Wigan still seemed a bit mixed on the flanks. Mark Preston was quickly out of the frame with David Myers seizing his opportunity in the number 2 jersey. Botica, it seemed was there for a bit of stability if nothing else... he wasn't needed at fullback as Steve Hampson was still going strong and of course the halfback pairing of Edwards and Gregory (along with Goulding knocking on the door) meant that spaces in the star-studded Wigan team were scarce. "Stick 'im on' wing, he'll be reet" as you'd say. During the summer it seemed odd that one of their biggest rivals still had a player who could solve Wigan's winger problem in their ranks. Martin Offiah had scored over 100 tries in the past two seasons for Widnes but was still... at Widnes. Wigan at the time could buy anyone they liked at will and Offiah would have been the icing on the cake. But for some reason, another summer went by and Offiah was still scoring for fun at Naughton Park. Although Wigan could in theory use their 'open chequebook' to sign Offiah for silly money they decided not to. Instead, work began on redeveloping the old Pavilion end of the ground into a new modern all-seater stand, so perhaps thats where most of the money went and a possibly reason (certainly a factor) for two 'average' signings (or so they seemed).
|Offiah was the best winger in the League, but he remained the Jewel in Widnes' falling Crown|
Joe Lydon was still the Worlds Best utility player and went wherever he was needed along the backs. Skerrett slotted into the pack alongside Andy Platt and Ian Lucas whilst Dean Bell and Kevin Iro patrolled the flanks alongside Myers and Botica. Denis Betts was by now undroppable in the second row alongside either Phil Clarke or Andy Goodway. Hanley, Edwards and Gregory were still at it. Coach John Monie didn't feel the need for Offiah or else surely Wigan would have signed him. He felt Wigan had the experience, talent and strength in depth to finish top of the pile again come the end of the year with Widnes being, on paper, their closest rivals.
Alas, the season had begun again by mid-August. Wigan started the fresh new campaign in their traditional style: by losing the Charity match against Widnes, for some reason, played in Swansea. Frano Botica made his debut alongside Kelvin Skerrett and Wigan fans quickly got a taster of what was to come. Botica scored all of Wigan's points that day and even managed a try. He scored again during a Lancashire Cup first round tie against Barrow (Cumbria I know) in which Wigan scored 70. Widnes however knocked Wigan out in the next round a week later and fired a warning shot to the Central Park outfit, Widnes were closer than what Wigan thought and would be there at the end of the season. As long as Wigan reached Wembley eh? Thats all that mattered Cup-wise in the August of 1990.
In the League, Wigan had an indifferent start to their campaign. They were already out of the Lancashire Cup at the hands of Widnes and had managed only five points from their opening five fixtures. Already it seemed that Widnes had a head start. Hull were strong this year and had beaten Wigan quite convincingly at the Boulevard. An opening day draw against minnows Sheffield Eagles didn't help the cause along with a narrow defeat against Bradford Northern. After a loss to a Touring Australia side, Wigan out scored their next three opponents 4:1 on average and it seemed they were back on track. Hanley was on form and tallied up his seasonal total early but it all came crashing back down to earth when Wakefield Trinity gave Wigan their third league loss and it was only the end of November! Things weren't looking right. Wigan had dropped seven points in the League already, any more would mean the title going elsewhere. Something wasn't quite right it seemed at Central Park. Wigan had already used four goal kickers in Bobbie Goulding (when playing), Steve Hampson, Frano Botica and Joe Lydon, of course. It was inconsistant to say the least. By mid-December, Bradford Northern had dumped Wigan out of the Regal Trophy and with two losses to Bradford, Kelvin Skerrett was beginning to think whether or not he made the right decision moving to Central Park.
Crowds were quite low too, compared to previous years. 7,500 saw the Featherstone match at home with 14,000 witnessing the visit of talented Leeds just before Christmas. Were results too easy to make out and people not bothering to pay their moneys? Who knew. Back on the field, Botica was failing to make an impression with the boot. he did well against Keighley, but that was against Keighley. But with the absense of Lydon through injury, Botica got the nod to use the boot. Wigan fans had a good cheer on Boxing Day when a 28-15 win against Arch-Rivals St Helens gave firstly bragging rights to all Wiganers but more importantly Wigan were not out of sight in the League. That was until the visit of Warrington on New Years Day 1991, when nearly 16,000 witnessed Wigan's fourth defeat in the League with a 6-14 loss against a team who, despite being a traditional fixture, were out of sorts in the League, nowhere near the form which got them to the Challenge Cup Final eight months previous.
You can see the story here, Wigan were themselves out of sorts and by the time the really cold weather came, Wigan fan's could have only been dreaming about the blistering Wembley temperatures of 1990. Some were starting to think that if Wigan drew a top four or five side in the Cup, they'd be out. The League was far off already but Wigan were still within touching distance. The visit to Sheffield Eagles on 6th january 1991 was probably a turning point in Wigan's history for many reasons. The Eagles, playing at a seemingly empty (it seemed to me to be empty and I was only 6 at the time, I still remember it staring at the athletic track all match) Don Valley Stadium were crushed 46-4. Hanley, of course, scored a couple so too did Edwards. It was like the starter motor was being switched on and things started to happen. Joe Lydon had by now returned to the team, with Dean Bell having a rest on the bench to see how he fared and kicked a few goals against Sheffield. Botica also kicked a couple of goals that game. So too did Edwards and Stevie Hampson. Wigan had four kickers in one match, surely a record of some sorts. It was like all the contenders for the kicking role were auditioned once and for all and it was Frano who was the best. Since that match, Botica was number 1 and the records started to tumble from then on. Stability at last, it seemed, had reached the Wigan lineup just in time for the trip to Naughton Park to face Widnes. Wigan triumphed and clawed two points back in the table over Widnes. Hanley was Man of the Match (inevitably) and scored a hat trick of tries (obviously) as Botica was lethal with the boot. Hull Kingston Rovers were then battered (Hanley scored, Botica kicking 7) just in time for the Challenge Cup trip to Castleford in early February.
Game 16: Tuesday 12th February 1991. Challenge Cup Round 1 v. Castleford @ Wheldon Road, Castleford. 28-4. att. 6,749
Coach John Monie was surely beginning to make his squad believe that anything was still possible. They had started the season in poor fashion and with four losses, had to play catchup. Maybe the Cup could give Wigan a bigger morale boost than the win over Widnes did. The team of Hampson, Myers, Botica, Iro, Bell, Edwards, Gregory, Dermott, Lucas, Skerrett, Platt, Betts and Hanley (with Clarke and Ged Stazicker on the bench) needed a good performance and they sure did get it!
Wigan furthered their lead when Shaun Edwards' fancy footwork saw him accelerate through two Castleford defenders and race towards the line before firing a high looping pass out left to Kevin Iro who only needed to find Frano Botica with open space to score, Frano making the angle much easier for himself by running and sliding in under the posts. By now, Wigan were dominant, even in snow. Since the Warrington game on New Years Day, the defence had been watertight, even keeping Martin Offiah at arms length and this night looked to be no different. Already 10 points to the good, Wigan were lingering in midfield when Andy Gregory ran along the Castleford defence dummying at will waiting for his chance at something. Somehow he finds a slight opening and runs through it but is hauled back by a Cas defender. Luckily, Andy Platt was in support and his power gained a few more yards before the defence got hold. Shaun Edwards was in support and collected the offload from Platt before running in untouched under the posts: 16-0 after 25 minutes and by now those Wigan fans who were fearing a tough game against Daryll van der Velde's Castleford had only concerns for their frozen feet! Frozen body of the night was about to belong to Frano Botica however. Castleford were pushing Wigan back as halftime approached, searching for a score to give them hope for the next 40 minutes. A bit of haste and panic creeped into their efforts though as the ball suddendly found itself at the feet of Frano Botica. Botica then has a wild lash at the ball, midway in the Wigan half, and it is kicked up field. It was now a game of soccer as the ball lands around the Castleford 25 metres line. Botica luckily had the momentum to get their first as the Castleford winger had to do a u-turn... Botica however kicks at the ball again knowing he has no time to pick up and the ball nestles down just before the goalline. Frano then pounces on the ball with a Castleford defender on his back and slides over for the try. Wigan went in 22-0 to the good at half time.
Castleford didn't help themselves after the break when they let a pass go loose near their own goal line. Wigan happily collected the ball and a couple of tackles later, David Myers runs over from dummy half to extend Wigan's lead to 28-0. A consolation try meant that Cas were not to be nilled but it didn't matter in the end. Shaun Edwards later said that it was "an absolutely awesome performance, probably the best of the whole eight years. The big hits were unbelievable. I think we would have beaten anyone in the world that night, playing like that."
Frano Botica scored 16 of Wigan's 28-4 point win, chipping in with two tries and four goals. Already, he seemed to be the find of the century, especially with his very accurate goal kicking abilities being proven each week now. Wigan had stuffed Hull KR a week or so earlier and only conceeded four points then. Indeed, it was the third time in four games where Wigan had conceeded four points only so something surely had clicked. Wigan had found their mojo. Having scored six tries in his last three appearances, Ellery Hanley (bored yet?) somehow failed to cross the whitewash against a tough and well-drileld Castleford outfit. This was Wigan's sixteenth consecutive game of an unbeaten run in the Challenge Cup competition and with every game, a record is extended. The Cherry and White faithful were perhaps waiting for this Cup game to see whether or not it was a good idea booking coach tickets to Wembley immediately after the Warrington Cup Final. Alas, it was. The only thing that mattered, ultimately was that Wigan were in the hat for the next round.
A couple of seconds after Rochdale Hornets were awarded a much needed home tie in the live draw for the Challenge Cup second round, their Cup hopes were shattered. Wigan were coming to town!
Game 17: Sunday 24th February 1991. Challenge Cup Round 2 v. Rochdale Hornets @ Spotland, Rochdale. 72-4. att. 6,492
Luckily for Wigan fans, the game away against Featherstone the following Sunday after the Cup tie was postponed due to a Great Britain v France international. This meant they could a) get warm and b) not have to go to a snowy Featherstone ground. The bad news however was that Wigan now were accumulating a backlog of games due to the poor weather and postponments. It was nearly March and the games against Featherstone, Bradford Northern and Hull FC had not been played for one reason or another. Looking at the calendar it could get even worse if Wigan carried on progressing through the Cup stages. Weekends were running out for games to be played and at a crucial time of the season, Wigan did not need fatigue to hamper their chances of catching Widnes at the top of the league, especially in the rich vein of form they were showing since early January.
Not much to say though during this game. Shaun Edwards was shown the red card for retaliation. Ellery Hanley scored six tries but Rochdale were absolutely woeful. Pleasing for all involved at Wigan was that Frano Botica kicked 12 goals and he really cememnted his place as the number one goalkicker. The problem was, why wasn't he not first choice sooner in the League campaign? 12/12 for Botica, 6 tries for Hanley and Wigan were in the hat for the quarter finals of the Cup! Vive le Pie!
Game 18: Sunday 10th March 1991. Challenge Cup Quarter Final v. Bradford Northern @ Central Park, Wigan. 32-2. att. 17,734
Bradford's dreams were shattered when they were drawn to play Wigan in the quarter final at Central Park. But that was all beforehand. Wigan had already lost to bradford twice early in the season and the Northerners believed they could do it for a third time. By the time the aurter finals came around, Wigan now had four games outstanding to be played in the league and pressure was mounting. Wigan were due to play Widnes at home on the 10th March but as things go, Wigan ended up playing Bradford instead. If Wigan made it through to the semi finals the scheduel would be grueling, which meant Wigan would in theory have to play upto three times a week, even that would hamper the very best team when they were playing catchup in the League.
Anyway, thats for a different story. Bradford Northern were going well, already beating Wigan twice and getting to the Regal Trophy Final. This was Wigan's eighteenth straight game in the Challenge Cup, an extending record, but the only focus was Wembley. John Monie was desperate for success, as was the Wigan board who had just spent a small fortune on the building of a new stand, they'd like seats on bums watching a successful side to repay the debt. It was well over a year since a Challenge Cup tie was played at Central Park and those Wigan fans who usually were unable to attend away matches needed their fix. 17,734 got that fix (minus the Bradford supporters) as Wigan blew away Northern in a routine win in easily the best attended game of the year at Central Park (apart from the touring Australian game when 24,000 turned up).
The toll upon the Wigan side were at it's primary stages. A week earlier, they welcomed visit of Wakefield with an indifferent lineup. Mark Preston had been given a rare start as Botica filled in for the suspended Shaun Edwards. Ged Stazicker received a rarer start with Paul Gartland (who?) and Mike Forshaw sat on the bench. Luckily, Wigan won. But for the visit of Bradford, Edwards was welcomed back along with Lucas, Hanley and Joe Lydon, a move that was aimed at making sure Wigan stayed in the Cup. And stay in the Cup they did. Bradford were blown away by tries from Frano Botica, Dean Bell, Kevin Iro and Martin Dermott, with Botica adding 6 goals. This time Wigan only conceeded two points instead of the four and were in the semi finals again. The key was Wigan's fitness. Bradford were a tough side with tough forwards. Kelvin Skerrett above anyone else was desperate to get one over his former side and up the middle he did battle. As Wigan were superior in every depertment, the game started to get a lot easier after the hour mark as oppenents usually faded away through fatigue, this was no different. The 17,000 crowd were delighted that they were in the Cup semi finals but for once, the focus was not on the Cup, but the League. Mission Impossible had fully begun. Wigan had to fit in 10 League games within a month, plus they had to play in the Cup semi final, to which Oldham were to be opponents. An average of a game every three days was on the cards, starting with the visit of Hull FC the coming Wednesday (13th March).
Game 19: Saturday 23rd March 1991. Challenge Cup Semi Final v. Oldham @ Burnden Park, Bolton. 30-16. att. 19,057
but this time, the score was a bit more respectable. The Hornets only kept Botica to eight goals from 7 Wigan tries in a 44-16 loss. This was still early days in the up and coming Mission Impossible campaign with the likes of Ged Stazicker once again taking his opportunity well in the first team in the absence of key players. Wigan were to play Oldham in the semi final at Bolton Wanderers' Burnden Park stadium. Oldham were pretty shocking in the League and were desperately flirting with relegation. Wigan were obviously installed as favourites given their form, talent and previous win over Oldham in the League earlier in the season. But you could not write off the men from Watersheddings as anything could happen when Wembley is at stake and other factors playing their part such as Wigan's fatigue factor coming into play. The Wigan players were focused on the job as they knew that whether they win or lose the semi final, the next few weeks would be hell. The only things that would drive them on is success. A loss in the Cup would be a disaster for a Wembley mad Wigan public and Maurice Lindsay could have done with the extra finances at the time. Reaching Wembley wuld be terrific of course but league games were coming up thick and fast, firstly against Warrington on the Tuesday then Featherstone the following Friday (and it got worse after that).
19,057 made the short trip to Bolton from Wigan and Oldham respectively for the Semi Final tie. Oldham were struggling as mentioned yet Wigan were on a 9 game winning streak. The scorline suggested a 30-16 win for Wigan and another trip to Wembley but the game itself was a bit more comfortable than the 14 point margin suggested. A year earlier, Wigan met St Helens at Old Trafford in a tight and memorable game which the Saints could have easily stopped Wigan's domination of the Cup event there and then. Today at Burnden Park everybody knew it was to be a straight forward win for Wigan. After kicking 19 goals in his last three games, Frano Botica (for it was he) was deadly accurate yet again, scoring five goals from Wigan's five tries. Early season many wondered who this former All Black starlet was but everyone on the rugby planet knew his name now and what a find for Wigan! Who needed Martin Offiah on the wing when Botica could not only score tries but was pretty much guaranteed to turn them into six points.
John Monie dropped David Myers to the bench and gave Joe Lydon a start on the wing in a backline which read Hampson, Lydon, Iro, Bell and Botica. This was playing it safe from Monie, as we had seen in previous Challenge Cup Finals. The only thing that mattered was getting to Wembley at any cost, and experience proved to be the key. Wigan fielded possibly their strongest lineup with even Andy Goodway on the bench, such was the strength on show in the starting XIII. Oldham really didnt have a chance as 4 points quickly turned into 6 as Kevin iro, Ellery Hanley (obviously), Shaun Edwards, Andy Goodway and Frano himself scored, giving the Wigan crowd a hurried short trip home via Westhoughton. On the way, many would have gone along St Helens Road. St Helens, as you may guess at the link, were waiting for Wigan at Wembley after they successfully negotiated their way through their own Semi Final against Double-chasing Widnes. Wigan v Saints at Wembley, could it be another 27-0 or much closer this time around?
Game 20: Saturday 27th April 1991. Challenge Cup Final v. St Helens @ Wembley Stadium, London. 13-8. att. 75,532
Wigan however had suffered a major loss with Joe Lydon failing to make his fitness count. Lydon's loss was a significant blow to Wigan's title challenge as his experience alone and versatility anywhere in the back row still made him a key weapon. David Myers had proven all season that he had a right for a starting place with or without Joe Lydon and with 18 tries, made him Wigan's second best try scorer of the season (11 behind Ellery Hanley who was on one that year). Botica had long since earned his place on the other wing as the old stalwarts of Andy Gregory and Shaun Edwards reignited their partnership once again on the biggest stage of them all. For many, the Wigan line up seemed to be at ful strength, with Bobbie Goulding and Andy Goodway making the bench but how was their fatigue? Wigan had beaten St Helens twice in the League (28-15 and 28-14) during the season but anything could happen at Wembley, Saints were due a bit of revenge after being nilled in 1989 and pipped to the post in the semi final a year previous.
Sensing that it was going to be a tough encounter, Wigan didn't take long to get some points on the board. George Mann, the St Helens second row forward, pounced on the ball during a scrum and was judged to be in an offside position. A bit of back chat with referee smith gave Wigan an extra 10 metres closer and a penalty. Frano Botica stepped up around 30 metres out and 5 metres from touch and expertly slotted the ball easily between the goalposts. If the Wigan changing room knew they were in for a tough ride, it was good to know that they had an extra man on the field in Botica's boot. Two minutes later in the seventh minute, the Wigan players were starting to think whether it was going to be a far easier match than previously thought. Saints had done well to keep Wigan midway into their own half on the fifth tackle. The ball fell to Andy Gregory who belted the ball deep into Saints territory which ended up around 10 metres from goal, a kick which St Helens fullback Phil Veivers had to chance a little while just to get hold of. Leading the kick chase was Shaun Edwards who welcomed Veivers as they clashed on their chests. The impact caused Veivers to spin to the ground and lose the ball as he felt the full force of Edwards and he seemed to go unconcious it looked like. Luckily for Wigan, Kevin Iro was prowling and collected the ball and advanced towards the goal before finding an open David Myers in support. Myers knew he could step inside and score his maiden Wembley try. Sadly, as Botica was taking aim with the conversion, Veivers was thinking whether or not his Wembley was over for another year as he was carried off behind the posts. Tragedy struck when Botica missed the conversion attempt! 6-0 to Wigan. Youngster Gary Connolly came on the replace the injured Veivers.
Only five minutes later was Wigan in again. A good break from "Dean" Mean Bell created the try of the match. Bell stepped off his left foot in full flow to get into open space but was about to be tackled. He finds Denis Betts in support who sprints upfield 40 metres with Hanley and Iro in support. Somehow he loses those two try vultures and finds Frano Botica open on the left wing. Botica now only had substitute Connolly to beat at the corner and before Connolly could pull off a textbook try saving tackle into touch, Botica manages to ground the ball for another Wigan score. If there were doubts about whether or not Botica had brought his kicking boots with him after his previous missed conversion, there were no doubts this time around. Frano kicked a superb effort from the touchline to gift Wigan a 12-0 half time lead. In the dressing room, the Wigan players were feeling a bit tired and being suprisingly only 12-0 up they knew they had to make the game a bit more difficult for the Saints. The early blitz was just that. The St Helens forwards of Kevin Ward, George Mann, Shane Cooper and Johnathon Neill especially were battering the Wigan pack.
After the break Wigan made the most of their first opportunity. On the fifth tackle and about 30 metres out, dead centre to the posts, the ball lands into Andy Gregory's arms. Gregory calmly shapes himself and goes for a drop goal before anyone can charge it down - it was successful. This now meant that St Helens had to score three times if they had any chance of overhauling Wigan. Wigan however were not concerned about their attacking threat as they still had Edwards, Hanley, Iro, Betts, Hampson... etc... on the field who could score at will. Their forwards of Ian Lucas, Andy Platt and Phil Clarke were going through a lot of work midfield it was a worry that St Helens could break through at any moment. As a spectator either at Wembley or one of the millions watching at home around the world, you could now realise that Wigan were playing intelligently and couldn't rely solely on their attacks to win games like they had seen the previous three years.
With a quarter of the game remaining, the game was poised nicely at 13-0 to Wigan. Could Wigan really nil their bitter rivals yet again? Allan Hunte thought otherwise. Fantastic pressure from St helens had seen Wigan struggling to break free of their goal area. Suddenly an uncharacteristic knock on/lost ball by Andy Platt gifted Phil Veivers (who had returned to the game thankfully well) and St Helens six tackles in which to score from 5 metres out. They needed zero tackles in the end. Veivers found John Harrison who in turn quickly find Johnathan Griffiths, the St Helens stand off. Griffiths, a classy player, neatly ducked and spun out of Dean Bell's challenge and then did not panic when it seemed he was going to be wiped out, he floated a looping pass out wide to winger Allan Hunte who raced in at the corner despite David Myers' best efforts to keep him out with his scrambling defence. Up stepped little Paul Bishop with a difficult kick from the right hand side of the pitch to get St Helens to six points. He duly did so with a fine kick smack between the uprights, a kick Frano Botica would have been proud of. 13-6 to Wigan and many fingernails were now starting to fill the Wembley floor.
With ten minutes to go, Wigan had started to dig in. St Helens exploited numerous gaps in the Wigan defence and advanced upfield quite quickly. On the fifth tackle, Paul Bishop attempted a kick to the corner but Kevin Iro decided to make a play at the ball but instead couldn't get hold. St helens gathered and another set of six was awarded. Shaun Edwards managed to haul down Les Quirk, and keep him down. Still holding down, referee Smith awarded St Helens a penalty. Now, for you conspiracy theorists out there, did Edwards do this on purpose? Wigan's defence was all over the shop and St Helens had adrenaline pumping through them. Was it better to save 6 points or give away 2? It didn't matter whatever anyone thought afterward as St Helens opted to go for the two points which, if kicked, would mean they needed a converted try in the remaining 9 minutes of play to win the match. They needed to score twice anyway and this seemed a perfect gift from Wigan. The score was totted up to 13-8 as Paul Bishop instantly accepted his extra 2 points.
That was how it remained. A nervous last ten minutes saw chances go amiss and Wigan playing safe whenever the opportunity arose. Wigan had won the Cup for a record fourth time in succession and had won the Double for the second successive year. John Monie was now a living Legend, so too were the players who had won the Cup. To beat St Helens again cancelled out the two Wembley defeats in the 1960s so for Wigan fans, nothing could be sweeter. Wigan had done it the hard way and were by far the best team on the planet in either code of rugby. Denis Betts, the Wigan second rower received the Lance Todd Trophy for his outstanding work in the field, fatigue wasn't a word that Betts had ever heard of and was a deserved Man of the Match.