Monday, 4 August 2014

1982 Challenge Cup final: Hull v Widnes

The Challenge Cup certainly owed Hull a thing or two come 1982. The club had last won the famous trophy in 1914 (in Halifax), but since then had lost five finals, including three at Wembley, giving strength to the ever growing impression that the team were suffering from a hoodoo when it came to the Twin Towers. Their last final defeat had been particularly galling - a 10-5 loss to bitter rivals Hull Kingston Rovers in 1980 - so as the 1982 final against Widnes approached, Hull had a lot of issues to resolve with the competition.

The club was definitely going places at the start of the 81/82 season. Under the expert tutelage of coach Arthur Bunting, Hull were regularly attracting crowds above 10,000 to The Boulevard, as the team came second in the Championship, reached the Premiership final, won the John Player Trophy, and made it to Wembley for the Challenge Cup date, in a season of thrilling entertainment. Hull's ambitious work in the transfer marker involved director Dick Gemmell flying to New Zealand to secure the signings of trio Gary Kemble, Dane O'Hara and James Leuluai prior to the season, as well as a whopping £70,000 spent on centre Steve Evans in February. They meant business, and it was showing on and off the pitch.

Widnes were a daunting opponents in the final, however. A year earlier, they had beaten Hull Kingston Rovers to win the Challenge Cup, and 1982 saw the club reach their sixth final in eight years, justifiably earning their tag as Cup Kings. Their recent roll of honour in other tournaments was just as awe-inspiring: a Championship in 1977/78; a Premiership in 1979/80 with another to follow after the 1982 Challenge Cup final; five Regal/John Player Trophy finals since 1975, including two wins; and five Lancashire Cups since 1975. It wasn't hard to see why the 1982 Challenge Cup final was such a mouthwatering prospect.

Neither team had an easy path to the final though, Widnes in particular surviving a number of nerve shredding moments before their supporters could experience the joy of walking down Wembley Way once again. A relatively comfortable first round win at Cardiff was followed by a 9-7 victory at Central Park, Widnes required to come back from a seven point deficit against Wigan in front of a crowd of 17,467. Eddie Cunningham's try after great work by Andy Gregory proved vital, yet if the Widnes players thought that they had done the hard yards with their resolute defending in the second half, then they were in for further testing times in the rounds that followed.

Only a last minute penalty scored by John Myler scraped an 8-8 draw for a lacklustre Widnes at Odsal against Bradford Northern in the quarter finals, before they narrowly won the replay 10-7. Widnes seemed determined to put their fans through the wringer though, their semi-final with Leeds at Swinton a roller coaster of emotions for all involved. With just 20 seconds left and Widnes trailing 8-6, skipper Mick Adams put a high chip up under the Leeds posts, more in hope than expectation. When the ball smacked the crossbar and fell to Keiron O'Loughlin to score the decisive try, Widnes' swaying mass of celebrating fans, and the delirious players could have been forgiven for thinking that their name was on the trophy.

Hull's path was littered with fewer obstacles, although at times they made things hard for themselves. The 7/2 favourites for the cup (sponsored by State Express) looked to justify this with a comfortable 29-15 win over Salford in the first round, although at 5-5 against Fulham at Craven Cottage, Hull were grateful when Paul Prendiville went over for vital try on their way to an 11-5 win. With only nine minutes to go against Second Division Halifax in the quarter finals with the score at 10-10, Prendiville once more proved the difference, Hull's eventual 16-10 win setting up a semi-final with Castleford at Headingley.

Tries from Kiwis Kemble and O'Hara, along with Steve Norton and Prendiville scores gave Hull a comfortable 15-4 lead (three points for a try in 1982), but from a position of strength Hull all of a sudden began to wobble. A fine individual try by Mal Reilly, and a conversion and penalty from Gary Hyde shaved the lead to four points, with Castleford constantly pushing Hull back in search of the clinching try. Hull clung on, winning 15-11, giving them another opportunity to put the Wembley jinx to bed.

Reading the previews before the Wembley final, it was evident that in the opinions of the journalists of the day that Hull were seen as the slight favourites. The form of Widnes as the final neared had not been strong - three defeats in four, including a 21-3 loss to Hull in the league - yet on the plus side they were a team used to winning and stuffed full of experience. Three of their side were appearing in their sixth final - Adams, Eric Hughes, and Steve Elwell - the latter playing in his 231st consecutive game for the club.

On paper it was easy to see why many of the experts fancied Hull so strongly. Bunting would later be awarded coach of the year, the superb form of loose forward Steve Norton would see him earn the Championship player of the season, Trevor Skerrett and Charlie Stone were capable of doing the work of two men each according to The Times' Keith Macklin, and in players such as skipper David Topliss, Prendiville, Kemble and O'Hara, Hull had players capable of performing on the big stage.

Despite the undoubted talent at Hull's disposal, there remained an elephant in the room, a conditional clause written in every match preview: the Wembley factor. Macklin wrote about the psychology of the occasion, adding "there is something about the special atmosphere of Wembley that can bring out the best and the worst in teams". Hull may have been playing attractive and expansive rugby, but the style would not matter without a little substance.

After the pre-match entertainment was complete - including Ken Dodd leading a rousing rendition of Abide With Me, and sending good wishes to the troops on their way to the Falklands - the crowd of 92,147 saw two Widnes men dominate the first half talking points, both players who had significant question marks hanging over their selection earlier on in the week.

Eddie Cunningham had missed two months of the season with a neck injury, but coach Doug Laughton took a gamble on his inclusion, meaning Eric Hughes could move to stand-off in an attempt to reduce the effectiveness of Topliss. Hughes himself had only been cleared to play two days before the final, boarding a helicopter from Elstree to Leeds to successfully appeal his suspension for his sending off against Warrington on Good Friday.

Widnes started confidently, Cunningham scoring a try after ten minutes (converted by Mick Burke), to add to Elwell's drop goal five minutes earlier. Trailing by six points, anyone connected with Hull may have begun to fear the worst. Luckily Hughes calmed their nerves, conceding three penalties, and receiving a caution along the way, as three successful kicks from Sammy Lloyd drew the sides level at the break.

Cunningham seemingly would not be denied though. His second try on 51 minutes was converted by Gregory, Cunningham's remarkable comeback and performance later being rewarded with the Lance Todd trophy for the man of the match, and when Stuart Wright intercepted an Evans pass and ran 90 yards for a stunning breakaway try, Hull were 14-6 down and staring another Wembley nightmare in the face.

With only 13 minutes remaining Norton took it upon himself to change Hull's fortunes. His decisive surge through a tiring Widnes defence saw him go over the line, Lloyd's conversion bringing Hull to within three points, and the comeback was complete when O'Hara scored in the corner to level matters at 14-14. Lloyd's high kick just missed, however, but at least Hull's second row forward had enjoyed a much better experience at Wembley this time in comparison to his kicking nightmare against Hull KR in 1980.

For the first time in 28 years a replay would be needed to settle the Challenge Cup, arguably an unsatisfactory end to the big day, the lack of extra-time also a questionable decision. What was indisputable was the dramatic nature of the match witnessed by those at the ground or during Grandstand on Saturday May 1. The Daily Express' David Miller noted that the final had been "a spectacle worthy of the occasion", Macklin agreeing that it had been an excellent match.

The replay would be delayed until Wednesday May 19, a consequence of both teams still playing in the end of season Premiership fixtures. Elland Road, Leeds was the chosen location, slightly easier on the wallet for the fans involved, although crowd congestion would be a problem on the night of the replay. Graham Morris and John Huxley reveal in their Wembley Magic book that the League had actually signed a recent deal with Wembley to stage future replays at the stadium for the next three years, but the reason for the relocation to Leeds was a religious one; the visit of Pope John Paul II to Wembley.

It seemed that the pendulum had firmly swung the way of Widnes by the time the replay arrived. Widnes had won the Premiership, hammering Hull 23-8 in the final, the losers appearing to run out of gas as injuries to Skerrett and O'Hara summed up their stuttering conclusion to the season. Skerrett would recover, yet O'Hara's place would surprisingly go to 39-year-old reserve team coach Clive Sullivan, as Hull made full use of their squad in selecting five other new faces: Leuluai, Tony Dean, Keith Tindall, Tony Duke and Lee Crooks. Widnes were unchanged, consistency seen as a key element towards the club adding another trophy to their collection.

The replay saw the very definition of a captain's performance, as Hull's David Topliss dragged himself and his team over the line on a glorious night for the club. Burke had given Widnes the lead after 18 minutes, his mammoth penalty from just inside the Hull half meaning that Hull once more would need to come back from behind. Finally after 33 minutes of the second match Hull edged in front for the first time, a quick penalty by Dean, and good work by Norton and Topliss setting Kemble free for a try. Crooks converted, and there was more to come from Hull as the half drew to a close.

Topliss' try in the 39th minute was a thing of beauty, a training ground move involving the Hull skipper passing to Leuluai, moving around him, and, after taking the return pass, darting into the space vacated by the confused Widnes defence. Although Crooks' kick struck the post, Hull were truly in the ascendancy, leading 8-2 as the teams left the pitch at half-time.

The resolute nature of that Widnes team, highlighted by all their narrow escapes along the way to the final, manifested itself once more in the second half. A Burke penalty and a try by Wright brought Hull back to within a point, with Burke's conversion crucially hitting the post like Crooks' earlier, and with the teams so well matched another stalemate was not out of the question. But cometh the hour, cometh the man; Topliss eased any growing nerves in the Hull ranks with another fine try, swerving inside the Widnes rearguard and allowing Crooks to add the easy conversion.

Still Widnes would not go away, Burke's penalty leaving Hull just 13-9 up with 16 minutes left. But the knockout blow would arrive with just seven minutes left, Crooks' fantastic evening rounded off nicely with his own try and another conversion, as the two sides were finally separated after 160 minutes of intense and gripping rugby. Hull's 18-9 win may have looked a comfortable scoreline yet it was anything but, as viewers on BBC One's Sportsnight were to find out later that evening.

"Hull's victory was richly deserved after a thrilling game," noted Macklin, as a 68-year Challenge Cup drought ended for the club, players and supporters celebrating the glorious achievement in a packed Elland Road. Admittedly Hull had not vanquished their Wembley ghosts of the past, but that mattered not one little bit as the party could well and truly get underway. The spending had been rewarded. Hull had a glistening trophy in the cabinet to show for their efforts.

It looked like the start of something special for the club, and when Hull won the Championship the following season the winning habit seemed contagious. Unfortunately Featherstone Rovers and Wembley then combined to put a huge spanner in the works, and in 1985 the team would again leave the capital potless, as Wigan beat them in an all-time classic final.

Let's not dwell on the lows of the future though. This blog should remember the likes of Topliss, Dean, and Sullivan, men sadly no longer with us, but players who managed to bring a great deal of joy to one set of supporters in Hull during that famous 1982 Challenge Cup replay.

No comments:

Post a Comment