Sunday, 18 August 2013

1985 Challenge Cup final: Wigan v Hull

If I think back to the sporting year of 1985, I can instantly relate to Marty McFly and his desperation to return to that period of time. From that world snooker final to Europe's Ryder Cup triumph, via McGuigan's Loftus Road glory, Lyle's Open win, Mansell's breakthrough, to the arrival of Becker at SW19, it was a time of my life when sport seeped into every pore of my body. My discovery of new sports, such as cricket, thanks to England's Ashes victory, seemed almost pre-destined, and has helped make me the slightly obsessive person that I am today.

Another happy coincidence occurred when I sat down on Saturday May 4 to watch my very first Challenge Cup final. I had caught odd glimpses of rugby league on Grandstand, but this was my first real exposure to the sport, and thankfully my timing was impeccable. For the 1985 Challenge Cup final between Wigan and Hull has gone down in the annals of the game as one of the greatest finals of all time, a feast of tries and attacking rugby that is still talked about nearly thirty years later.

With the array of offensive options possessed by both teams, it was hardly surprising that many were predicting an entertaining match beforehand. Speed on the flanks through Kevin James and Dane O'Hara for Hull was matched by Wigan's Henderson Gill and John Ferguson, the latter having flown back from Australia the week before to play in the showpiece event. It would be the battle of the Parramatta and Australian team mates that appeared to be the most intriguing prior to the final though.

Hull's Peter Sterling was generally viewed as the world's greatest scrum half, and had played a vital part in Australia's unbeaten tour of Great Britain in 1982. It was the vision of Sterling that had driven Hull to the final when all had looked lost in the semi final against Castleford. "I thought I had travelled 14,000 miles to miss out on Wembley," stated Sterling, as Hull trailed 10-4. "I was desperate, so I tried something, a kick and follow up." Fortunately for Hull, the gamble worked. Sterling collected his kick, fed his brother-in-law John Muggleton, and enabled Hull to escape with a 10-10 draw and a second chance in a replay.

Sterling's compatriot, Brett Kenny, may have given the impression that he couldn't care less during the pre-Wembley meet and greet, standing with his hands inside his tracksuit top in a distinctly unimpressed manner, but it hid a steely determination to succeed on the day. Although not directly opposite Sterling - Kenny was a stand off - it seemed that the contest between the pair would play a big part in deciding the destination of the 50th Challenge Cup final to be played at Wembley.

To mark the occasion, a player from each Wembley final was paraded before the match, from Henry Coates who had played for Dewsbury against Wigan in 1929, to Wigan's Shaun Edwards, the youngest player to have appeared in a Wembley final, in Wigan's abysmal loss to Widnes in 1984. To Hull, the parade was a reminder of their appalling Challenge Cup record at Wembley: played 5 lost 4 drawn 1. Both teams had wrongs to right.

The clubs had met the week before, Wigan running out easy 46-12 victors in the Premiership quarter final, although four-try hero Phil Ford was cup-tied for the final, and Hull's final team would show plenty of changes. Coach Arthur Bunting sprung the biggest surprise pre-final, dropping Great Britain's Garry Schofield to the bench, preferring Steve Evans and James Leuluai in the centre, the Kiwi Leuluai passing a late fitness test after a recent shoulder dislocation.

As both teams emerged from the Wembley tunnel, a crowd of 99,801 roared in appreciation on a glorious sunny day, a feeling of eager anticipation filling the famous old stadium. Commentator Ray French ran through both teams, noting the youthfulness of Hull's front row in Lee Crooks (21), Sean Patrick (22), and Neal Puckering (19), but if the youngsters were nervous they did not portray this, as Hull hit the ground running. After an early Crooks penalty, Wigan's David Stephenson failed to find touch with a kick, bringing with it yet more Hull pressure. Eventually Sterling combined with Muggleton and Gary Kemble to put James over for a try.

"If we had carried on playing as we had started, Hull would have been 20 points ahead by half-time, maybe more," indicated Sterling post-match. In fact, Hull made such a strong opening to the match, that co-commentator Alex Murphy began to express concerns that for a second successive final Wigan were going freeze.

Crucially though Crooks would miss the conversion, in what was to become a recurring theme of the day. Bit by bit, Wigan gained a foothold in Hull territory, and only an excellent try saving tackle by Kemble would deny Ferguson, after Kenny had sent the winger free with yet another superb pass.

Ferguson would have better luck a few minutes later however, as on a sixth tackle he received the ball on the right flank, and from a standing start he jinked easily around O'Hara to open Wigan's account. Gill converted from out wide, to draw the teams level at 6-6.

In what was fast becoming the Brett Kenny show, it was fitting that the man himself would give Wigan the lead for the first time, one which they would never relinquish. From a Mike Ford pass, Kenny burst on to the scene, his 40-yard surge tearing a hole through the middle of the Hull defence. Stephenson converted to put Wigan 12-6 ahead, and although a Crooks penalty narrowed the gap, the pendulum had firmly swung Wigan's way.

And then came the moment when you truly knew that something special was unfolding before your eyes. Despite being pegged inside their own half, in front of their own posts - "Not sensible play this by Wigan, normally a side would take the ball away from the posts to avoid any goal kicks," proclaimed French - Wigan, inspired again by Kenny, broke away to score a try worthy of the jubilee Wembley final.

Gill took Stephenson's pass, and even though he had 70-yards to travel, there seemed an inevitability that the winger would score. Flying past Kemble, and leaving a gasping touch judge treading through treacle in comparison, Gill's try, and resultant beaming smile, lit up Wembley. Stephenson may have missed the conversion, but as the teams left the pitch at half-time, Wigan led 16-8, and all players, officials and supporters had a chance to get their collective breath back.

Kenny continued to be at the centre of all that was good for Wigan as the second half commenced, even finding time to catch an up and under from Sterling under his own posts. After a good run by Nicky Kiss, Stephenson's up field kick was knocked-on by James, his 11th minute try probably feeling like a distant memory. It was a costly mistake.

From the scrum, Ford fed the tireless Kenny, who sold a superb dummy, releasing Edwards for a fine try which was converted by Gill. At 22-8, and with the popular eighties chant of "here we go" emanating from the Wigan fans, the game looked up for Hull.

Hull needed a quick response and "prompted inevitably by the blond embodiment of perpetual motion," to use the description given to Sterling by the Times' Keith Macklin, they got just what they wanted. Steve Evans' try in the corner, accompanied with some handbags with Wigan's Brian Dunn, reduced the gap, even though Crooks would again miss the two points. Wigan 22 Hull 12, with 35 minutes remaining.

The comeback looked to have fizzled out immediately, as O'Hara's nightmare afternoon continued, his failure to collect a Sterling pass leading to Ferguson's second try. Gill's conversion pushed Wigan 28-12 in front, but after 51 minutes they had in fact scored their last points of the match.

Any Wigan supporter expecting an easy stroll to cup glory was in for a nasty shock, although as a neutral, the Hull revival was invigorating. Driven on by Sterling, and boosted by the introduction of Schofield, Hull's territorial advantage finally paid off with 16 minutes to go; Leuluai's try gave Hull hope, and when Sterling's pass to sub Gary Divorty led to another try on 74 minutes, at 28-20 things were hotting up. Both tries were not converted though, a telling factor come the hooter.

The already fraying nerves of anyone associated with Wigan were given an extra test with four minutes to go. Schofield sent Leuluai free, and Hull were now just four points adrift. "This must be one of the best cup ties that's ever been at Wembley," spluttered an increasingly excitable Murphy. With a few minutes left, anything looked possible in a quite exhilarating match.

Wigan survived a late burst from Evans, "hanging on like a 12-round champion in a 15-round contest," in the words of Macklin. As the hooter went, the relief for Wigan was plain to see, whereas it was a case of if-only for Hull, in particular Crooks and Schofield, who missed conversions that ultimately were the difference in Wigan's 28-24 win.

What a final for my Challenge Cup indoctrination. As I sat in awe of what I had just seen, described by French as "truly one of the greatest of all Challenge Cup finals", I pondered if this was the norm for the new sport I had stumbled upon. It would be hard to beat this match though for drama, and such attacking flair, but even so, I could count myself lucky that my first time was so memorable.

Kenny collected the Lance Todd trophy for the man of the match, but Sterling must have pushed him close. It wasn't all just about the superb Australian duo though, as Gill, Leuluai, Edwards, Ferguson and others shone on the biggest domestic stage of all.

Wigan may well have lost their Premiership semi final to St Helens three days after Wembley, but soon the newly crowned Man of Steel in Ellery Hanley would be Central Park bound, and another piece of the jigsaw was in place for what was to follow in subsequent years. However, their period of domination may well have seen the foundation stone laid on that glorious day in May 1985. And what a way to do it.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I think you're right, the 1985 final marked the start of Wigan's period of dominance.

    It also marked the start of a golden era for rugby league, with more great challenge cup finals, the odd win over Australia, the Wigan-Manly game - all of which came to an end 10 years later with Super League and professional rugby union.