a classic final.

 

NUMBER 21 – First-ever Wembley
The breakout and subsequent impact of the First World War meant that in the late 1910s the Challenge Cup was not played for four seasons. In 1920 the competition returned and over the next decade experienced a growth surge as society turned to sporting events for entertainment and community, with attendances virtually doubling in comparison with the pre-War decade. Such growth prompted the requirement to take the final out of the traditional venues across the North and to a facility more capable of hosting the demand and the occasion.
It was a call from the South that led to the game being taking to the nation’s capital, but it was South Wales not the South of England! John Leake, chairman of the Rugby League’s Welsh Commission, initially proposed the move to London in 1928 and provided with the options of the Crystal Palace stadium or the Empire Stadium (Wembley) the latter won the vote and privilege of becoming home to rugby league’s big day.
The first Wembley final was held a year later and contested between Dewsbury and appropriately given that in future years the venue would become their virtual second home, Wigan. The pair disposed of Castleford and St Helens Recs respectively in the semi-finals to earn their place.
The first final was watched by 41,500, with Cherry and White’s supporters outnumbering their Yorkshire counterparts. Wigan were favourites on the day with ten internationals, whereas Dewsbury had not one player of such standing. The game itself was however relatively close. Wigan led just 5-2 at half time with a Jim Sullivan penalty and a try from stand-off Syd Abram being countered by a Jack Davies drop-goal. The second half opened up more and Lou Brown and Roy Kinnear scored further Wigan tries, with the latter converted by Sullivan as the Riversiders recorded a 13-2 win.
The bold move paid off with a 78% increase in gate receipts on the previous year’s final, and over the next 70 years as the capital base provided rugby league with a showpiece event and a major place in the British sporting calendar.

NUMBER 20 – From hanging up the boots, to holding up the Cup
In 1983 aged just 29, Australian legend Graham Eadie retired from the game after Manly lost their domestic Grand Final to the Parramatta Eels. He hung up his boots with a place in the record books as the (then) highest total points scorer in the history of the Australian game, but little did he know that four years after leaving the game he would take another place in the games history.
Having transformed 100-1 outsiders Halifax into the 1985/86 League champions, player/coach Chris Anderson looked to strengthen his side by coaxing his former Kangaroo teammate Eadie out of retirement. Despite spending three years on the sidelines, Anderson was confident that Eadie was still talented enough to benefit his side and with twenty tries he proved the doubters wrong. He would however leave his mark on the British game in more spectacular fashion.
Although the Thrum Hallers finished a disappointing fifth in their bid to record successive championships, the Challenge Cup provided another opportunity for glory. Having led the side to their first league title in over 40 years, Anderson attempted to win a first Challenge Cup in nearly 50. Fulham, Hunslet and Hull KR were easily disposed of in the early rounds, and then a 12-6 semi-final win over Widnes provided a trip to Wembley.
League runners-up St. Helens were the opponents and in a tight game, Halifax took the spoils 19-18 with Eadie combining outstanding attack and with solid defence. In the 51st minute he combined with John Pendlebury to score the vital try which when converted edged Halifax out to an 18-8 lead, and on four occasions during the 80 minutes he made try saving tackles to deny Saints. Eadie’s efforts led to him being awarded the Lance Todd Trophy as he followed in the footsteps of only Brett Kenny to become the second-ever Australian winner of the award, and re-iterating his qualities as one of the games all-time great fullbacks.

NUMBER 19 – Sinfield the hero
When the semi-final draw paired up Leeds and St Helens for the third consecutive year, the Rhinos fans could barely believe it. Not again! A cruel 27-22 defeat in 2001 had been followed by the embarrassing 42-16 thrashing the following year. With injuries aplenty the Rhinos at least emerged from the first game with some credability but certainly not from the painful loss in 2002.
The first battle was to persuade the RFL to host the game in Yorkshire and not at Wigan again. Round one to the Rhinos as the game was played in Huddersfield and not at the JJB stadium where their record was appalling.
People forget just how good the game was. They only remember the end. It ebbed and flowed for a full 75 minutes with an early Leeds penalty, a Darren Smith try and then three scores to the Rhinos wingers Mark Calderwood (two) and Francis Cummins; all from kicks. 18-6. Typically, Saints came back and even took a second-half lead when Paul Sculthorpe forced his way through four defenders to score. Penalties saw Saints 22-20 up and then Darren Smith scored from a bullet like Sean Long pass.
In the commentary box, Ray French thought the game was over, but crucially Sculthorpe’s conversion was wide and Leeds still had time to retrieve the ball from a short kick-off and force extra-time which is exactly what they did. Danny McGuire dummied his way over in the corner and the erratic goal kicker Kevin Sinfield had a touchline shot to force extra-time. Ian Millward claimed later he knew Sinfield would kick it. Leeds fans weren’t so sure. Chris McKenna approached his captain with some words of encouragement but bit his lip realising that words were no use.
The kick was magnificent; the highlight of the 2003 season. 26-26. An ecstatic Sinfield had kept his team alive. According to Jonathan Davies, it was “One of the best kicks I’ve ever seen.”
The extra-time deadlock wasn’t broken until the last act of the first period with another Sinfield kick. This time a one-pointer. Again, most of the second period was pointless until a magnificent short ball by Dave Furner found Sinfield. He passed to the supporting McGuire who motored away, rounded Darren Albert and beat the covering Smith to seal a final encounter with Bradford Bulls.

NUMBER 18 – Sinfield the villain
You lose the Grand Final and want to bounce back and win the next competition…the Challenge Cup. Leeds did it in 1999, Bradford in 2000 and Wigan in 2002. And so the Bulls attempted to become the fourth team in five years to do this. They faced the in-form Rhinos, a team that they had such a good record against in the Super League era and the team they beat in the Murrayfield final of 2000.
An early Robbie Paul try from a dubiously forward Tevita Vaikona pass was soon cancelled out by the eventual Lance Todd winner Gary Connolly who dummied and got to the line with an arcing run. Chris McKenna put the Rhinos ahead collecting a tap back from Mark Calderwood. 14-8 and the Rhinos were on top but a nightmare five minute spell either side of half time changed the momentum completely.
Leeds livewire sub Rob Burrow was badly concussed after clashing heads with Lee Gilmour. His exit was even more painful for Leeds because they had decided to omit the semi-final hero Danny McGuire from the 17 so neither player who caused the opposition forwards so many headaches with their diminutive running were available to them. Crueller still was that Burrow dropped the ball as he suffered his injury and following the turnover the Bulls drew level in the 39th minute. Paul Deacon worked a runaround with Shontayne Hape and measured a perfect grubber kick to the corner where Lesley Vainikolo scored. A magnificent sideline conversion later and it was 14-14 at half time.
Three minutes into the second half and Leeds were behind. A total turnaround. James Lowes worked the blindside close to the Leeds line and Jamie Peacock powered over. The conversion and a penalty took the score to 22-14. With 20 to go, Leeds were within two again with Dave Furner running onto a Barrie McDermott inside ball to score.
With seven minutes left the score remained so. Leeds grubbered and a Bradford fumbled near their line. The Bulls regathered but were offside. A penalty to Leeds 10 metres in from touch. 10 metres closer to the posts than his heroic semi-final kick but Sinfield chose to tap the ball. Leeds forced a repeat set but to no avail. The Bulls held out and won the Challenge Cup.
Sinfield’s decision was a classic wise-after-the-event scenario. They lost all five games to the Bulls in 2003 so did they want a replay? Could they have raised their game once again? Would he have kicked it anyway? Despite the semi-final kick, Sinfield had been an inconsistent goalkicker around this time. Had Leeds scored a winning try it would possibly have been remembered as one of the finest captaincy decisions ever. Unfortunately though for Sinfield they didn’t.

 
NUMBER 17 – Nathan Graham’s bomb-hell
In the biggest events in sport, few individuals are remembered for years to come unless they were an absolute hero on the occasion, or the complete opposite. Unfortunately for Nathan Graham, he falls into the latter category. Say his name to most rugby league fans, and “bomb” will be one of the first words to cross their minds.
In the 1996 final with 57 minutes gone and St. Helens trailing Bradford Bulls 26-12, it looked unquestionable that the cup was heading to Odsal. Within six minutes, the picture changed dramatically. On the 57th minute Bobbie Goulding launched a bomb on the last tackle high into the in goal area and over the Bulls’ fullback Graham’s head. Graham chased back but allowed the ball to bounce back over his head towards the field of play, where an on-running Keiron Cunningham soared to collect and touch down.
Three minutes later, Goulding collected the ball on the last tackle twenty metres out from the Bulls line and launched another bomb. Graham was positioned better this time, but collided with his team-mate Paul Loughlin who knocked the ball out of Graham’s grasp. Simon Booth scooped up to touch down, and after Goulding converted again, suddenly there was a game on with Saints now just two points behind at 26-24 and twenty minutes on the clock.
Remarkably, another three minutes later Saints took the lead! Again on last tackle, and again twenty metres from the Bulls line, Bobbie Goulding launched a third successive bomb. Alan Hunte chased it down and challenged the now fragile Graham for the falling ball. The ball bounced clear off the pair, and Ian Pickavance was on hand to dive on the loose ball underneath the posts. Goulding again converted, and in what seemed like a miracle six minutes earlier, Saints took control of the game at 30-26.
In reality, Graham was only totally at fault for the first try, but memories of Goulding’s rain of bombs in the ’96 final will forever cast the Bulls fullback as the villain of the day.

NUMBER 16 – Tooth luck for the Robins
The 1980/81 season was a dream for 19-year-old Widnes scrum-half Andy Gregory, but it almost turned out to be a nightmare. After signing for the Chemics at 17, spending a season in the ‘A’ Team and battling injuries, Gregory finally forced himself into the first team in 1980 and became a permanent fixture in the side from then on.
A 17-9 semi final defeat of Warrington meant that his debut season would be capped by a trip to the Twin Towers to face the cup holders, Hull Kingston Rovers. Widnes travelled down to Wembley on the Wednesday, and Gregory was irritated by a worsening pain in his tooth which had started to develop in the weeks leading up to the final. Assuming it was due to nerves, he just kept going and expected the pain to disappear. The pain got worse and worse during the build-up, before eventually on the night before the final Gregory went to the doctor’s room in search of some painkillers to help him (and room-mate Keith Elwell!) get some sleep. The doctor realised that more than painkillers were required and rushed Gregory to hospital where the troublesome tooth was removed!
After just a couple of hours sleep, Gregory headed on to Wembley with his team-mates determined to make up for his days of misery. By half-time, the game looked to be heading the way of the Chemics with Gregory having an increasing influence on the game and his side 11-4 up with tries from Mick Burke and Mick George. Just after the break Gregory sealed his Wembley debut, and the match, with a try when he shot past Paul Harkin and Steve Hubbard to score under the posts.
Widnes went on to win the game 18-9, and Gregory was just four votes away from capping the occasion with the Lance Todd Trophy after stifling the Robins with a busy, hard-working performance. Not a bad end to the day for a lad who was sat in the dentist’s chair just hours earlier!

NUMBER 15 – The last minute crossbar assist
Gregory would get the chance to return to Wembley a year later, but it was the drama of the semi-final that made the headlines in 1981/82.
As Cup holders and with a pedigree of Wembley visits in the late 1970’s, coupled with improved league form on the previous year, Widnes were instilled as one of the early favourites for the competition. Second division new boys Cardiff City were disposed of in the first round, but the next two rounds would provide sterner contests. First was a trip to Central Park where the Chemics scraped past Wigan 9-7, and this was followed by an 8-all draw at Odsal against Bradford Northern. In the replay Andy Gregory scored the decisive try in a 10-7 win to set up a fourth consecutive semi-final appearance.
Leeds were the opponents at Swinton’s Station Road, and Widnes were soon participating in another close run encounter. With a conversion by Kevin Dick of Leeds the only difference between the two sides, as David Heron and Les Dyl’s tries for Leeds cancelled out a John Basnett brace, the score was locked at 8-6 in the 79th minute. With seconds remaining and their Wembley dreams fading, Widnes mounted one last attack. Loose forward and captain Mick Adams launched a speculative bomb which bounced off the cross-bar and gleefully into the arms of the on-running Kieron O’Loughlin who touched down beneath it. The conversion was academic, and Widnes were back at Wembley in the most dramatic of fashions.

NUMBER 14 – Record points for Fox
The Fox brothers have all made their mark on Wembley in one way or another; eldest Peter guided Featherstone Rovers to a 33-14 Final victory over Bradford Northern in 1973, Don wrote his own page in history in 1968, but in 1960 Neil Fox had his own day to remember.
The 1960 final pitted Wakefield Trinity against the previous years beaten finalists Hull, and with both sides finishing in the top three positions of the league campaign that year, predictions as to who would win were split down the middle. Come full-time however, there was little doubt as to who was the better side on the day as Trinity recorded the widest winning margin ever seen beneath the Twin Towers, in a 38-5 demolition.
In an outstanding performance, Neil Fox scored more than half of Wakefield’s points consisting of two tries and seven goals. The twenty points total proved to be a record haul for any one player in a final, with Fox bringing all of his skills to the fore. His performance with the boot was immaculate, and his length of the field try in a flowing movement with Gerry Round epitomised his class and remains one of the best seen at Wembley. His Lance Todd Trophy win was in little doubt.
It would be 39 years before either Trinity’s or Fox’s records would be challenged as the Leeds Rhinos defeated London Broncos 52-16. Although Wakefield’s record margin was passed, Iestyn Harris could only equal Fox’s record but it has to be taken into consideration that the 1960 records were achieved when a try was only worth three points. Weighting the Wakefield performance into the modern era, Fox would stand alone as the record scorer, as he in fact would have recorded a 22-point haul gaining two addition points for his two tries. Either way Fox’s performance remains historic and one of the many high-spots in a career which was rightly rewarded with a place in rugby league’s Hall of Fame.

 

NUMBER 13 – The longest drop-goal
In 1989, with Wigan and Warrington facing each other in the cup semi-final, the decision was made to play the game at Manchester City Football Club’s Maine Road ground. The second biggest semi-final crowd since 1972 turned up to witness the event, with 26,529 fans turning out to watch Warrington’s attempt to stop a consecutive Wembley appearance for the Cherry and Whites.
Maine Road was renowned in football circles as having the largest playing surface which allowed City to play with a large amount of width, so it was expected that an expansive encounter would be in the offing. Instead, the size of the playing surface ended up being utilised for other reasons as the crowd were treated to a combative display from league strugglers Warrington.
Going into the last ten minutes it seemed that an upset could potentially be on the cards, as the Warrington forwards matched their counterparts, and the score was locked at 6-all through a Joe Lydon try and conversion for Wigan and three John Woods penalties for the Wire. With seven minutes remaining, Wigan carried the ball away from their line and made it to the half-way point as referee Robin Whitfield called “five and last”. The ball was tossed back into the Wigan half to Lydon for what appeared to be a kick downfield, but instead he nonchalantly attempted a drop-goal and equally as casually turned round and jogged back to his own line for the kick-off as the ball sailed over the posts to split the game at 7-6. The kick was measured as being fully 61 metres, and holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest drop-goal in rugby history – either code.
Wigan sealed the trip to Wembley with a late Edwards try, but the talk of the day was all about the longest drop-goal in recorded history.

NUMBER 12 – What does it take to be a winner?
Next to the word ‘winner’ in the dictionary, there could easily be a photo of Shaun Edwards. In his career the Wigan legend scooped no less than 32 major honours, which incorporated eight league championships, six John Player/Regal Trophies, five Premierships, three World Club Challenges, and most famously, NINE Challenge Cup winner’s medals.
Edwards’ nine wins stands as the record number by any player in the competitions history, a record that is likely to stand for many years, as he was at the heart of Wigan’s staggering eight consecutive wins across the 80’s and 90’s. The previous individual haul was the four wins that both Alex Murphy and Brian Lockwood had enjoyed, but Edwards rapidly passed this land mark. He made a significant impact on every final he played in, but surprisingly never added the Lance Todd Trophy to his list of accolades.
The greatest example of Edwards’ winning desire and determination was in the 1990 final against Warrington, the game in which he equalled the record of Murphy and Lockwood and which highlighted every inch of why he was named the game’s Man of Steel that year. Edwards’ character was displayed before a ball was even kicked as he put in the extra rehabilitation to make a speedy recovery from a broken hand and even appear in the game at all. This character was put to the test even further nine minutes into the contest when Wire second row Bob Jackson hit Edwards with a late tackle in the ninth minute and a clash of heads left him with a fractured eye-socket and broken cheekbone.
Despite the visible injury Edwards was determined to carry on playing, later citing the amount of work that he’d put into even making the game that day as the motivation to do so. 70 minutes later, the game was over and Edwards scooped the most deserved of his nine medals in a 36-14 win. After the game Edwards arguably revealed his true motivation for remaining on the Wembley turf, stating: “We won so it was all worthwhile,” – a fine example of one the reasons why Shaun Edwards is the game’s biggest winner, in more ways than one.

NUMBER 11 – Van Vollenhoven’s special
It’s a tribute to Tom Van Vollenhoven that despite the fact he hasn’t played the game for nearly 40 years, his name is familiar with modern-day supporters. When talking about classic tries or great moments in the game, many promote the exploits of the South African winger and two examples are regularly cited; his hat-trick performance in the 1959 Championship Final against Hunslet and his effort in the 1961 Challenge Cup final against Wigan.
The 1961 clash was the first time that the two fierce rivals had ever met on rugby league’s biggest stage, but it was St. Helens who emerged victorious 12-6 ahead of the fancied Wigan side who had won two finals in the previous three years. The largest Wembley crowd for twelve years had the privilege to witness Van Vollenhoven doing what he did best… score spectacular tries.
Camped on their own try-line, Saints fed the ball right from dummy-half eventually to Ken Large who burst through the tackle of winger Carlton to clear the Wigan line. Now on his own twenty metre line, he immediately passed right to Van Vollenhoven who sped clear to half-way. Faced with the Wigan full-back Fred Griffiths he intelligently passed back inside to the supporting Large who continued towards the Wigan try-line. Eric Ashton cut across from the right centre position but his efforts were in vain as Large again fed the South African who swooped over the line and continued round behind the sticks to set up an easy conversion.
The breathtaking, flowing movement was St. Helens and Vollenhoven at their best and one of the finest of his 395 tries in just 413 games for the Knowsley Road club.

NUMBER 10 – Hanley’s consecutive classics
Rugby league legend Ellery Hanley played in the first half of Wigan’s record eight consecutive wins, and was a try scorer in each of the first three. Hanley’s influence in each of these finals was unquestionable but in the first two he scored tries that will go down as two of Wembley’s greatest, with both equally spectacular in their own way.
The 1987/88 final started Wigan’s record breaking run, and it was in this 32-12 win that Hanley first stamped his mark on Wembley. Having just scored through Tony Iro, Wigan prepared to receive the ball from the kick-off. Joe Lydon collected the ball from Andy Gregory ten metres from his own line and dummied Bob Grogan to set off on a spectacular run downfield. Lydon went over the half way line as the defence closed in, and twenty metres from the Halifax line on the left hand side of the field passed inside to the supporting Hanley who famously ran in a crab-like fashion away from Mark Meredith to score under the posts. After touching down Hanley was rewarded for his spectacular try with a late head-shot from Halifax full-back Graham Eadie!
One year later, Hanley added to his Wembley account with a piece of individual brilliance in the 27-0 defeat of St. Helens. Midway through the first half, Hanley took a pass from Shaun Edwards about 45 metres from the Saints line. He charged forward and with a remarkable weaving, stepping style he mesmerised Paul Vautin, Bernard Dwyer, Phil Veivers and Paul Loughlin, before finally beating Gary Connolly to score under the posts. Hanley’s pace and elusiveness left Saints’ defenders grasping at thin air and bumping into each other as he provided one of many reasons for his award of the Lance Todd Trophy that day.

NUMBER 9 – Murphy’s Law
Throughout this list of great Challenge Cup moments, there have been several unpunished moments that have turned or influenced games. In 1971 however, Syd Hynes of Leeds became the first player to ever be sent of in the Wembley final with the result virtually confirmed.
Alex Murphy’s Leigh provided one of the biggest final upsets of all time in 1971 when they didn’t just defeat the heavy favourites Leeds, they demolished them. Player/coach Murphy had the side confident, and frequently predicted that they would take the cup. This attitude carried out on to the Wembley turf and an enthusiastic, determined Leigh 13 set about their business, playing expansive, entertaining rugby.
The game was virtually over as a contest at half-time as a Dorrington try, three Ferguson goals, and a pair of drop goals from Fiddler and Murphy left the scoreboard reading 13-0 in Leigh’s favour. Early in the second period, a John Holmes penalty gave the Loiners hope, but Leigh held out under pressure before Murphy and Eckersley dropped further one pointers, followed by another Ferguson penalty extended the lead again to 17-2.
Then with 15 minutes remaining, the record-breaking sending-off occurred. Syd Hynes was alleged to have head-butted or deliberately struck Murphy’s head and as the player/coach lay prone waiting for the stretcher bearers to take him from the field, referee Bill Thompson showed the Leeds centre the red card. Many believed that this was gamesmanship from Murphy at its best (or worst). No stranger to controversy, he returned to the field almost immediately showing little effects and many Leeds supporters swear to this day that he winked at them from the stretcher.
A further try from Eckersley extended the lead against the 12 men, before Wainwright was awarded a last-minute consolation penalty try for Leeds. In the end, the minnows took the spoils in a 24-7 shock win, but as much as people remember the performance and win, they equally remember and debate Murphy’s ‘performance’ in the 65th minute.

NUMBER 8 – “And still Hanley!”
Given that Ellery Hanley is renowned for the brilliance of the two Wembley tries described in moment 10, it is a mark of the player that he is equally renowned for a moment which usurped either of these, and which came in less high profile surrounds. In the 1983 semi-final between Hanley’s then employers Bradford Northern and the eventual Cup winners Featherstone Rovers, the future Great Britain captain announced himself to the rugby league world.
Aged 21 and coming to the end of his second season in the sport, Hanley scored what has since been termed the “try of the century”. The game was televised on the BBC and Ray French’s excited commentary is synonymous with the try. After a Rovers knock-on five metres from the Bradford line, Northern scrum half Redfearn fed the ball out to the right to Hanley who set off on his run down the right wing. He first handed off John Gilbert (French: “Still going Ellery Hanley.“), and then Ken Kellett was fended away (“Oh and he’s still going!”) as Hanley sped towards half-way where he finally powered past Nigel Barker (“And he’s STILL going!!”). With the line ahead of him and a stream of Rovers in his wake, Hanley sprinted clear with Steve Quinn only able to chase in vain (“Goodness, gracious me! This could be the try of the season!”) before touching down in the corner (“…What a try from Ellery Hanley!”). Hanley celebrated in the in-goal area with an arm in the air and an expression that suggested that he couldn’t quite believe what he’s just achieved.
The try shot Hanley to prominence on a national scale, and over the next few years he established himself as one of the leading players in the game rapidly scooping international honours and two years later being named Man of Steel with a 52-try haul in 1985.

NUMBER 7 – Robbie’s historic hat-trick
If the 1996 Saints v Bulls final is remembered for the Bobbie Goulding-Nathan Graham encounter, then it’s equally as famous for the performance of Bradford skipper Robbie Paul. Paul arguably had the best possible day that any loser at Wembley could experience as he took home the Lance Todd Trophy and a cheque in his back pocket for £10,000 after becoming the first man to ever score a hat-trick at Wembley in a Challenge Cup final.
Early in the match, the Bulls’ forwards struggled to make much ground, but as the game progressed and the Saints defence tired in the near 40 degree Paul took it upon himself to make the metres for his side. Three minutes before the end of the first period, he made his first mark when he darted from dummy-half on the halfway line on a spectacular 30 metre run. He was hauled down by Andy Northey, but played the ball quickly and the Bulls continued their progress through Donougher. He played the ball quickly again and Bernard Dwyer fed the charging Paul who stepped Paul Newlove and through Steve Prescott to crash over underneath the posts.
After half-time, the Bulls took the ascendancy through a Dwyer try and on the 53rd minute Paul went over for his second of the day. As with the first try he was again involved in the creation and finish. He first ran right from dummy half stepping wide of Joynt and Pickavance before feeding Matt Calland down the right wing. Calland was stopped ten metres out from the Saints line, and Paul electrifyingly scooted from dummy half from his subsequent play the ball. Paul hit the line at immense pace, pirouetted around Pickavance and used his strength to power through the tackles of Matautia, Joynt and Sullivan.
Paul’s coup de gras was the third. With the game seemingly lost and with ten minutes remaining, Robbie produced one of Wembley’s most special tries. He again darted onto a pass from dummy-half just inside his own half and shot straight towards the retreating Saints line. He exploded through a gap, and left Joynt, Goulding and Cunningham flailing, before stepping outrageously off his right foot past fullback Prescott to touch down under the posts and earn himself a place in rugby league history.

NUMBER 6 – The end of an era
When Wigan rolled into the Willows to play First Division Salford on the 11th February 1996, few could have anticipated the role that the game would play in history. The same can be said for the 4th February 1987 when Wigan lost 10-8 to Oldham at the Watersheddings, because in between the playing of the two matches, Wigan would not lose a single game in the Challenge Cup.
The run saw Wigan clock up an astonishing 43 consecutive unbeaten ties (the only failure to win being a 1995 draw with St. Helens), which included the Cherry and Whites taking the cup home from Wembley on eight consecutive occasions. Of the 43 games, legend Shaun Edwards remarkably appeared in every single match. Edwards was also in the Wigan line-up at the Willows in 1996 when the run came to an end.
Without any respect for the Wigan reputations, Salford tore into the Central Park side from the off and quickly took the lead when David Young pounced on a grubber from Mark Lee for a fourth-minute converted lead. Wigan came back but found the Salford defence impenetrable and inspired by Wigan’s increasing frustration, the Reds counter-attacked to add a second try. Blakeley and Lee combined, before the stand-off sent Scott Naylor in for the score with Blakeley again converted. Four minutes before half-time, Blakeley slotted over a penalty and the crowd looked at the 14-0 Salford lead with disbelief. There was still time for the nerves to set in however as Tuigamala scored on half-time to give Wigan some second half hope.
Expectations of a second-half revival were quickly extinguished when Naylor added his second after good work from Forber. Blakeley remained consistent with the boot and the lead stretched to 20-4. An Offiah try provided small concern, but the Reds were running on passion and confidence and sealed the game in the 69th minute through Scott Martin. Tuigamala crossed again in the last minute, but the hooter went shortly after and Salford had a 26-16 win. The rugby league world was stunned, and the story even gained more coverage in the national news than any of Wigan’s cup wins. Andy Gregory said of the game, “Wigan were so long unbeaten in the Cup and I’d been a part of that. But I was confident and I told John Wilkinson on the morning of the game that we could win. In 1984 myself and Joe Lydon, as Wiganers, hadn’t been too popular in beating Wigan and it was the same again for me in 1996. It was a tremendous feeling for our club and we fully deserved the victory, it was one of the best occasions I’d ever been involved in and I’d never normally been an underdog in my career but to turn the mighty Wigan over was a tremendous feeling for everyone connected with the Salford club.”

NUMBER 5 – The greatest try at Wembley
After finally making his mark on the Challenge Cup final in 1992 (see moment 27), Martin Offiah undeniably carved a place in the annals of Wembley history two years later when he scored what is widely viewed as the greatest-ever try seen at the stadium.
In the 19th minute of the 1994 encounter with Leeds, Offiah embarked on his unparalleled run as he collected the ball from Frano Botica’s dummy half pass to the left of the Wigan posts, and five metres from his own try line. He accelerated towards the Leeds line and shot through a gap between Neil Harmon and a diving Graham Holroyd, pulling away from any straggling defenders. Leeds fullback Alan Tait, himself an experienced sprinter, was waiting on halfway and tried to show Offiah his inside as the only possible route past. In an instant, as if utilising some kind of turbo engine, Offiah accelerated further and without changing his stride, glided outside Tait and towards the right-wing corner. A mesmerised Tait had no chance as the legendary winger glided in to score in the corner, and the Great Britain fullback could only pat his former Widnes colleague on the back in admiration for his effort as Offiah fell to his knees looking to the heavens.
Offiah has since attributed the try as much to luck as anything else, but that is a disservice to his talents. The try is a virtual snapshot of all the skills that enabled Offiah to make the impact on rugby league that he did. The sport has seen many supremely fast players, but few with the ability to read the game like Offiah, instantly identify an opportunity like him, and most of all the ability to turn the opportunity into a four-pointer.
The try set Wigan on their way to a 26-16 win in what would be their seventh consecutive Challenge Cup win. Offiah added another later in the game appearing on Mick Cassidy’s left hand shoulder to again scorch away for his second Wembley brace, and in turn his second Lance Todd Trophy.

NUMBER 4 – The greatest final
If ever a game served as a blueprint for what all rugby league games should be like, then the 1985 final is it. Amazing passing and running play, fantastic tries, a dogged fight back, an amazing atmosphere and bags of passion were the fittingly the order of the day as Wigan met Hull in the 50th ever final. Just looking at the team-sheets today emphasises the quality involved… Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Shaun Edwards, James Leuluai, John Ferguson, Lee Crooks, Graeme West, ‘Knocker’ Norton, Garry Schofield… the list goes on.
From the first kick the pace of the game was unrelenting, with both backlines frequently involved and Hull took first blood as a second minute penalty from Crooks was built upon with an 11th minute Kevin James score. The game flowed back and forward as Sterling and Kenny instilled their influence on their respective sides. Midway through the first half, Kenny stepped up his game and twisted to release the ball on the last tackle to Ian Potter who fired a long ball out to Ferguson. With not an inch to spare, somehow Ferguson skipped around Dane O’Hara and touched down in the corner. Ten minutes later Kenny produced a piece of individual brilliance and ghosted through the Hull defence before accelerating past Gary Kemble to score. Then on half-time near his own line, Kenny spotted space on the blind side and fed David Stephenson who in turn passed on to Henderson Gill who motored three quarters of the length of the pitch past Sterling and Kemble to add another. As Gill turned with a smile illuminating the stadium, the 16-8 half-time score looked unbeatable.
If 16-8 looked bad, then three minutes into the second half 22-8 looked worse as Kenny fed Edwards to score under the posts. Hull had a mountain to climb, and Peter Sterling was determined not to be outdone by his Parramatta, New South Wales and Kangaroo team-mate. Almost immediately he ran 30 metes before feeding Steve Evans to score. Ferguson added a further try to cancel this out but still Sterling led his troops on and with 20 minutes remaining and at 28-12 down, there was nothing to lose. On the 64th minute Leuluai pulled the deficit closer, and ten minutes later Divorty closed the score to 28-20 with the margin representative of Hull’s failure to convert any of their four tries. From the kick-off after the Divorty try, Leuluai immediately roared down the field scoring a stunning 60 metre effort to bring the score to 24-28 with four minutes remaining. Again the conversion attempted failed, and Hull’s hopes died.
As the full-time hooter sounded, the crowd finally could take a breath. They had witnessed a record 10 tries, 52 points, and some of the most exciting play in the games history. Kenny pipped Sterling to become the first overseas Lance Todd winner as Wigan enjoyed an appetiser for their future Wembley dominance, and Hull bemoaned a sixth Wembley loss.

NUMBER 3 – Rugby’s biggest crowd
When the top two sides in the country Halifax and Warrington clashed in the 1954 Challenge Cup final at Wembley, the 81,841 rugby league fans in attendance anticipated a mouth-watering contest. What they got was a relatively dull game, tight defences cancelling each other out, and a 4-all draw in Wembley’s only ever try-less final.
The replay was scheduled for four days later in the rugby league heartlands, with Odsal the venue. Fans again looked forward to the clash, but it turned out that a lot more fans than anticipated were keen on witnessing the game. Conservative estimates before the game expected around 70,000 fans to turn up, but with 60,000 already in the ground up to an hour before the kick-off, these estimates appeared grossly mis-calculated.
Traffic around the stadium was a standstill for miles, and the Halifax side had to be escorted through the hoards of people into the ground. Thousands more continued to pour in, yet there still appeared to be no relent to the numbers outside the turnstiles. Inside the stadium, rows of people were squatted on the speedway track around the ground, and others perched themselves on the roofs of the stands!
By the time the game kicked off, the area outside the pitch represented a sea of people, and although the official attendance was later released as 102,569, it is believed that the number of non-paying entrants and the scrums through the turnstiles pushed the actual attendance to approximately 120,000. Either way, it was the biggest official attendance at any rugby game in the world up and no other cup final crowd came near it. It was 45 years later until the NRL held a double header at the new Telstra Stadium in 1999 which recorded a 104,583 crowd that the record was broken, and then further by the 104,583 watching the Grand Final that year.
The game itself was another tight struggle, however there was more excitement this time with Jim Challinor and Lance Todd winner Gerry Helme crossing for tries for Warrington. Halifax controversially had three tries disallowed, but could only record two penalties in the final reckoning as the cup went to Warrington in an 8-4 win. The game remains a legendary piece of rugby league folklore, and a true “I was there” moment… and plenty were there to say it!

NUMBER 2 – The poor lad
In 1968 one of the most famous of Challenge Cup finals took place as Wakefield Trinity met Leeds in the match which has become known as the “Watersplash Final”. London had been under virtually continuous rainfall for the entire Wembley week, and then during the final the heavens torrentially opened once more.
During the game players struggled to keep their footing, with a combination of a greasy surface and the gathering of puddles all over the pitch making conditions extremely difficult to manage. All three tries in the match were as a result of the condition of the pitch with Ken Hirst scoring a first half effort for Wakefield after John Atkinson had slid into touch trying to keep the ball in play.
It was however in the last couple of minutes when the full drama began to unfold. With five minutes remaining, a try was awarded to John Atkinson for obstruction after a scramble of players hacking, sliding and falling around the puddles. This was converted by Bev Risman and then with two minutes remaining Risman slotted a penalty over to take Leeds into an 11-7 lead.
As Trinity kicked off back to Leeds, the ball bounced in front of the centre Watson who attempted to trap the ball with his foot. The ball bounced forward and Ken Hirst opportunistically sliced the ball towards the Leeds try-line, he got to the loose ball first and hacked it forward again into the in-goal area before pouncing on the ball underneath the posts to take Wakefield one point behind at 11-10, with the conversion to come. Enter Don Fox.
Fox had taken over the kicking duties for the final from his injured brother Neil, but had already been successful on two occasions. Being straight in front of the posts it appeared the simplest of kicks, but the pressure of the situation combined with the weather conditions provided additional difficulty. Fox stepped up and sliced the ball to the right of the posts and Eddie Waring screamed “He’s missed it!” as the contest came to an end. As Fox pounded the turf in anguish and defeat, Waring famously added, “He’s a poor lad”.
Ironically, Fox had five minutes earlier been awarded the Lance Todd Trophy after an outstanding overall performance which he was informed of by David Coleman in an emotional post-match interview. Fox said that he was too upset to speak, but when Coleman asked whether the Lance Todd was any consolation he found the words to disconsolately say: “Not really, no”, as if any personal accolade could be any solace for failing to provide your team with a last-second Wembley win.

NUMBER 1 – The Eagles’ greatest day
Just in case there was any doubt that Wigan’s Challenge Cup glory days were behind them with the defeat to Salford and subsequent loss to St. Helens the following year, then Sheffield Eagles hammered the final nail in the coffin of their Wembley domination in the 1998 final. In the build-up to the game, Wigan’s Cup pedigree played a major role in people’s predictions with people pointing out that it was still 14 years since they had lost at Wembley, and with John Monie back at the helm, people pointed to his four previous wins.
Outside of historic reasons, people simple looked at the names of the two clubs contesting the final and thought that there was no way that Wigan could possibly lose. To be fair, previous results between the two sides and league standings suggested the same, and the bookies agreed with Wigan 14-1 ON to win the game! Few predictions however could account for the John Kear effect which Hull and St. Helens fans are now incredibly familiar with.
The Eagles had entered the competition with an intense focus on winning the competition. This focus was kept within the camp, as John Kear employed numerous psychological tactics and exercises to bring the best out of his men. When the Eagles defeated Castleford in the quarter-finals, the first murmurings of their intent started to circulate, and these developed into clear signals as Salford were disposed of with a late rally in the semi-finals. Kear had instilled an enormous level of self-belief in his troops and they lined up for tie after tie with no expectation of defeat.
This carried on to Wembley, and the sceptics only helped to instil Kear’s tactics in the minds of his players. As the world told them they had no chance of victory, Kear used this to motivate and inspire the team. Captain Paul Broadbent led a side down the tunnel desperate to get out onto the field to prove the doubters wrong, and win a game that they believed was their destiny to win.
Before Wigan knew what had hit them, the Eagles flew out of the traps at 100 miles an hour. Mark Aston floated a cross field kick to Jason Robinson’s wing and Nick Pinkney rose high to give Sheffield a 4-0 start with four minutes on the clock. Wigan quickly looked to rectify the damage and pushed the Eagles back into their own half for what felt like the majority of the next 25 minutes. Teamwork, self-belief and dogged defence kept the Sheffield line intact as Wigan struggled to create an opening. Then, in a stunning counter attack Matt Crowther and Pinkney combined to send the Eagles towards the Wigan try-line. Aston capitalised on Robinson’s hesitation and the ball was passed out wide where Doyle fed Crowther who beat Connolly to score in the corner. Aston dramatically converted and then dropped a one-pointer the other side of an Andy Farrell penalty to send the Eagles back into the dressing rooms at half-time 11-2 up.
Despite the first-half heroics, the doubters remained resolute believing that Sheffield would tire, and that Wigan would sort out their problems at half-time. The Eagles quickly dented these thoughts 11 minutes into the second period when substitute Darren Turner bundled over from dummy half, which when converted by Aston raised the score to 17-2. Mark Bell replied for Wigan and when Farrell converted to make it 17-8 there were a few people looking at their watches. Eight minutes later Farrell looked to have added his own four pointer, but in an outstanding effort Aston manoeuvred his body underneath the Great Britain captain’s to prevent him grounding the ball. With fifteen minutes left, Aston’s effort extinguished Wigan’s last hopes and the full-time hooter seemed to be quickly sounding.
The delight on the faces of the Eagles’ staff was a joy to behold as the players and coaching staff danced with joy, soaking up every last moment of their greatest day. Club legend Aston was deservedly awarded the Lance Todd Trophy, but all 17 men were heroes. Kear said of his players, “They played not only with heart, but they also played with the grey matter. It just showed what the mind can do and make the body achieve”, but the performance was equally summed up by chairman Tim Adams who scooped £33,000 from a £1,000 bet on his team at 33-1. “They said that we were the underdogs. They didn’t realise that we had a pack full of rottweilers, backs who were Yorkshire terriers, 13 bulldogs and every one could run like a bloody greyhound!”

 

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The History of State of Origin

Published in Rugby League World in 2010:

Mate against Mate, State against State! A look back on the 30-year history of Rugby League’s greatest competition, the State of Origin.

 

When, in 2001, Gene Miles, the great Queensland centre of the 1980s, uttered the words “Number seven, Allan Langer” as he announced the Maroons’ line-up for their third game against New South Wales, Rugby League’s State of Origin was creating another new life for itself. It had used up about five already, so what was another one? And that’s because, for the nth time in its 20-year history, the Origin concept was, according to the hysterical Sydney media, on the verge of extinction due to their 3-0 series victory a year earlier which had culminated in an embarrassingly easy 56-16 scoreline for the Blues. As we all know, Alfie came back from Warrington at the ‘past-it’ age of 35, and ran the arrogant Blues ragged with the help of Darren Lockyer, not for the first time, to record an absolutely sensational, against-all-odds series victory for the Maroons.

That’s not the first time, nor the last, that people have questioned the viability of State of Origin. In fact, if New South Wales had won the inaugural game in 1980, there wouldn’t have been another. If they had triumphed, as they so nearly did when they led 15-0 in 1981, there probably wouldn’t have been another. State of Origin might be the highest standard of Rugby League Football around today, but it’s very existence has all too often hung by a thread.

It all began in 1980 as the third Interstate game was scrapped in favour of a new-fangled concept that allowed players to play for their own State, not the State where they had ended up playing. Several Queenslanders were plying their weekly trade for the richer Sydney clubs and were therefore obliged to represent them in Interstate football. Origin had actually been called for from as far back as 1964 when the Brisbane-based Courier Mail writer Jack Reardon declared: “While the NSW score was mounting at the SCG last dismal Tuesday, someone in the press seats suggested that Queensland should be allowed to call on their former players now with Sydney clubs.” It had even been suggested in 1900 when the New South Wales three-quarter Lonnie Spragg moved north. “Even though residing in Rockhampton, I am of the opinion he should play for New South Wales. the time has arrived , I think, for the observance of [such] a qualification for players in inter-colonial matches,” wrote ‘the Cynic’ in The Referee.

It would be 80 years until he was listened to, and having once again been trounced by New South Wales in the first two matches of Interstate, it was finally agreed that Queensland could, for the third game, call up John Lang and Kerry Boustead from Easts, Greg Oliphant and Rod Morris from Balmain, Rod Reddy from St George, Allan Smith from Norths and last but not least, the absolutely legendary Arthur Beetson from the Parramatta Eels reserve-grade side. Yes, Artie was by now a reserve-grader.

Arthur Beetson is one of Australian Rugby League’s seven ‘immortals’; the others being Clive Churchill, Johnny Raper, Reg Gasnier, Bob Fulton, Graeme Langlands and Wally Lewis. Forget Lewis, the greatest-ever Origin player, for the time being; if it wasn’t for the deeds of Arthur Beetson on that fabulous night in July 1980, State of Origin would have died 80 minutes after it had been born. That’s because Queensland absolutely had to win. For years they had pushed Sydney’s governing body to adapt its Interstate rules to Origin’s. Senator Ron McAuliffe, the godfather of Queensland Rugby League, sold the concept as hard as he could, and with Interstate on its last legs on the basis of NSW’s complete domination that had seen them win TWENTY consecutive series, the Origin match was eventually given the go ahead. It was the last roll of the dice to keep the New South Wales v Queensland fixture alive, and few people south of the border thought it stood a chance, including Fulton who, incredibly, deemed it “the non-event of the century”.

Fortunately, 33,210 rabidly passionate Queenslanders thought otherwise and packed out Lang Park. Lewis, to this day, swears that he hasn’t heard a noise to rival that of the crowd as Beetson was announced to the crowd. After years of pulling on a Blues’ jersey just because he played his football in Sydney, the great man had finally come home, right at the end of his career. And, in an moment that saw the birth of the wonderful phrase ‘mate against mate, state against state’, he clobbered his Parramatta mate, and equally iconic legend, Mick Cronin. It was almost like hitting Mother Theresa; no-one would hit the gentlemanly Cronin, but with State pride on the line, Beetson got him with a high shot as he stood vulnerable and upright in a tackle. If Beetson could swing an arm at Cronin, anything could happen, and with proof that Origin meant the world to at least half of the players on display, Queensland v New South Wales finally had some meaning again. The home side won 20-10 although the first-ever Origin try went to the Blues’ Greg Brentnall.

1981 saw the continuation of the Interstate series, but again NSW triumphed with the minimum of fuss, so game three, again, was played under Origin rules and the Maroons overturned a 15-0 deficit, thanks partly to a sensational Eric Grothe try, to win 22-15. Chris Close, as he was in year one, was named man of the match. Finally, Origin had legs and common sense prevailed – Interstate football was dead and 1982 would see the first best-of-three series played under Origin rules.

Again, barely anyone gave the Maroons a chance in 1982 – surely they were a fluke? But with Lewis and a certain Mal Meninga developing at a rate of knots, and with Beetson coaching, the Maroons overturned a 0-1 deficit to win the first proper Origin series with a horrendous in-goal mix-up from Blues pair Phil Sigsworth and Philip Duke gifting Lewis a crucial try.

The following year provided one of Origin’s most controversial moments when the fiery Blues forward Les Boyd smashed the cheekbone of the hapless Darryl Brohman with a vicious elbow attack. Incredibly he wasn’t sent off, but after Brohman’s club, Penrith, complained, Boyd was suspended for 12 months. In his defence Boyd said: “It’s not that I wanted to do it. [Referee] Barry Gomersall was giving us a friggin’ hard time and the penalties were going against us … it was just one of those spur-of-the-moment things.” Back on the field, Lewis tore New South Wales to pieces with a masterclass in the deciding game which saw his side 33-0 up at one stage.

In 1984, the Blues’ agony continued as their opponents won the first two games by margins of 17 and 12 points. The clincher, at the Sydney Cricket Ground, produced possibly Origin’s most famous try as Lewis’s chipped kick rebounded off the crossbar into the grateful arms of an unlikely tryscorer Greg Dowling, who took the ball from around his ankles in the most dreadful of conditions. “It was a wet, muddy night and whoever scored next was going to win,” he said. “Wally put up a kick and I followed it through. I remember seeing ‘Jimmy’ [Garry] Jack getting ready to catch it and I was really going to give it to him. But it hit the bar, I stuck my hands out and caught it about an inch off the ground and scored. The main problem was Wally jumping up and down in a puddle next to my head and nearly drowning me!”

Finally, in 1985, New South Wales got their hands on the Origin shield as Steve Mortimer, their captain and halfback, sunk to his knees in celebration and kissed the famous SCG turf. He was chaired from the field with the chant of “Blues! Blues! Blues!” reverberating around the stadium. “That win was the proudest moment of my life and I wanted to enjoy it,” said the champion Canterbury player who won four Premierships with Canterbury.

They even went one better in 1986, whitewashing Queensland 3-0. The Blues, now with Peter Sterling at half partnering his clubmate Brett Kenny, won the series with scores of 22-16, 24-20 and 18-16. The great Sterling only played Origin 14 times but picked up four man-of-the-match awards. The tide was beginning to turn, and it couldn’t come too soon for the New South Wales.

The 1987 series was famous for the introduction to Origin of Allan Langer. The tiny halfback was playing for Ipswich Jets in the Brisbane Leagues and a number of Queensland players, most notably Lewis himself, objected to Langer’s selection. “[Coach] Wayne Bennett brought it up at a selection meeting and I said to him: ‘He struggled in defence at the weekend and he may be a target for the Blues.’ Bennett looked at me and just said ‘thanks’. Ten minutes later, they’d named the side and Langer was in. My opinion wasn’t worth two bob! In training we were going through our defensive patterns and Bennett said Alf would stand behind the line. Paul Vautin came in and said, ‘He’s playing for Queensland. No-one’s going to f***ing hide!’ He looked at Alf and said ‘You’re not going to hide are you?’ Alf was too scared to say anything but ‘no!’” Langer went on to enjoy a great series and picked up the official man-of-the-match award in the deciding game as his side triumphed 10-8 to get their hands back on the shield for the first time in three years. He would hold onto that number-seven jersey for years with no-one, not even The King, questioning his selection. As a footnote, a fourth game was played in 1987 in California as a promotional exercise and was won 30-18 by NSW, but it didn’t count towards the series score.

If you’re looking for truly great Origin moments then two came in the next two series and both involved Lewis. In 1988, with his state 1-0 up thanks to a great performance from the now-departed Peter Jackson, Lewis was controversially sin-binned for running in by referee Michael Stone. Quite simply, the crowd went ballistic, chucking hundreds of beer cans onto the field in protest. The game was held up as the cans were cleared away while the Blues players, most notably centre Mark McGaw, were terrified that the fans were going to charge onto the field. Sparkles, as he was nicknamed, tried to persuade captain Wayne Pearce to lead his players off the field, but his protests were ignored. When Lewis returned he helped his side to a 16-6 win, which they backed up in the decider at Sydney with a comprehensive 38-22 thrashing of the Blues, with cult hero prop Sam Backo winning consecutive man-of-the-match awards.

Lewis was remembered for the right reasons in 1989 as he scored a sensational try in the most demanding of circumstances to clinch yet another series victory. With game one in the bag, the Maroons travelled south where everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, losing Langer with a broken leg, Meninga with a fractured eye socket, Vautin with an elbow injury and Mick Hancock with a bruised shoulder, while Bob Lindner, incredibly, had to carry on with a fracture in his ankle. Leading his men out for the second half, Lewis took his charges past the casualties and urged them to finish the series off for them – an inspired piece of captaincy. With the match crucially poised, and the Blues fancying themselves to win on the basis of the Queensland’s problems, Trevor Gillmeister, aptly nicknamed ‘The Axe’, chopped down Bradley Clyde with a wonderful hit and the ball was seized by the Maroons’ stand-in halfback, Michael Hagan, who passed to Lewis. The rest is history. Lewis, barely inside his opponents’ half of the field, set off on a mazy, weaving run and ended up carrying defenders over the line for a wonderful individual try. Game, set and match. “We were shot to bits – it was probably one of Queensland’s greatest moments,” mused The Emperor of Lang Park afterwards.

1990 saw Origin move away from the two states as game two went to Melbourne. The Blues, who had already won the first match, sealed the series with a 12-6 win in Victoria courtesy of a great performance from Ricky Stuart. By this stage Jack Gibson, who in 2008 was named the finest coach in the history of Australian Rugby League, was in charge of New South Wales while Ben Elias picked up the man-of-the-series award.

1991, Lewis’s last series, remains one of the greatest State of Origin series with the margin in each game only two points. Game one ended in almost farcical circumstances as Michael O’Connor missed a late conversion to tie the game, but Meninga, inexplicably, booted his kick-off out on the full. NSW had a halfway-line penalty shot to level the scores but Greg Alexander’s attempt fell short. Amazingly in game two in Sydney, O’Connor was presented with another late goal attempt and sent a sensational, curling conversion over the posts from tight on the right touchline, as he converted Mark McGaw’s try to level the series. The game is also remembered for Mark Geyer’s fiery performance which culminated in an infamous spat with Lewis as the teams walked off for half-time. But a fortnight later, Queensland triumphed again to send Lewis out a winner. With them hanging on grimly late in the game, it was announced over the public-address system that it was to be Lewis’s final Origin prompting the crowd to rise to the occasion and cheer their team to victory.

With Lewis gone, a new State of Origin era dawned in 1992. The man with the greatest Origin coaching record took his place in the Blues hotseat and masterminded, for the first time, an age of New South Wales domination. It was Phil ‘Gus’ Gould, as unpopular in Queensland as he is in England, but, even as his fiercest critics would have to admit, he was a brilliant coach. He encouraged his players to replicate the Queensland-like spirit that had worked against the Blues for so many years. He kicked off his reign with a 14-6 win and after the Maroons had levelled the series in Brisbane with a nailbiting 5-4 win courtesy of a late Langer field goal, Gould masterminded a 16-4 triumph to seal the series.

One of Gould’s masterstrokes was to appoint Laurie Daley as his captain. Daley didn’t even captain his club side, Canberra Raiders, who were led by Meninga. “Laurie often told us how Mal showed him absolutely no mercy,” wrote Gould in the foreward to Daley’s autobiography. “In game two [of 1993] we led into the final ten minutes but the Queenslanders rallied to score and set up a grandstand finish. We were holding them down their end when a long pass to Mal Meninga sent the big man into the clear. From where I was sitting I could only see one man in pursuit. Coming across in cover was the Blues skipper Laurie Daley. The next few seconds seemed to take an eternity as I watched these two great men eyeball each other and come to terms with the situation. In years gone by Mal Meninga would have not hesitated in going for the corner … [but] … the great man slowed down and waited for support. His respect for the Blues captain had reached the point that he realised the Laurie would be too quick for him and too strong to fend. Mal’s pass was spoiled by Laurie, who secured possession for the Blues. It was the final play of the game and when the siren sounded, the Blues had scored a sensational series victory. When Laurie came back into the dressing room, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, ‘You are the boss now. You got him’.”

But despite New South Wales’s three-year domination of Origin, 1994 produced a Queensland moment to rival anything Lewis had ever done – perhaps it even topped it. With Lewis coaching the Maroons, they trailled game one in Sydney by two points with seconds left and what happened next is firmly embedded in Australian sporting history. Langer found his great mate Kevin Walters, who passed to Willie Carne before the ball ended up with Steve Renouf, who raced upfield. Hancock, Darren Smith, Langer again and Meninga all handled in a sensational, sweeping move before the captain found centre Mark Coyne who stepped inside the challenges of Stuart and Brad Fittler to score. “That’s not a try, that’s a miracle,” shouted Ray Warren in the commentary box. Indeed it was. But Gould went to work on his stunned troops and led them to 14- and 15-point victories to clinch their third-straight series.

By the time the next series came along, the Australian game was tearing itself in two as Super League tried to wrest control of the sport from the ARL. Sadly – it seemed at the time – no Super League-aligned players could play in the 1995 Origin, but, incredibly, that short-sighted decision led to one of the most astonishing underdog victories in Australian sport. Queensland’s former loose forward Paul Vautin took over the coaching reins and, unable to select players from Brisbane Broncos, was forced to select unheralded players like Terry Cook, Craig Teevan and a young Ben Ikin. But, captained by Papua New Guinean Adrian Lam, they stunned the Blues to win game one 2-0, courtesy of a Wayne Bartrim penalty. With the Blues desperate to level the series, emotion got the better of everybody in the early stages of Origin II in Melbourne, as the most incredible series of brawls broke out all over the field. When the football restarted, the Maroons wrapped up the series with a 20-12 win with Brett Dallas scoring a late long-range try. For game three, their captain, Gillmeister, even discharged himself from hospital against medical advice, undid his drip and led his side to a third win. He didn’t last the full 80 but was chaired from the field a hero.

In 1996, the Super League players returned, but with a far stronger team on paper, the Maroons couldn’t repeat their success and went down to a 0-3 drubbing with Andrew Johns and Geoff Toovey leading the way, and Craig Greenhill becoming the first red-carded player in Origin history. They repeated the dose in 1997, in a dull series memorable only for a brawl which saw Johns sparked out by Queensland hooker Jamie Goddard. As in 1995, there were no Super League players but this time it hurt the series badly. Instead, Super League hosted a Tri-Series including New Zealand and the Blues beat the Maroons in a wonderful final decided in golden point by a Noel Goldthorpe field goal.

With League reunited again in 1998, the Maroons got their hands back on the shield with Langer scoring a magnificent and crucial try in the deciding game. Again, as in 1994, they won the opener with a length-of-the-field last-minute try, with Tonie Carroll this time the hero. Their success effectively counted double because, after a drawn series in 1999, Queensland held onto the shield as they were the holders and the Blues had failed to win it from them.

In 2000 Gorden Tallis was sent off for abusing referee Bill Harrigan who missed a clear knock-on as the Blues pegged them back to win the first game in Sydney. Andrew Johns, who often played hooker or sat on the bench in representative football back then, inspired the Blues to wrap up the series in game two before they massacred Queensland in game three 56-16 with the media questioning the whole viability of Origin. The Blues, they reckoned, would dominate for years.

How wrong they were! Wayne Bennett, saddened by his state’s demise, came back to the coaching role and, giving ten players their debuts, watched on as his side racked up a superb 34-16 win with Tallis in the form of his life. But the rampaging forward was ruled out for the rest of the series and NSW hit back in game two to win with similar ease; 26-8. Then Queensland dropped their bombshell – Langer would be returning from England to fill their number-seven jersey after Bennett saw some footage of Langer in great Super League form from Warrington. With Sydneysiders deriding the selection as desperate, Langer rolled back the years, laying on three tries and scoring one himself, as they ran out 40-18 winners. “It was the greatest day of my life,” he said later, while the Sydney Daily Telegraph’s front page boomed: “Bloody Alf! You flew 12,000 miles to break our hearts. Now go back to England!”

Three years on from the 1999 debacle that saw the Maroons lift the shield despite not having won the series, the ARL had still not changed the rules. And lightning struck again. A late Dane Carlaw try in game three of 2002, after a Langer pass, tied up the scores and Lote Tuqiri missed the goal. The Blues were furious and fortunately for the concept’s credibility, Golden Point has since been played in drawn matches.

With Gould back at the coaching helm, and with Johns in his rightful number-seven jersey, the Blues set off on another three-year winning streak. In 2003, they took out the first two games with relative ease, in a series made memorable by the cameras capturing Michael de Vere stood on the sidelines having a cut on his head treated with a staple gun. “I thought they were just going to tape it up and stop the bleeding and the next thing he [the trainer] had the staple gun!” he said.

Golden Point was first played in an Origin match in the first game in 2004 with Shaun Timmins kicking a field-goal to give the Blues a 9-8 win. In game two, the Maroons hit back with Billy Slater scoring one of the great Origin tries. He gathered a chip through and seeing Blues fullback Anthony Minichiello ahead of him, chipped over him, regathered and scored. Brett Kenny later described it as Origin’s finest four-pointer. But, as far as the series was concerned, it was in vain as the Blues won the decider 36-14 with Craig Fitzgibbon man of the match.

Another Golden Point classic materialised in 2005 with Matty Bowen scoring the deciding try to give Queensland a 24-20 win. But, inspired by Andrew Johns’s greatest individual performance, in the words of the man himself, the Blues hit back in game two and wrapped up the series with a 32-10 win in the decider. After 2005, there was barely anything between the two states: 205 tries each, 12 series wins each, but the Blues had won one extra game – 37 to 36. Incredible!

With the Blues seemingly dominating Origin, the biggest turning point in the 30-year history of the concept came in game three of 2006. One game all, they were inching the decider and were en route to their fourth-straight series, but in the dying embers of the decider, as the Blues came off their own line, Lockyer pounced on a loose dummy-half pass to win the game and the series for his state. It was a disaster for the Blues and they haven’t won a series since, with the Maroons triumphing 2-1 in each of the last three series thanks to a new generation of Origin heroes like Greg Inglis, Cameron Smith, Thurston, Justin Hodges, Israel Folau and, of course, those warhorse props Petero Civoniceva and Steve Price.

After 30 years State of Origin is still absolutely huge in Australia and long may that continue. The non-event of the century? Fulton could not have been more wrong!

 

 

 

Origin’s most famous moments:

10. Shaun Timmins creates history by kicking Origin’s first Golden Point score to win a classic opener in 2004 by 9-8.

9. Queensland fans go bananas when Wally Lewis is sin-binned for five minutes. Beer cans rain down on the pitch and the games is halted temporarily.

8. Darren Lockyer scores a lucky but massively important try to win the shield for Queensland in 2006 – and they still haven’t let it out of their grasp.

7. Michael O’Connor produces the finest kick in Origin history as he goals from the sideline on the hooter to win game two for NSW in 1991.

6. Greg Dowling scores an amazing try after Lewis’s kick rebounds off the crossbar.

5. Alfie Langer returns from Super League to lead Queensland to an unlikely series victory in 2001. They even went a try down inside a minute.

4. The mother of all fights in 1995 after hookers Jim Sedaris and Wayne Bartrim swap punches and all hell breaks loose for over FOUR minutes.

3. NSW captain Steve Mortimer sinks to the turf in jubilation as the Blues win the shield at their sixth attempt.

2. Arthur Beetson catches his mate Mick Cronin high in 1980 and Origin is born – as is the phrase “Mate against Mate, State against State”.

1. The King clinches the 1989 series with a wonderful individual try despite four of his teammates being off the field injured.

 

 

30 years of State of Origin Stats:

1980-2009

Games: Qld 44-41 NSW

Series: Qld 16-12 NSW

Points: Qld 1399-1372

Tries: Qld 244-235 NSW

Man of the Match awards:

8: Wally Lewis (Qld)

4: Peter Sterling (NSW)

4: Allan Langer (Qld

4: Andrew Johns (NSW)

3: Benny Elias (NSW

3: Ricky Stuart (NSW)

 

Origin Heroes:

10. Ron McAuliffe. Without the efforts of the QRL boss, Origin would have never happened.

9. Steve Mortimer. The Blues captain was instrumental in them finally winning a series in 1985.

8. Allan Langer. Returned home in glorious fashion in 2001 to lead Queensland home.

7. Benny Elias. Almost as hated in Queensland as Lewis was in NSW. Winner of three man-of-the-match awards.

6. Mal Meninga. Legendary Queensland player who has now coached them to four-straight series wins.

5. Laurie Daley. Captain of NSW as they dominated Origin in the post-Lewis era.

4. Arthur Beetson. Started Origin with a bang in 1980 when few thought it would work, and won five shields as coach.

3. Brett Kenny. His face adorns the shield with Wally Lewis’s, who he got the better of in eight of their 12 five-eighth duels.

2. Phil Gould. The greatest Origin coach of them all. Six series wins, a draw and just one loss.

1. Wally Lewis. Who else?

 
The following was published in Thirteen in 2005:

Great Games:

 
2000: Game 1 Stadium Australia
NEW SOUTH WALES 20
QUEENSLAND 16
Still smarting from the fact Queensland had lifted the trophy in 1999 despite the series being drawn, New South Wales made spectacular amends in 2000 by registering a whitewash leaving many people wondering whether State of Origin could again be competitive. Indeed their wins in games two and three were comprehensive but it shouldn’t be forgotten just how close game one was. It was a classic.

Superbly marshalled by two try scorer Adrian Lam, the Maroons led by four points with a little over ten minutes remaining and had just seen Tonie Carroll held up over the line. The Blues were still in the game but they were still in their own quarter. Scott Hill intercepted and gained possession for his side but David Furner knocked on taking his offload. The ball came free to Terry hill who also knocked on.

Incredibly Bill Harrigan missed both errors and, almost predictably, the Blues broke away and scored. The cameras cut back from the action replays of the try to show Harrigan sending Tallis off. More drama. The viewer could only conclude that Tallis had abused the official and been sent off.

With their inspiration sent off, the Maroons conceded another try to David Peachey and went on to collapse to a 3-0 series defeat.

1986: Game 1 Lang Park
QUEENSLAND 16
NEW SOUTH WALES 22
New South Wales had finally won a series the year before and a full house, parachutists and two new coaches (Ron Willey and Wayne Bennett) were there to mark the beginning of the 1986 contest at Lang Park.

Those who remember the game remember it for a fabulous second half. Garry Jack, Chris Mortimer and Gene Miles had scored tries for a 12-10 half time lead to the Blues but Greg Dowling changed that early in the second half, scoring from a Wally Lewis bomb. Queensland had a four point lead but the Blues weren’t finished…

 

Royce Simmons then dummied and scored from acting half back and then an inexplicable knock on under no pressure at all from Blues defenders by Dale Shearer presented the Blues with the chance to seal the game and Andrew Farrar did just that, completing a blindside scrum base move involving Peter Sterling and Wayne Pearce.

The Blues went on to complete the first State of Origin whitewash

 

1991: Game 1 Lang Park
QUEENSLAND 6
NEW SOUTH WALES 4
“A sensational game,” concluded Ray Warren in the commentary box. Even without the dramatic finish it was typical State of Origin. Brutal defence saw a low scoring encounter as only a Meninga penalty and try had been registered.

With only a minute left Laurie Daley scored chasing his own grubber to the corner. This is where the fun began. Michael O’Connor had a kick from the sideline to snatch a draw but he missed.

With the clock showing that only ten seconds were left Mal Meninga put the ball out on the full from the kick-off. No one seemed to notice apart from the officials. Warren thought it was all over and the Queensland bench, led by jubilant coach Graham Lowe, came onto the pitch. They were soon ushered off by the touch judge. Harrigan was still standing in the middle of the pitch indicating a penalty on halfway to the Blues.

Greg Alexander stepped up but the ball fell harmlessly short. Lewis was tackled and the Maroons held on.

 
1995: Game 1 SFS
NEW SOUTH WALES 0
QUEENSLAND 2
The unlikeliest win ever?

Adrian Lam has spoken about how their fans were returning their tickets for the third game after hearing that Super League players were to be excluded from the ARL run series. With game one in Sydney and game two in Melbourne they feared the third game would be a dead rubber.

They were right! They went into the third game 2-0 up in a series best remembered for an opening game that saw the scorers only troubled by one penalty goal and a mammoth fight in game two.

It was Wayne Bartrim who kicked the goal in Sydney and his form at dummy half saw him selected for Australia in the series against New Zealand that year. The goal came in the first half and it was Terry Hill who came the closest to denying him his moment. Firstly he had a try brought back for a forward pass and then he was held up over the line by an incredible Matt Sing tackle. Sing’s feat was magnified by the fact he had early halted an Andrew Johns break.

With less than two minutes remaining, Rod Wishart was gang tackled into touch by four Queenslanders in a moment that summed up the team spirit upon which their series win was built.

 
1998: Game 1 SFS
NEW SOUTH WALES 23
QUEENSLAND 24
Deja-vu for the Blues as they lose another opener in the last minute on their own turf. “What a game of rugby league!” Ray Warren exclaimed as Darren Lockyer kicked the conversion to Tonie Carroll’s winning try which had come with only 40 seconds remaining.

Three Queensland tries came from Allan Langer grubbers. Firstly for Kevin Walters to open the scoring, then for Steve Price to score the first points in the second half and then for himself as Laurie Daley fumbled the kick on his own line. For the Blues, Rod Wishart, Tim Brasher and Daley had scored first half tries but crucially none were converted.

Brad Fittler opened up a one point lead after taking a Rodney Howe pass in the second half but the Blues were left to rue another missed kick as Steve Menzies scored on the play following a 60 metre Wishart break. The lead was five points but with the conversion it would have been seven and game over.

In the last set of the game, Kevin Walters kicked early in the tackle count from his own line. Ben Ikin was first there and took play into the Blues’ half. Two plays later Langer found Jason Smith from dummy half who in turn passed to his brother Darren. Kevin Walters was on hand to slip a short ball to Tonie Carroll who scored next to the posts. Chris Close, as ever, was on the bench to celebrate and the Maroons were one up in a series they would eventually win 2-1.


2003: Game 1 Lang Park
QUEENSLAND 12
NEW SOUTH WALES 25
If you go by the final score it may not seem like one of the great Origins but the truth is different. According to Chris Cox the reporter for the popular website www.rleague.comthere would be few amongst the capacity crowd of 52,420 people who went home disappointed. It was a game that didn’t live up to expectations – it blew them out of the water. It was arguably the best State of Origin exhibition in its 23-year history, and the only thing wrong with it for the fans was the final scoreline.”

Queensland, having given everything, were eventually undone by the brilliance of Andrew Johns and their own exhaustion. According to Cox again, “Johns was involved in all of the Blues’ 25 points – throwing the pass for each of Minichiello’s two tries in the first half, putting Craig Wing through a gap to score the game breaker after 65 minutes, slotting a field goal to kill any hopes of a Queensland fightback, and then crossing himself in the dying minutes. Add to that his magnificent goalkicking, landing all four attempts, and you’ve got a near perfect all round performance.”

The Maroons’ points were scored by their big names Darren Lockyer and Gorden Tallis but despite having contributed to as good an opening hour of rugby league as you are likely to see they could not maintain their efforts for the full game.

New South Wales wrapped up the series with an emphatic 27-4 win in Sydney but Queensland restored some pride in game three with a 36-6 win.

1989: Game 2 SFS
NEW SOUTH WALES 12
QUEENSLAND 16
“We were shot to bits,” remembers Wally Lewis. After a convincing 36-6 win in Brisbane, the Maroons headed south to clinch the series. This game was a bit tougher for them to say the least.

Mick Hancock declared the Queenslanders’ intentions with a fantastic 45 metre run from his own try line. Later in the set, Lewis freed Bob Lindner and Allan Langer sent Hancock to the corner. With his trademark toe end style, Mal Meninga made it 6-0.

Laurie Daley was then first to react after Gary Belcher spilled a Greg Alexander bomb to level the scores and with Queenslanders struggling with injuries it seemed the Blues would capitalise. Enter two of the great Origin tries.

First Kerrod Walters went under the posts after a passing move that involved six Maroons. Lewis, Hagan twice, Belcher, Alan McIndoe and Dale Shearer combined to help the hooker create a six point lead for his team and then Michael Hagan gathered a spilled bomb, fed Lewis who arced across the pitch swatting men like flies and carrying Blues over the line for the try that sealed the series.

Chris Johns pulled one back to make the final score 16-12.

 
1987: Game 1 Lang Park
QUEENSLAND 16
NEW SOUTH WALES 20
Mark Coyne and Tonie Carroll are the men associated with last minute Origin tries but Mark McGaw twice broke Queenslanders’ hearts with late efforts; the other being in game two of 1991. With the score tied at 16-16 in game one of 1987 and the Lang Park scoreboard showing less than ninety seconds to go the Blues mounted one last attack. The great Parramatta halves Peter Sterling and Brett Kenny moved the ball to the blindside and an Andrew Ettingshausen pass to McGaw was knocked down by Tony Currie and kicked ahead by McGaw. The ball raced agonisingly towards the dead ball line but McGaw beat two others to the ball to touch it down with only inches to spare.

This was also the game when Allan Langer made his Origin debut. Called up from Ipswich Jets in the Queensland Cup, Langer went about his business in an effort to prove wrong the critics who said he was too small and his defence was poor. An offload near the line was ruled forward early on as Tony Currie looked like scoring. Then, to make matters worse for the Maroons, Michael O’Connor and Les Davidson posted tries and although Greg Dowling pulled one back, O’Connor opened up a seemingly impregnable 16-6 lead, taking a Brett Kenny pass.

Queensland looked like snatching Origin’s first ever draw after Wally Lewis put Currie in the corner but McGaw’s late winner proved decisive.

 
1988: Game 2 Lang Park
QUEENSLAND 16
NEW SOUTH WALES 6
Beer cans being hurled onto the pitch after Wally Lewis’s sin binning? Yes, that’s this game. You can read Lewis’s take on the situation elsewhere in this section where he tells of the “filthy liar” touch judge and how he was later accused of inciting a riot! It certainly makes entertaining reading.

A scuffle had broken out between Phil Daley and Greg Conescu and after much debate on what had actually happened both men were sin binned. So was Queensland captain Wally Lewis. Lang Park went beserk and hundreds of beer cans rained down onto the arena as the fans vented their fury. Trailing 6-4 at the time it seemed that the Blues might level the series at this point. Michael O’Connor had scored the game’s only try in a move involving Peter Sterling, Wayne Pearce and Benny Elias.

Sam Backo calmed the crowd by crashing over from dummy half and an Allan Langer try from a Greg Conescu inside ball settled both the game and the series. Even without the sin binnings the game ebbed and flowed as the Blues sought to keep the series alive but were ultimately denied.


1994: Game 1 Sydney Football Stadium
NEW SOUTH WALES 12
QUEENSLAND 16
Game one in 1994 provided the moment often remembered as the most famous in State of Origin history. Down by two points with just a minute on the clock the Queenslanders produced a flowing nine pass and 60 metre movement that saw Steve Renouf break down the left hand touchline. Eventually Allan Langer released Mark Coyne who stepped inside Brad Fittler and beat Benny Elias and Ricky Stuart to the line. One can only imagine the reaction north of the border but on the sideline coach Wally Lewis and Chris Close were ecstatic and the commentators were hysterical. “Oh Yes! What about that one Sterlo?!” asked Paul Vautin. “Unbelievable, ” replied Peter Sterling, “unbridled joy on the sideline and why not?” Ray Warren famously proclaimed, “that’s not a try that’s a miracle!”

The game had started at a frenetic pace. Laurie Daley broke free in the first set of six but his pass was intercepted. Soon after, Martin Bella was smashed in a huge tackle and in his dazed state he played the ball the wrong way. The scene had been set.

The Chief, Paul Harrogan opened the scoring when, after a quick play the ball from Daley, he picked up and drove three Maroons over the line. Julian O’Neill replied after Steve Renouf and Mal Meninga combined to put him in the corner. A Tim Brasher try was called back for offside but New South Wales still held a 6-4 lead at half time.

And so the score remained until thirteen minutes from time. A Brad Fittler grubber came up for Daley and he beat Willie Carne to the ball and set up a try for Brad Mackay. On the sideline, The King looked devastated. His side trailed 12-4 and time was running out.

The comeback began with less than five minutes left. Meninga and Coyne set up a Willie Carne try and four minutes later three-quarters of the Sydney Football Stadium sat in stunned silence as Coyne delivered one of Australia’s finest sporting moments.

Famous moments:

OConnor touchline goal, Game 2 1991
After the last minute drama of the first game from 1991 in Brisbane with Alexander’s missed penalty, New South Wales had to win to keep the series alive. A sublime offload from John Cartwright had seen Bradley Clyde tackled just short of the line. From dummy half, Elias found Stuart and the Canberra playmaker threw a long ball to the marauding Mark McGaw who crached over in the corner. From the sideline, Michael O’Connor kicked the Origin’s most famous goal to seal a 14-12 win.

Langer drop goal for 5-4 win, last minute, Game2 1992
How would Queensland fare after Lewis’s abdication? They lost the opening game of 1992 in Sydney in a game described by Peter Sterling as, “not a game for the purists.” The commentators’ description of game two was the reverse. “A great game of football…a heart stopper,” according to Ray Warren. With the score locked at 4-4 Kevin Walters played the ball to his brother Steve. Allan L:anger was at first recevier less than twenty metres out and with a calmly taken drop goal he won the game for his state 5-4, the lowest score in Origin history at that point.

Fight! Game 2 1995
With Queensland having recorded an unlikely win in Sydney in game one, both sides travelled to Melbourne. Adrian Lam describes the background to the game and why the almighty fight broke out elsewhere in this Origin section. In a second minute scrum, Jim Sedaris punches his opposite hooker from Queensland Wayne Bartrim. Within seconds, every player is involved in huge brawl. “They’ve come from everywhere like it was almost a rehearsal, ” said Ray Warren. According to Lam, who was fighting Andrew Johns it was. Manly club mates John Hopoate and Danny Moore exchanged at least a dozen punches whilst David Barnhill and Billy Moore spilled onto the sidelines, wrestling and punching. The game restarted on six minutes and ten seconds after four minutes of total mayhem.

 

World’s best on the bench! Game 2, 2000
Brett Kimmorley has generally been the first choice scrum half in Chris Anderson’s representative coaching career and in the second game of 2000 he kept his place ahead of the player widely regarded as the world’s best, Andrew Johns. Johns’s impact as a substitute at Lang Park was immense. A Gorden Tallis try had opened up a 10-6 lead for the Maroons but four Blue’s tries in the last quarter with Johns on the field led Peter Sterling to proclaim him the greatest scrum half in the history of the game. High praise indeed from the legendary Sterling; especially for a substitute!

Langer call-up, Game 3, 2001
Gene Miles stunned the rugby league world in June 2001 by announcing that Allan Langer was to be called back from Warrington to play his first game on Australian soil in over two years in the deciding State of Origin game. The Blues had strolled to an easy 26-8 win to level the series in Sydney and the decision was seen as a gamble borne out of sheer desperation by Wayne Bennett and the Queensland selectors. The Sydney media mocked the move wondering whether their very own Peter Sterling should be called up too.

In the end, the whole team lifted as touches of Langer magic, coupled with a man of the match performance from Darren Lockyer, saw the Maroons win 40-14.  

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2009 Red Hall Media Briefing

Published in Rugby League World in 2009

The Rugby Football League held their annual press briefing before various members of the media on Monday 30 November 2009 to discuss, primarily, the Four Nations and the England coach’s job which was vacated by Tony Smith after England’s defeat in the final to Australia.

Richard Lewis, Chairman of the RFL; Nigel Wood, Chief Executive of the RFL and John Roberts, Director of coaching and performance, fielded questions from the assembled journalists on all things Rugby League in 2009 – with one exception. The proposed move of the Crusaders from south Wales to Wrexham was off the agenda with the RFL refusing to discuss the issue until it had been resolved due to the “commercially sensitive” issues the club face.

Wood and Roberts spoke briefly about the England job first and the process they will go through to find Smith’s successor.

 

Nigel Wood
The RFL board have asked me to head a panel of experts to sift through the various applications that have been received.

After the World Cup in 2008, the challenge was on Rugby League to develop a five-year plan to take us through to the world Cup in 2013 and that’s what we’ve been doing in the last six to 12 months under John’s leadership. We’re seeking to make an executive appointment that fits the skills base that already exists in the RFL’s performance department. Accordingly, the panel will be looking at the various candidates before making a recommendation to the board of directors.

The individuals on that panel will be Paddy Mortimer, who has recently come to join us working in the areas of sports science in particular where we felt the game lacked some expertise. BJ Mather is a name who is more familiar to everybody. His background has been in been in youth-player production more than anything and he’ll be leading our efforts in producing more players of the right calibre.

We will be including in that panel an ex-England international because it’s important that we get the right players’ perspective, while not asking any existing individuals who may have any potential conflicts. So therefore … somebody who is recently retired and who would perhaps understand what they think is needed out of the coaching.

Tony Smith will be providing his input and guidance at the appropriate time without actually sitting on the panel.

We are looking for a full-time appointment for the reasons just intimated. It needs to be part and parcel of all the measures the game is taking to give us the best possible chance in 2013. We haven’t set any restrictions on time lines. It’s more important we get the right person rather than a quick appointment so we’ll be looking wherever we need to look to get the right person or combination of people if that’s appropriate.

As always, we won’t seek to disturb and existing contractual relationships between coaches and clubs without getting the prior agreement of the clubs themselves. That’s just common courtesy.

We won’t be commenting on speculation as to who’s been linked with it and a ‘no comment’ shouldn’t be taken as an affirmation or the opposite.

John Roberts
Last year we set out a seven-point plan in terms of how we felt we needed to progress to win the World Cup in 2013. Therefore we’re looking to the long term to 2013 but we’re also looking to a system that can repeatedly deliver high-quality players, so it’s also looking beyond that.

The function that we want in regards to coaching is working very much in the context of the sport within Super League. In the last six months, we’ve been rolling out a programme under the Elite Training Squad which has been looking at the whole rounded aspect of a performance of a player – the science, the physiology of the movement skills, the mental side – and we’re starting some improvements just from the six weeks that we’ve been working with the players in the England set-up.

We therefore feel there’s a very clear need to have a stronger technical and tactical input into that process of how we support the players within a club environment, working very much in partnership with the coach within the club to how we develop those players who could be world class in 2013. So the type of person we’re looking for is someone who can provide that strong leadership on the technical and tactical side of the game within that context and work in partnership with the performance side of things – someone who can understand, oversee and guide and who is very open to working with the new ways of how we develop players physically and also mentally.

The main core role is to prepare an England role for 2013. the other aspect is how we support and develop players on an ongoing basis through a 12-month process working within a club environment, working, therefore, with the coaches of the Super League clubs with which those players are based.

Looking towards the future we are looking at the players who are currently not in the first squad for England but are potential players who could ultimately emerge for 2013. So we’re looking at the concept of a squad of players who would sit underneath that current England structure and how we would support their development and the coaches with that.

Finally, the last piece of the jigsaw for me is the infrastructure that we need to have that means it’s not just based on one individual – it’s actually a system that we start to build. That infrastructure such as the analysis, the sports science, the coaching, the coach education … we would be looking for that individual to provide that technical understanding and leadership within those areas, but also tapping into other coaches within the game and experts outside of the game to look at how we develop our system.

So there’s four key roles we’re looking for in the individual.

We have seen in the Four Nations some improvements and we are currently talking with each of the clubs and coaches and players as to how we continue to build on that programme. Ideally we would like to see an extension of the players who are in that Elite Training Squad so that we can start to look at more players getting the benefits and more clubs working in partnership with us. We’ll be looking at how to progress that over the coming months.

We used the GPS technology in the Four Nations. It’s been very interesting in terms of helping us to identify areas where we feel we are not at the cutting edge in our preparation and development. It has actually allowed us to pinpoint the type of support and interventions we can make to help improve. We’re looking for very small improvements across a number of areas and it’s been a valuable tool.

We’ve been able to identify the recovery levels of the players, their heart rates and the intensity of a game. The impacts – the G-Force measures – are phenomenal. We can now identify how we can improve our training methods, our nutrition and hydration. We can look at how to make players quicker and perform at a fitness for longer.

We’ve had a lot of very positive responses from the players and coaches in Super League.

 

 
The members of the media posing the questions were: Richard de la Rivière (Rugby League World), Martyn Sadler (League Express), Trevor Baxter (Daily Mirror), Gary Carter (The Sun), Andy Wilson (The Guardian), Dave Craven (Yorkshire Post), Ray French (The BBC), Andy Hampson (Press Association)

Q&A

MS: So are we looking for a manager rather that a coach? A Clive Woodward type of role?

JR: I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a Clive Woodward type of function but it’s clearly someone who’s willing to explore the full aspects of sports performance, and isn’t just a technical and tactical aspect. We need to bring all those types of skills to bear in partnership with the other members of the team but we do clearly need someone who is very strong on the technical and tactical side of Rugby League. We can put the management mechanisms around that individual to support that individual.

 

TB: Will the coach you employ be contracted straight through to 2013 or if we have a dreadful Four Nations would you look to someone else?

JR: The aim for me is to look to the long term so we need to be looking towards 2013 but clearly every coach in every system is assessed every time he goes into an annual competition. We need to see if we’re making improvements year on year.

RL: Ideally, the person we approach for the job would see us through to 2013 but the important thing is that the system has stability. the other point is that we have to maximise our talent because if you’re at a numerical disadvantage – ie more people are playing the sport in Australia – then we have to get the best out of the talent we’ve got.

GC: Have you had any applicants so far?

NW: A number of people have made approaches to John, myself or Richard and we’ll be evaluating those in the next few weeks. We’ve probably in the region of half a dozen.

MS: Is it a different type of coaching?

JR: Yes, it is. The players are in a club environment for the bulk of the season and that’s why the coach will have to have credibility in going to work alongside the coaches in Super League to look at individual players and how we support that player within the club environment to develop across the individual areas that make up performance. Using rugby union as an example, increasingly coaches have a team of people around them who are experts in those particular fields. The coach needs to be aware of how to utilise those – they don’t need to be expert in all of them. That’s what we’re beginning to build in terms of the structure and system we have at Red Hall. Looking long term, it’s the clubs who develop the players and bring them through so we need to be supporting them to develop their own systems to help produce more and better quality players.

AW: There are currently 17 players in the Elite Training Squad. Are there plans to increase that number?

The aspiration is to increase that number so we can look at players who might not be in an England squad of 24 now but who could be in or around the England set-up in a couple of years. We’ll sit down with the new coach and discuss the appropriate number.

AW: When does the panel to decide the new coach meet?

NW: We haven’t fixed a date but it will be in mid-December.

AW: How was role compare to what David Waite did?

JR: I can’t comment directly on David because he was prior to my time, but we’ve continued to build on the player-development system that was put in place in David’s time. The significant aspect is bringing in other professionals from other areas that would look at how we add to that system. Ultimately, it’s about someone who can coach and who can develop the system.

RL: It’s an interesting question. There are a lot more resources and people involved and sports science aspects now so it’s a much bigger department than it was in David’s time. But it’s not dissimilar.

DC: When do you want the new coach in place by?

NW: We’d like to move as quickly as we can while doing a thorough and proper job to make sure that every applicant has been explored and discussed. The England team next play in July but a lot of things have to be kept moving by a coach before then.

AW: Will the mid-season Test be in France again?

NW: No, it is likely to be in England.

RL: Almost certainly!

MS: Do you have a venue in mind?

NW: No that’s too premature. But the thought process behind playing it in England is that England will be playing the Four Nations overseas in 2010, we’d like to play England in this country at some stage, which is the right thing to do.

AW: What about what Tony [Smith] said in France about France not being competitive enough?

NW: Their mid-year performance was certainly not as competitive as their performances in the Four Nations. They’ll be doing their own review on how well they did but they made a full contribution to the Four Nations and played strongly in every game until about the hour mark.

GC: Have you considered the idea of England against a Super League All-Stars team?

JR: We’ve looked at it. One of the issues is how we get a level of competition that’s appropriate that supports and prepares the England side. But also we need to look at how we develop the international game in the Northern Hemisphere and how we strengthen the opposition we have in the Northern Hemisphere.

TB: Will we play a Four Nations warm-up either down under or against Fiji, Tonga or the Cook Islands?

JR: That’s the current thinking in terms of how we look at the whole touring environment and how the players prepare and acclimatise. The earlier the team can get down there the better.

AH: This is the first year back with 14 clubs. How do you feel it has gone?

NW: It’s worked well. When the move to move to 14 was confirmed there was great celebration for the removal of the ‘loop’ fixtures which were so unpopular. It’s put longevity into the League campaign and the top-eight put some depth into the season right until round 27 with Bradford thinking they’d qualified by winning at Hull only to find out they hadn’t. The top eight wasn’t as powerful as it could have been – people would have expected some of the powerful clubs like Warrington, Bradford and Hull to have qualified. They might have changed the flavour of that competition.

MS: You’re not going to change anything are you?

NW: No. We effectively have a three-year structure in place. I don’t think there’s an appetite to change things.

RF: What about the Leeds-Hull KR game which kicked off the play-offs when it didn’t really matter who lost?

NW: Well, it did matter. I know what you mean but some of the clubs might need to review their own approach to the games. It’s interesting that the two clubs that lost in the first round also went on to lose in the second round – at home – and got knocked out.

MS: The issue with the play-offs was the lousy crowds.

NW: Indeed. It was a point that was discussed with the clubs and we’re looking to assist the clubs because we all want the same thing – and that’s for the play-offs to be a fitting finale to the season.

RDLR: How did you assess the Clubcall system?

NW: It achieved what the marketeers might call ‘cut through’ at a time when otherwise you wouldn’t expect it. It got people talking about the options that were available. I think some people misunderstood the thought process behind it. People used words like ‘gimmicky’ but the whole essence of the play-offs is that you reward the high-place finishers. That’s the whole point. Every position is incremental to the one beneath it and choosing your own opponents is a manifestation of that advantage. In Australia, St George, who came top, were compelled to play the form team and were bounced out the week after. It stands up on integrity grounds more than anything else and has the by-product of achieving a tremendous amount of publicity for the competition as well so why should we be embarrassed by that?

MS: You did mention possibly amending it a little by allowing the team with the choice the power to pass it on to the next club.

NW: It’s something we need to discuss with the clubs. The structure of the competition is something the clubs will have a view on.

MS: There’s also the idea of allowing the top club to choose any of the other three, which would have given Leeds the chance to choose St Helens this year. That would have been pretty dramatic.

NW: It would but you have to balance that by the fact that St Helens finished second in the competition and won their preliminary match. There has got to be some reward for that or it invalidates what that fixture’s about.

AW: You said anything to do with the competition is down to the clubs, so does that mean the Super League clubs have the right to determine whether the Crusaders have the right to move to Wrexham?

RL: Nigel said [the play-offs] are a matter the clubs would have a view on. On the specific point, it’s a matter for the RFL unless it’s a breach of license and where they play isn’t a breach.

RF: You mentioned earlier on about the extra TV money. I honestly think it gave the clubs a comfort zone and some of the club’s marketing is appalling. We have to make events, like Wigan did with ‘The Big One’ against Leeds and rugby union are doing with double-headers. What thoughts are we giving to doing something different?

RL: The general point about the way the sport promotes the sport is valid. We have to talk about the right things to do for the future. The current economic climate should force you to work even harder and it makes you look at things. We’re talking about some of the things you’re talking about.

MS: Are we in danger of becoming a discounted-value sport? Making tickets very cheap or giving them away can often be counter-productive because if you go back to charging the full price, they might not come back.

RL: Yes, we recognise that and it’s something we’re looking at for the 2013 World Cup. We’re looking at what tickets can we sell in 2011 to the core Rugby League fans thought the clubs so that the Rugby League fans get the best deals and we sell a lot of tickets in advance.

RDLR: Did the Four Nations raise much revenue at the gate? It seems a lot of tickets were given away.

NW: I don’t think that’s right. We don’t know in respect of the two French home games because they’ve kept their own revenues. But we recognised fairly late that we’d have to provide some assistance to the England-France game in Doncaster to make sure that the competition got off to a good start. But turnstile revenues actually exceeded what was in the budget. There were some reasonable attendances but that’s not to say we were entirely happy with them.

RL: It’s an interesting perception because we’re trying to do more selling through the clubs – not just Super League and Championship, but community clubs as well – so it’s interesting if that perception starts to get around.

MS: Could you make it part of a license condition that a club must take and sell or give away a thousand tickets for each international match played in this country?

NW: That kind of thing needs to be looked but one thing we have to careful about is that we have other stakeholders in the shape of Australia and New Zealand who, not unfairly, expect us to account for ticket revenues on a full basis.

RDLR: Can you put your finger on why there has been a decline in international attendances over the last ten or 15 years in this country?

NW: We are doing some research, not just with those who attend but those who don’t to find out why. Back to when you refer, internationals took place on a Saturday afternoon and the Australians and Kiwis only toured every four years. Now, internationals come around far more frequently than they used to do. That’s not an excuse but we recognise that we have to get back to the national team playing in front of crowds of 40 or 50,000, not 23 or 24,000. In the midst, there’s a bit about price, there’s a bit about familiarity etc. One of the challenges facing us as part of the World Cup planning is that we deliver a schedule to make sure most people turn out and make it a proper and true celebration of Rugby League in the Northern Hemisphere.

RL: I think we were hurt by last year’s performances in the World Cup. If we could guarantee the paying public that the first 60 minutes of that Four Nations final is what they’d see most of the time for 80 minutes – then we’d be in the 50, 60, 70,000 stadiums very soon. If England go really well next year then we have something to sell in 2011. We know the Rugby League fans are not stupid but we don’t have the social element that Twickenham has.

MS: Is England v Papua New Guinea going to be a double-header with New Zealand v Australia at Eden Park?

NW: We’re awaiting confirmation of that. The organisers are still looking at other permutations.

MS: Would you support that?

NW: We have to place our trust in the hands of the RLIF. It’s their tournament to organise and we wouldn’t want to be unhelpful.

AW: When’s the next meeting of the International Federation?

RL: There’s one in Singapore in February.

MS: Can you say anything about your proposals for the 2013 World Cup format?

RL: We can’t yet, I’m afraid. We’re still working on it but we hope to have something by February at the latest, if not before. We want to use 2010 to lock agreements in, lock stadia in and local authorities etc. It shouldn’t be long.

MS: Are you getting positive responses from local authorities?

RL: Yes, we’ve had discussions with some of them and some have come to us. It’s all based on economic impact and we can demonstrate a positive economic impact so it’s a good investment. The flip side of a recession is that some local authorities and agencies recognise they have to invest to generate economic impact. The World Cup is looked upon as something really positive by people we’ve spoken to.

MS: What’s happening with Harlequins? They’re in the capital making minimal impact and in my opinion have been a bigger disappointment than Celtic Crusaders. Other club chairmen are asking me whether we need a team in London in Super League.

RL: I have to agree that they have been a disappointment and they haven’t been a success since they’ve moved to the Stoop. I don’t think there’s an easy answer but the Stoop offers a lot of solutions. They have a good team and if they can get it right off the field, they should get good crowds but they have a bit of work to do.

AW: Is the investigation into the Crusaders visa problems still ongoing?

NW: We needed confirmation from the Borders Agency that they’ve concluded their inquiries and that’s only just been received. We’ll be doing a Rugby League-specific inquiry but we couldn’t act beforehand because it could have been prejudicial to the Borders Agency’s findings. We haven’t got the written report yet though.

GC: How do you respond to Neil Hudgell [the Hull KR chairman] saying recently that the game is in danger of being built on foundations of sand with so various clubs in financial problems.

RL: As we said at the outset there’s been an increase in central distributions, we have a salary cap in place and are trying to help the clubs control their costs as much as possible. In the end, each club has to run its own business – that’s only right and proper. We do recognise that we’re in a recession and I’m sure some clubs lost sponsorships, corporate sales and ticket revenue. In the end, they’ll have to cut their cloth accordingly.

RF: Last year the gaps between Challenge Cup rounds were very inconsistent and it affected the momentum of the Cup. Is there a way of addressing this?

NW: You’ve probably heard through your own network, Ray, that we were as candid as we could be with the BBC in putting across that there has to be some structure with a tournament to allow momentum to build up.

RL: We made clear what we thought, in words of one syllable!

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2009 World Rankings

Published in Rugby League World in 2009

A year ago, amid much debate, Rugby League World presented its world rankings of the 33 Rugby League-playing nations. For the record, Australia were top and American Samoa last.
In great news for the sport, there has been activity in no fewer than 41 countries in 2009. We have based the rankings on the strength of the game in each nation, not merely on the performance of the international team. Preference, therefore, tends to go to those nations with domestic competitions and, happily, more and more local leagues are popping up.

 
1 AUSTRALIA
The undisputed number-one Rugby League-playing nation. The Kangaroos won the Four Nations final by 30 points, they beat the Kiwis with ease in the mid-year Test match and the NRL remains comfortably ahead of Super League in playing standards. Their backline is regarded by many expects as the best ever with world-class talents like Golden Boot winner, Greg Inglis, Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston unstoppable at times.

2 ENGLAND
England made up for their disastrous World Cup in 2008 by beating New Zealand in the inaugural Four Nations and, as a result, climb up to second in the rankings. Sam Tomkins, Kyle Eastmond and Richie Myler all emerged looking every inch future stars while, up front, England’s forwards were superb against the Aussies and Kiwis. Domestically, Super League maintained its high standards, but unquestionably lags behind the NRL.

3 NEW ZEALAND
The Kiwis couldn’t reach the giddy heights of 12 months earlier, not even managing to make the Four Nations final. The loss of Australian coaching guru Wayne Bennett from their staff impacted negatively as they were easily second best to England at Huddersfield. In the NRL, the Warriors had a poor season, finishing third bottom, having got to within 80 minutes of the Grand Final in 2009.

4 FRANCE
The outstanding performances of Catalans Dragons in Super League meant that France were ranked fourth last year despite their poor World Cup performances. The Dragons were less consistent in 2009 but came so close to making the Grand Final. Happily for the French, however, Bobbie Goulding instilled pride back into their international jersey in what will be regarded as a very good year for the Tricolores.

5 PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Buoyed by their World Cup performances, the Kumuls enjoyed a superb year winning the Pacific Cup as they beat Cook Islands in a thrilling final to qualify for the 2010 Four Nations. They also beat World Cup semi-finalists Fiji 2-0 in a Test series earlier in the year and put up a credible showing against the Australian Prime Ministers XIII in their annual fixture in October. The game grows ever stronger in this League-mad nation.

6 COOK ISLANDS
The Cooks were magnificent in the Pacific Cup – firstly they had to overcome strong favourites Samoa in a qualifier and they went on to stun World Cup semi-finalists Fiji with another two-point victory. They also played two matches against Australian Affiliated States, winning one, and beat Australian Fiji. They are coached by David Fairleigh, the former St Helens and Australia prop, and have League legend Kevin Iro working behind the scenes. Qualification for the 2013 World Cup is very much on the cards.

7 FIJI
Not quite as good in 2009 as they were in 2008, Fiji slip a place in the rankings. The defection of superstar Jarryd Hayne to Australia partly explained their failure to reach the Pacific Cup Final and their mid-season Test series defeat to Papua New Guinea. However, they beat the touring BARLA Great Britain side twice. League has received a tremendous shot in the arm on the island in the last two years and they have much to look forward to.

8 WALES
Internationally, 2009 was a superb year for the Welsh as Iestyn Harris led them to victory in the European Cup and to a much more respectable scoreline against England. They appear to have coped with player defections to England much better than Scotland and, in particular, Ireland. Unfortunately, at domestic level, 2009 will be remembered with little fondness in the valleys as the beleaguered Crusaders endured a nightmare move before eventually deserting the rugby heartlands of the south to play in Wrexham. The birth of South Wales Scorpions was the one bright spot.

9 TONGA
The Tongans weren’t at their best in the Pacific Cup, taking a 30-point beating off the hosts, Papua New Guinea, before losing the third-place play-off to Fiji. But they did put up a decent showing in Rotorua against the Kiwis and the growing number of Tongans playing in the NRL and the Super League helps maintain their status as a leading Rugby League nation. At second-tier level, they lost 18-30 to the BARLA tourists.

10 SCOTLAND
Scotland fared reasonably well without their talisman and captain, Danny Brough, who broke the news to this magazine a year ago that he had quit Scotland to try his luck with England. The Scots reached the European Cup Final by hammering Italy 104-0 and beating Lebanon 22-10 in arm-wrestle of a match televised by Sky. They eventually lost the final 28-16 to hosts Wales with their team made up of nearly all players from the two Championship divisions in England. The game in the capital city, Edinburgh, received a boost with Super League’s Magic Weekend taking place there in May.

11 SAMOA
The Samoans endured another disappointing year following on from their underachievements at the World Cup. Their failure to qualify for the Pacific Cup, losing an elimination match to Cook Islands, was a shock even though the Cooks went on to light up the tournament. But with so much talent at their disposal, it won’t be a surprise if they get things right soon and they will have been encouraged with wins by Samoa Patriots and Toa Samoa over the touring BARLA Great Britain team.

12 LEBANON
The Lebanese pushed Scotland close in the European Cup, going down by only 12 points in the match that decided Wales’s opponent in the final. After that, they hammered Ireland to take third place in the competition. Domestically their newly expanded seven-team competition continues to thrive on and off the pitch while they have an abundant of talent in Australia to call upon who will help them mount a bid to qualify for the next World Cup. Their most famous player, Hazem El-Masri, retired from the sport in 2009.

13 IRELAND
The Irish performances against Wales and Lebanon in the recent European Cup were a big disappointment on the face of it but the loss of players like Ben Harrison and Chris Bridge to England bit hard. They could struggle to qualify for a 12-team World Cup in 2013 and will be hoping the RLIF extend the competition to 16 teams. Domestically, their competition is growing with the game now emerging in Belfast too.

14 USA
Their domestic competition continues to consolidate with New York Knights winning a thrilling final against the previously unbackable Jacksonville Axemen. The game in Jacksonville has flourished immensely under the guidance of Daryl ‘Spinner’ Howland with the Axemen’s home crowds in excess of four figures while it appears the game is on the verge of kicking off in Hawaii. Their international team – made up entirely of homegrown players – beat Jamaica in a thrilling Test match in November.

15 JAMAICA
The Jamaicans have enjoyed remarkable progress in 2009, playing a full international against the United States and sending a team to Leeds to play in the Headingley Nines, which was eventually won by Hull FC. They also have a domestic league. An impressive sponsorship deal with Virgin Atlantic has helped enormously and they will have an eye on World Cup qualification give they can call upon Super League talent like Chev Walker, Leon Pryce and Ryan Bailey. Walker would have played against America had he not broken his leg in the Super League play-offs.

16 ITALY
2009 was an eventful year for Italy as they beat Czech Republic and Germany to win the European Shield under the coaching of the former Salford player Carlo Napolitano. The withdrawal of Russia then saw them handed a place in the European Cup where they beat Serbia to claim fifth place. An Italian XIII of Australian origin, meanwhile, reached the final of the Mediterranean Cup in Australia. The presence of the domestic competition in Italy since the 1960s is great news for the game.

17 SERBIA
The Serbians felt wronged as they lost to Italy in the fifth-place European Cup play-off, claiming their opponents used a number of players from outside their original squad. Coached by Whitehaven’s Ged Stokes, they suffered 80-point beatings at the hands of Ireland and Wales but they have a strong domestic scene, headed by a national championship, a student league and an Origin competition to underpin their fortunes. Forward Soni Radovanovic featured for Haven, playing three times in 2009 for the Championship club.

18 MOROCCO
Led by former Catalans Dragons Wembley tryscorer, Younes Khattabi, the Moroccans enjoyed a superb year in 2009, proving they are formidable opposition by beating Italy in June before winning the Euro-Med Challenge by putting Catalonia and Belgium to the sword later in the summer. With their players predominantly coming from the French Élite competition, they have plenty of experience and quality in their side.

19 RUSSIA
Their withdrawal from the European Cup – apparently due to a lack of funds – was an enormous disappointment for League followers but with a new administration now running the game in Russia, there is hope for brighter skies ahead. Encouragingly, it is believed that emphasis will be placed on youth, starting with 10-year olds. Twelve teams took part in the domestic competition, split into three groups of four with Lokomotiv Moscow again emerging triumphant.

20 CZECH REPUBLIC
The Czechs will remember 2009 with fondness as their Rugby League team beat Germany in the European Shield. An inaugural Origin match took place in May before the domestic tournament began late in the year with Olomouc beating Pardubice Jets in the first game. The competition clashes with the rugby union season which means all players from the four participating teams are out-and-out Rugby League players, which is a great sign for their future.

21 SOUTH AFRICA
The days when they qualified for World Cups seem long ago but there is still an abundance of League activity in South Africa with one of the largest domestic competition among the emerging nations. They entertained the British Army twice in June and also the Australia University team. In a significant coup for the game in South Africa, Brisbane Broncos will conduct coaching and refereeing seminars in the country in January.

22 UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
UAE are another who enjoyed a memorable 2009 with former Leeds and St Helens forward Wayne McDonald heavily involved on and off the pitch. They played two matches against Liban Espoir (players from the Lebanese domestic league) in Dubai in July. They were winning the first 16-6 before a mass brawl saw the game abandoned during the second half and, later in the month, they won the second game 34-10. They also lost a friendly against leading BARLA club Saddleworth Rangers.

23 GERMANY
Germany competed strongly in the European Shield and made impressive strides on a domestic basis with an increased number of teams playing the game and an annual Origin match in place. It is hoped that the game will be expanded to four states next year – Bavaria, Baden Wurttemberg, Hessen and Nord Rhein Westfalen with an emphasis on both youth and open-age.

24 GREECE
After winning the 2008 Student World Cup, Greece lifted more silverware last year by beating Italy 34-14 in the final of the Mediterranean Cup in Italy, having beaten Portugal 42-16 in the semi-final a week earlier. They are able to call upon Michael Korkidas, John Skandalis not to mention Whitehaven’s former Penrith junior Jamie Theoharous and they are coached by former Warrington and Carlisle player Steve Georgallis. But it is no coincidence that there success has been confined to Australian shores as there is little Rugby League activity to report in Greece.

25 UKRAINE
The Ukranians lifted silverware in 2009 by emerging victorious in the European Bowl in the most impressive fashion, racking up 126 points and only conceding six in their two games against Estonia and Latvia. These remain the only internationals Ukraine have ever played! They also lost 38-20 to the BARLA Under-23s. Perhaps even more significantly, the game now has a domestic footing in the country with four teams kicking off a league which saw Legion XIII crowned champions.

26 MALTA
There was no Rugby League activity in Malta in 2008 so the progress they made last year can only be described as outstanding. Roderick Attard becomes the first Maltese player to play the game professionally, signing with Gateshead Thunder, while a domestic championship kicked off in late November. The Maltese also hosted English amateurs Bamber Bridge while in Australia, Malta came third in the Mediterranean Cup.

27 LATVIA
Latvia let slip the European Bowl which they won in 2008 losing out to newcomers Ukraine. They thrashed Estonia 74-4 but lost 40-6 to Ukraine in the three-team competition, falling three places in the rankings as a result. Formed in 2007, they should be delighted with their progress over the last two years.

28 BELGIUM
Belgium competed in 2009′s Euro Med Challenge, winning one and losing one of their two matches. In July they beat Catalonia 28-22 in Wavre, before going down 46-12 to a strong Moroccan outfit – but given the experience in their opponent’s side, it was an encouraging display. 2009 saw the first-ever game of Rugby League played in Belgium when the London-based side, Hammersmith Hill Hoists, beat Brabant Wallon Wavre Rugby XIII, 40-24. Belgium will host Denmark in 2010.

29 SPAIN
Rugby League in Catalonia enjoyed a successful year with Barcelona hosting a well-attended Super League match between Catalans Dragons and Warrington and a Catalonia side playing three games. First up, they thrashed the Czech Republic 52-10 before they came last of three teams in the Euro-Med Challenge. They lost 29-6 to Morocco and 28-22 to newcomers Belgium in two keenly contested games. Domestically, the game is thriving with teams in Barcelona and Girona among others.

30 PORTUGAL
Portugal sadly saw an incoming tour by the Australian-based Portuguese postponed due to financial reasons. But Portugal entered the Mediterranean Cup in Australia, coming last out of the four teams. They were beaten 42-16 by eventual winners, Greece, on the first weekend before losing 62-6 to Malta in the third-place play-off game. Cronulla hooker Isaac de Gois qualifies to play for the side.

31 JAPAN
Japan entered the annual Cabramatta Nines in Australia, picking up a point as they drew 4-4 with Appin. Domestically, Tokyo XIII Warriors played a number of challenge matches, beating and drawing with Tokyo Barbarians before beating the Japan ANZACs by two games to one. The games were generally high-scoring affairs. Looking ahead, the Japanese are hoping to cement the game in Kansai in 2010 as well as touring Australia.

32 ESTONIA
The Estonians were once again the whipping boys in the European Bowl, which was eventually won by Ukraine, who beat them 86-0. They also went down 74-4 to Latvia to round off a painful couple of weeks.

33 NORWAY
Newcomers Norway hosted the inaugural Scandanavian Nines earlier this year in Oslo and three of their local rugby union sides entered. Norway went on to play Great Britain Pioneers and Denmark, winning the latter game 28-26 in a thrilling international. They also thrashed a Barbarians side – made up of players from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK – 76-16 in a 16-try romp. Lillestrom Lions RLK were formed.

34 THE NETHERLANDS
With a new administration headed up by Jason Bruygoms, the Netherlands were welcomed back into the Rugby League fold last year, having previously fallen out with the RLEF. Coached by former Workington scrum-half, Craig Fisher, they hosted Oxford University and played two Origin matches with Country beating City twice including a 78-22 in the second game.

35 PAKISTAN
With former Leeds and England winger Ikram Butt at the fore, a British Pakistan side was set up in 2009. Captained by Junaid Malik, they lost 46-0 to the Great Britain Community Lions Under-18s before going down 26-22 in a nailbiter against North Counties Police at Rochdale in August.

36 DENMARK
The Danes entered a joint side with Sweden in the first-ever Scandanavian Nines in 2009 and went on to play a Test against Norway later in the year, going down by only two points, 28-26, after training sessions were held in Copenhagen. They will be touring Belgium in 2010 and are actively looking for players, currently playing outside Denmark who are eligible.

37 SAUDI ARABIA
Three schools from Jeddah travelled to the Qatari capital, Doha, earlier this year to play in a two-day nine-a-side tournament and, following that, they played in two months of tournaments at Under-12, Under-14 and Under-16 level. Jeddah Prep & Grammar and British International School contested all three finals. Eighty percent of the players were from Arab countries. An Under-16 team toured Lebanon later in the year.

38 QATAR
Doha, the capital of Qatar, played host to a seven-team nine-a-side schools’ tournament which was eventually won by the hosts, Al Khor International School. Further youth development is still on the cards.

39 NIUE
After a period of inactivity throughout 2008, Niue played in the Cabramatta Nines last year and were good enough to beat New South Wales Universities 6-0. But that was their only win as they went down 24-6 to the eventual winners, the National Indigenous Invitational side, and 40-4 to Tonga.

40 SWEDEN
Another newcomer to the Rugby League party in 2009, having entered a joint side with Denmark, Sweden were so impressed with the Scandanavian Nines that was held in Norway that they have agreed to host the event in 2010 in Gothenburg. They hope that they will be in a strong enough position to enter at least three sides of their own in the competition. They are currently looking for sponsors as they seek to build themselves up.

41 SOLOMAN ISLANDS
While they haven’t actually played a game, there was significant activity in the Solomon Islands in 2009. The International Federation’s Tas Baitieri visited late in the year as plans were announced for a four-team local competition and a friendly against New South Wales Police in 2010.

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