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!”