Monday, 23 March 2020

8 In A Row - 1990/91

So, there we had it: Wigan were Double Winners. If you extended that, the Trophy cabinet also included the Regal Trophy and certainly, the cleaner at Central Park was kept busy with the polish! The Wigan juggernaught just kept on going and with Shaun Edwards being named Man of Steel, the Wigan club were now proud to have another player to show off to the world as being Simply the Best (Ellery Hanley was MoS the season previous). Of course, improvements could be made with regards to the playing staff. Kelvin Skerrett and Frano Botica were two big names to feature in the main squad that summer. Little was known of Botica at the time other than he was a former All Black coming of age. It was immediately unclear to which position Frano would play as he wasn't exactly gifted with speed so he couldn't go on the wing... or so many thought. John Monie thought otherwise and with Mark Preston departing, Botica was stuck onto the wing for most of the season. Skerrett, a powerful prop forward was signed from Bradford Northern. This no-nonesense hardman was exactly what Wigan needed with Adrian Shelford leaving a void in the pack. Skerrett wasn't a flashy player, opposition fans disliked him, but as soon as he wore the cherry and white, he was a crowd favourite and all was forgiven with regards to past misdemeanors.

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

Castleford were a strong team in the 1990.91 season who eventually finished in fourth place. This firstly round tie was one that even Wigan fans were fearing could be the end to their Cup campaign, and not the traditional other way round. The initial fixture was meant to have been played the Saturday before but due to snow, the game was moved to Tuesday evening. Still, a decent crowd of just under 7,000 turned up to see if Wigan would fall at the first hurdle. When the Wigan fans turned up at Castleford, they wondered why the fixture was postponed in the first place as the snow was still covering the pitch and temperatures were even colder, being a night match. Minutes before kickoff, the gorundsmen were still clearing the lines in the snow in a pitch that looked like an inverted American Football field.

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!

In difficult conditions, Wigan's first try seemed to be a mess and would have surely been ruled out in today's game by an inept official. A neat break by Iro saw the Wigan machine advance upfield before Botica was tackled twenty five metres out. Andy Platt couldn't hang on to Hanley's pass for a knock on, but referee Smith allowed play on. Castleford tried to gain an advantage but the ball was lost again before David Myers collected and made a dash for the corner. Running into a cul-de-sac, Myers offloaded to Kevin Iro who scrambled into the corner. The perfect start within the first five minutes in conditions which usually dictated a low scoring game from the off.

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.

Rochdale Hornets were the opposition for the second round of the Challenge Cup. The Hornets were in dire trouble, rooted to the bottom of the table and almost relegated already. In fact they only won once during the League campaign that season, gaining 2 points. It couldn't have been easier for Wigan in truth. Rochdale would have first dreaded being drawn against the Piemen but everyone comes out of the woodwork to watch Wigan regardless of what teams are playing so financially, they would have been happy. Not so happy on the scoreline though, 72-4 to Wigan. For Wigan, they again only conceeded 4 points for the fourth time in five games so John Monie must have been relieved that the early season free-for-all for opponents was almost certainly over and stopped the points being added up in the 'AGAINST' column in the League.

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

Wigan despatched Hull FC at Central Park shortly after the quarter final tie against Northern in a rearranged League game. They then travelled again to Rochdale 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

After the Semi Final win over Oldham, the Wigan players were in no mood to celebrate. Wigan fans of course had a few pints in celebration at another Wembley trip but Wigan were now in Mission Impossible. The fixture list looked like this:
Tuesday 26th March: Warrington (A)
Friday 29th March: Featherstone (A)
Monday 1st April: Oldham (A)
Thursday 4th April: St Helens (H)
Sunday 7th April: Castleford (H)
Tuesday 9th April: Widnes (H)
Thursday 11th April: Bradford (H)

Saturday 13th April: Leeds (A)

With eight games in a little over two weeks, it looked impossible for Wigan to catch and overtake Widnes at the top of the table and win yet another Championship title. 2 days off, 2 days off, 2 days off, 2 days off, 1 day off, 1 day off, 1 day off. For a Wigan fan, you'd have been delighted over Easter to see so much rugby. Oh it was tough. The ins and outs are for another topic but the gist of it was that Wigan won them ALL, apart from getting a draw against Bradford Northern. The gates at Central Park rocketted as St Helens attracted 17,500, Castleford brought in nearly 14,000 but the big one (if you can call it bigger than an Easter Saints v Wigan game) was reserved for a possible Title Decider: Widnes. A lock out crowd of 29,763 crammed into Central Park to witness whether Wigan could at last overhaul Widnes and be top of the League and deny Widnes of the title there and then. 26-6 to Wigan. You could not believe what you were seeing in those short days. Still, a job needed to be done and despite being 18-2 down against Bradford two days later, Wigan somehow came back to draw 18-18, mainly thanks to Ellery Hanley who showed the world why he was who he was by picking Wigan up and leading by example. Wigan had come so far and wouldn't fall at the final hurdle. Maurice Lindsay said of Hanley's performance "We have won cups, leagues, prizes, all sorts of things... but I have never seen anything like that before or since. I would say it's Ellery's finest hour. You could see the amount of pride and passion he has burning inside him. He just wouldn't lie down. He was incredible". With one game remaining and now two ponts ahead of Widnes, only Leeds stood in the way of Wigan and another League title at Headingley. Wigan did it, thanks to four, 4, FOUR, drop goals (three from Bobbie Goulding) and a 20-8 win. Wigan were shattered and history had been made. The seven games in two weeks took their toll on the side. Already creaking around the semi-final stage against Oldham, Wigan were battle scarred. Andy Gregory was finally injured for the trip to Headingley, which gave Bobbie Goulding his moment to shine. Ellery Hanley went off with an injured leg and it looked like the Final against St Helens would be a tough old affair if injuries mounted up. During Mission Impossible, Wigan included many strange players. Graeme West was called upon out of semi-retirement and scored a try in a game against Castleford in a game in which Phil Clarke started as stand off. Andy Goodway started in the centres against Leeds but the job got done. Battered and bruised, one half of the Double was complete, now St Helens were waiting for revenge at Wembley.

Wigan warmed up for the Final with a Premiership 1st Round tie against Featherstone Rovers a week before D-Day. Monie felt it quite necessary to rest a whole host of first teamers after what they had just achieved and gave run outs to fringe players like Ian Gildart, Steve Blakely and Sean Tyrer. Wigan lost but it did not matter much, Wigan were normally hit or miss when it came to the Premiership, with the Challenge Cup always holding presidence. Even with two weeks of relative rest, Wigan were reporting that many of their players were struggling and some were on pain killing injections. Despite Saints' poor league position (6th), they arguably had a stronger team than the one that faced Wigan in 1989. Allan Hunte and Tea Ropati were quite a formidable duo with power and pace supplying St Helens with attacking and defensive options on their flank. Whereas Paul Bishop, their scrum half, was appearing in his third Final against Wigan and was desperate to set the record straight once and for all.

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.

The day wasn't as hot as 1990, the sun appeared several times but it didn't really matter for the wigan players. If it had been sweltering then it may have proved a big factor with fatigue. 75,000 people made the journey to North London that Saturday which meant Wembley Way was awash with red and white jersey, flags, scarves and other paraphernalia. Wigan yet again were drawn to play in their blue and white away jerseys for the third time in four years.

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.

Sadly for Wigan, an end of Era. This Final was to be the last for Ellery Hanley in Wigan colours. After completing 202 games and scoring 189 tries, it was time for The King to move on. He later signed for hometown club Leeds for a world record £250,000 - not bad for a 30 year old player who had been around since the late seventies! If Wiganers were looking at who would replace Hanley, they needent look far. But thats for another time. The main thing was, Wigan ultimately beat St Helens at Wembley in what was one of the Greatest seasons the Wigan club had ever played. Mission Impossible turned into Mission Accomplished.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

8 In A Row - 1989/90

"I was already playing with a broken hand... when I got my face smashed in... I never thought of coming off... it turned out to be a cheekbone and eye socket fracture" ~ Shaun Edwards on the 1990 Final.

The West Yorkshire club Leeds were the only side in history to appear in a Challenge Cup final for three successive years between 1941-43. They had won the Cup in 1941 and 1942 but eventually lost out by a point in 1943 to Dewsbury over two matches. They hadn't played at Wembley due to the War, so Odsall was a favoured venue for their two Cup successes. No team had ever won the Cup three times in a row and it was Wigan's mission to set the record straight in the 1989/90 campaign. In the off-season, Wigan had lost their popular coach Graham Lowe to Manly in a rather dubious manner. Maurice Lindsay, the Wigan Chairman, had suggested that Lowe was 'tapped up' by a visiting Australian representative but Lowe it seemed was ready to go home anyway such was his inflated profile gained by his exploits with Wigan. The door was open for a new coach, someone to continue Wigan's rise to power. The answer lied in Australia. The Wigan club knew that no Englishman could be on a par with any Antipodean at the time so Wigan went hunting.

Parramatta currently had a coach in John Monie who, it was widely rumoured, would be retiring from the game. Parramatta and Wigan had a bit of history with players such as Steve Ella and Brett Kenny floating between the two clubs in the recent past so links were still active between Central Park and the Western Sydney club. After much begging and salesmanship, Lindsay got his man. Monie signed a two year contract at Central Park and was seen as the perfect coach to bring further success to the club and to control the dressing room. The playing staff were almost as you were. The old timers such as Shaun Wane, Henderson Gill and Nicky Kiss were still there only to be used when necessary. Graeme West was still knocking about and only managed to make one appearance in this season. The youngsters such as Denis Betts, David Marshall, Bobbie Goulding and Phil Clarke were increasingly eager to break into the first team and pushing through. Unpopular names such as Ian Gildart, Ian Lucas and Ged Byrne started roughly thirty matches a piece and it showed that Wigan didn't really need to spend big money to bring in success. A key absentee for the 1989/90 campaign was Tony Iro who had signed to play with Manly-Warringah.

Mark Preston kept his place on the wing for almost every match whilst the other flank looked like it had a rotation system on it. Vying for a place in the number two jersey was David Marshall, Henderson Gill and even Ged Byrne. It seemed that there were areas of improvement still in the Wigan club but with such strength in depth, Monie felt that by rotating the squad now and again would do nobody any harm at all, despite the seeming uproar a season earlier and the Gregory saga. Denis Betts and Martin Dermott had now seemed to call their shirts their own. Even Hanley was sharing with Andy Goodway during parts of the year but of course, injuries didn't help their cause. Steve Hampson was still going strong at fullback and even though Joe Lydon didn't have a shirt to call his own, his usefulness in any back position made him a key utility player. Shaun Edwards and Andy Gregory resumed their pact of torment in the middle whilst helping youngster Bobbie Goulding from time to time.

With the town still buzzing from the now legendary 27-0 win over St Helens it was time to go around again. The Double was again on the agenda but with a seeming lack of business in the transfer market and a new coach in Monie who hadn't won much with Parramatta, few doubts (only a few) were raised. Again, the Double had eluded every club and Wigan could have got it a few months earlier had it not been for one Martin Offiah at Widnes. Wigan were knocking on the door yet again only this time their cries were louder than ever. It wasn't going to be an easy ride as the likes of Widnes and Leeds were still strong.

Wigan started the season in typical fashion: by losing to Widnes in the Charity game played at Anfield. It was ok though, the league season was a week away and a tasty tie against Warrington at home would surely get Wigan off to a flying start in the league campaign. 14,741 witnessed a Warrington win. Not a good start then and with Monie picking exactly the same 15 names for both losses, almost immediately people were questioning what qualities this guy from Parramatta actually brought to Wigan. Wigan then had the chance to make up for their mistake by beating Leigh at Hilton Park but Monie stuck to what he believed in and the same side turned out for the third successive game. Those who made the short journey to East Wigan via Hindley would surely have been wondering without any sort of team change would newly promoted Leigh cause an upset and claim local bragging rights. Wigan won 44-7. Mark Preston grabbed a hat trick of tries, his fourth in two league games and was off to a flyer of a start.

One man who wasn't off to a flyer was Ellery Hanley, Wigan's crown jewel. Over the summer he was paid silly money to appear Down Under with Western Suburbs and in the process ended up getting injured with a groin injury, much to the annoyance of the club doctor and of course Maurice Lindsay. In fact, Ellery had only managed to make his first appearance a couple of days before Christmas against Leeds. Wigan up until that point didn't really need Hanley in the side. Andy Goodway had already scored 13 tries from loose forward and Wigan had only lost once in the League since their opening day kitters - and that was only by 2 points. But, call it fate, Goodway had an injury just as Hanley had returned... so all was well heading into the New Year and the smell of another Wembley run was in the frozen air.

Three in a row? Why not? In time it had seemed like something a silly man would suggest but it had been on the cards before. Leeds as mentioned tried and failed, just, in the 1940s and the Great Huddersfield and Wakefield sides had come close too, along with Widnes in the not-too-distant past. Ellery Hanley was officially over his injury in the Regal Trophy Final against Halifax in mid-January... he only scored a hat trick on that occasion. That performance against a plucky Halifax side, coached by a future Wigan coach John Dorahy, nailed down Wigan's intentions to the rest of the rugby world that they were on form and hungry for more. Early season had seen John Monie taking a step back and seeing what players he had at his disposal. Wigan weren't ready for Warrington on their opening day and with numerous team changes taking place and the return of Hanley, Monie had finally sorted his team out. All teams through to the Challenge Cup first round were dreading being picked to play Wigan as it meant that their Challenge Cup run was over for another year. Hull Kingston Rovers were the lucky winners of this accolade in a game to be played on the 28th January.

Game 11: Sunday 28th January 1990. Challenge Cup Round 1 v. Hull K.R. @ New Craven Park, Hull. 6-4. att: 8,473

Wigan were almost faultless in the League, scoring for fun it seemed. A week before their trip to East Hull, Wigan had a taster session against City rivals Hull FC in the League to which Wigan lost. John Monie wasn't worried, nor too were the players about being upset in Hull two weeks on the trot. Paranoia gripped the Wigan fans: it's ok to lose in the league once in Hull, even twice in a row... but not lose in the Cup! Time would tell. Hull K.R. were enjoying their own good run of form in the Second tier of English Rugby and were busy battling for promotion alongside Rochdale Hornets and Oldham. Their 1989/90 league campaign was known for their free-scoring (much like Wigan) and their solid defence, so it wasn't going to be plain sailing for the Central Park Piemen.

Sunday came along and how cold it was too! I still remember soup freezing in its flask to this day! The conditions were terrible and the North Sea wind was on top form. A bitingly cold muddy pitch welcomed the Central Park outfit that day. Andy Gregory missed the match and so John Monie move Hanley into the halves to partner Shaun Edwards. It was probably a simple move but a move which would benefit Wigan. With the pitch conditions so dire, Andy Goodway could be used in the forwards for his strength and workrate whilst Hanley's skill could prove to be a potential match winner elsewhere on the field.

The game was as anyone would expect it to be, tight and up the middle. Hull KR repeatedly used the howling wind to pin Wigan deep into their own half with the reason being that Wigan's kickers wouldn't get any distance and hence a better chance of scoring. This duly happened, well, half of it. Ged Byrne and Shaun Edwards could not get any distance whatsoever on their drop outs and this proved to be a problem. Joe Lydon had gone off injured but coach Monie had decided to send him back on simply to get some distance on the kicks to help relieve pressure. Perhaps the only happy Wigan player would have been Andy Gregory, watching in his thick warm coat from the sidelines. It took a kick and luck of the mud to gift Wigan their sole try from David Marshall. Shaun Edwards had kicked deep into the in-goal area which luckily for Wigan was very deep. The mud helped settle the ball and Dave Marshall was all too happy to get a touch on it. Joe Lydon successfully converted to give Wigan their only points of the game. A hard fought tie but the result that mattered was that Wigan were in the hat for Round 2. Even more important was the heating in the car on the way home was thankfully working! Things you remember as a kid eh!?

Game 12: Sunday 11th February 1990. Challenge Cup Round 2 v. Dewsbury @ Central Park, Wigan. 30-6. att: 11,113

Shortly after Wigan beat Hull KR, the hopes and dreams of another club would be shattered. And that club would be Dewsbury. The draw saw another Second Division team face the "Mighty" Wigan and calls of it being a "fix" by many, if not all, St Helens supporters was loud in the air. The Dewsbury game would, in theory, be easier than the test Wigan faced at New Craven Park but you never know. Hull K.R. gave Wigan a mighty scare with conditions being as they were, the result could have easily gone either way. Dewsbury were doing ok in the league but not producing anything special. The bookies had Wigan as overwhelming favourites and the result proved that it was to be so. Dewsbury made the trip across the Pennines with the mission to disrupt anything Wigan tried to do, by any means possible. The score would have been comfortably more otherwise and tempers occasionally flared up. The big snap came when Dean Bell hit one of their Annoyers-in-Chief and was sent off by referee Mr. Campbell. Bell received a lengthy ban of eight matches for his fisty-cuffs which meant he would miss the Quarter Final and a possible Semi-Final of the Cup, let alone Wigan's charge towards the Championship.

At a warmer Central Park that day turned up 11,113 punters which was a good gate for a 'certain win'. Shaun Edwards crossed twice with Kevin Iro, Ian Lucas and Denis Betts scoring also. Dean Bell managed to get on the scoresheet before being sent off. Andy Gregory started the game on the bench, returning from a small injury with Hanley moving to the centres and young Bobbie Goulding partnering Edwards in the middle. The game will probably only be remembered for Bell's loss of temper and the sending off in a straight forward win. The only thing that mattered to the Wigan public was that they were through and through with a smile as the Quarter Final draw set up a tie with Wakefield Trinity away at Belle Vue to be played two weeks later.

Game 13: Saturday 24th February 1990. Challenge Cup Round Quarter-Final v. Wakefield Trinity @ Belle Vue, Wakefield. 30-14. att: 8,033

Still with a job to do in the League, John Monie didn't rest any major players when Wigan faced Salford in the League game between the Challenge Cup ties. Wigan welcomed back Steve Hampson at fullback, a man who surely was beginning to think he would miss yet another Wembley Final due to injury. Salford were battling for their lives and weren't having any sort of luck in the league but they gave Wigan a game 32-26 loss at Central Park, a game that should have easily been won. The paranoia again crept into the minds of fans... how can they struggle to beat Salford with a near full strength side? Wakefield were going better and surely a Semi-Final place isn't going to be taken away from the now expectant Wigan army.

Wigan again had Mr. Campbell as referee, the same chap who had sent off Bell in the previous round and was roundly booed during his warm up pre-match by the travelling Wigan contingent. Although the game was on telly, Cherry and White hoardes were seen crossing the Pennines in great numbers. The gate was just over 8,000 which meant Wigan took a fare few and also the 'Wigan Factor' meant that locals turned up not to see Wakefield play but to see Wigan's talent. Kevin Iro demonstrated this with a fine long range effort of a try. It wasn't plain sailing for Wigan as one would expect, this is the Cup. Wigan had already beaten Wakefield at home in the League in September but anything could have happened that day. It was a tough game and even though Wakefield lost they could hold their heads high and say they gave a performance to make their fans happy which in a way could be argued that this game helped them give belief to stay in the top division and not be relegated. Shaun Edwards grabbed two tries along with the customary Ellery Hanley try. Wigan were without Dean Bell of course, so fate played its hand once again as when one leaves, another comes along. Steve Hampson retained his place and Joe Lydon, the World's Best Utility Player (official award), filled in at centre.

Questions however were starting to be asked of Mark Preston, Wigans wingman. He started the season in fine form, scoring for fun with a ridiculous games/tries ratio which sent him straight to the top of the try scoring charts. He had now only scored twice since late December and people were beginning to ask what was going on. Traditionally Wigan had always had a star man on the wing: Miller, Ring, Nordgren, Boston, Gill... he wasn't performing to the standards he personally set. The picture meant that it didn't really matter because Wigan could score from anywhere on the field whenever they wanted, but to start to have a winger with a drought was a waste of a player it was beginning to seem. Anyway, Wigan left Belle Vue safely with a win and were in the draw for the Semi Final.

Game 14: Saturday 10th March 1990. Challenge Cup Semi-Final v. St. Helens @ Old Trafford, Manchester. 20-14. att. 26,489

Hull K.R. had given Wigan a fight, but when the draw was made they knew it would be their only appearance in the Cup that year. The same can be said of Wakefield and Dewsbury. Wigan were easily the best team in the league by the time the Semi-Final draw came out. They had only lost once since October (to Hull FC) and coach Monie's team selections were starting to settle down. Wigan it seemed now had strength in depth when a star player was injured, another player was ready and waiting to play in the team. This sort of hunger had driven Wigan to a bit of healthy competitiveness within the camp. Bobbie Goulding had shown promise when given the chance in the halves and Denis Betts had now cemented his first team place in the second row. Youngster Phil Clarke had been given a few opportunities at loose forward, no mean feat when he had Andy Goodway and Ellery Hanley ahead of him in the queue. Kevin Iro was still showing that he still had something to give, along with Mark Preston who, although his scoring was becoming less, was still lethal when given the opportunity.

All was well then, Wigan were invincible and were on their march towards the Double. That was until they were drawn to play St. Helens in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup that was. You can win every game under the sun and have the megastars in your squad but that doesn't matter when you play your arch-rivals. Form goes out of the window. To any Wigan fan, the Ultimate is beating St. Helens at Wembley (with beating Saints to get to Wembley and winning on Good Friday coming in joint-second). 27-0 they thought, what would the score be this time? 37-0? 47-0? Of course, St. Helens were comepletely humiliated barely eleven months previous at Wembley and wanted to set the record straight for their fans, and for themselves. St. Helens were a talented side so to nil them again would have been funny, but unlikely. In the League, the Saints were battling for second place alongside Bradford Northern, Widnes and Leeds. Wigan had won their traditional Boxing Day clash 38-6 in front of a healthy 27,000 at Central Park earlier in the season so it was no surprise that the bookies made Wigan favourites to reach Wembley.

The trains were packed full of cherry and white jerseys when they left Wigan Wallgate and St Helens stations on that saturday. The Derby was on the road and the stakes couldn't have been any higher. Wembley was now 80 minutes away and it seemed that Wigan were 80 minutes away from making the Double a reality. A week earlier, Wigan had warmed up for the semi with a tough match at Headingley against Leeds in front of 23,500 spectators. It took a great deal of kicks to finally put Leeds at bay but it didn't matter as Wigan won (of course) but no injuries or suspensions were handed out. John Monie had kept the same side at Leeds which had played in the quarter-final a week earlier. Now, for the third straight game, the same 15 men were due to face St Helens. Hanley was at loose forward with Goodway in the second row. Steve Hampson (glad to be fit and hoping to stay fit if he beat St Helens) kept his place at fullback with Ged Byrne deputising well for the still suspended Dean Bell in place on the wing.

Old Trafford was near full to capacity as 26,500 turned up (Old Trafford had just begun redevelopment to what it is today then, hence the low capacity compared to today's standards) to watch the two great rivals slog it out. The first ten minutes was what most expected, the two teams neutralised eachother both in attack and defence. The first points came from Steve Hampson in the corner after a solid run through the middle by Kevin Iro initially. The Kiwi gained ground with a barnstorming run towards the Saints line to give Wigan a good chance to apply pressure. After a few tackles, Andy Gregory accepts a bullet pass and dodges around a Saints defender, twists and dummies the ball like he's at a mad dance and manages to brush off Saints' large loose forward Shane Cooper... Gregory then Kevin Iro on the left. Iro advances and before being hauled down under desperate tackling, manages to get a pass to Hampson who goes in at the corner. Fantastic play by little Andy Gregory.

A few minutes later, St. Helens managed to pressurise Wigan until a looping pass out wide found it's way to Joe Lydon who collects and races down the line, Henderson Gill style towards the St. Helens corner flag. It looked a certainty for a try with only one man to beat. That was young fullback Gary Connolly, who despite being humiliated at Wembley, produced a textbook and world class tackle on Lydon which prevented a try... Connolly just did enough to allow Lydon to ground the ball shorts of the line and force a knock on. The game was, as expected, a close encounter. Saints had welcomed a penalty to make the score 4-2 shortly after Connolly's morale-boosting heroics. Morale was boosted even further after the half-hour mark when little East Wiganer (Leigh) Shaun Devine dodged his way through sloppy Wigan defence to score at the posts to give St Helens an 8-4 lead. The commentator Ray French called him a "Wriggling Eel". Wigan pulled a penalty back shortly afterward but the last laugh of the half was reserved for St. Helens as their winger Les Quirk scored a fantastic try before the hooter. Getting the ball on his own 20, Quirk scoots around Joe Lydon and runs into open space mid-field. Steve Hampson, last man on guard, shuts the door on him going towards the posts so now it was a straight fight to the corner flag between Quirk and Hampson. Hampson makes a tackle attempt but Quirk was too fast and his legs slide through the grasp of Hampo to score in at the corner. Just a shame it was scored by St Helens!

Coming out after half-time 12-6 down, Wigan needed to improve. St. Helens were perhaps the biggest threat in now three years of Wigan's domination of the Cup and for the fans, it was bad enough losing in a Cup semi-final but losing to St. Helens? Unimaginable. Two Joe Lydon penalties had pegged Wigan back to a 12-10 scoreline but it was an odl fashioned defensive display from both sides that neutralised any attack thrown at them. A classic game of rugby league. It wasn't until the last quarter of the match had ticked by when Wigan found their breakthrough. Steve Hampson, wanting to play at Wembley for only his second time was thirsty. With ball and about 30 metres out, he throws out a pass, which ignores Ellery Hanley, to Andy Goodway who, simply, draws in the Saints defender to gift Ged Byrne a chance to run in at the corner. Despite Gary Connolly sliding across to cover, Byrne gets low easy and evades the tackle to score in at the corner to make the score, ultimately, 14-12 to Wigan.

St Helens did manage to level the score yet again via a penalty when Wigan made the mistake of being stupid in a silly position. A kick at goal it seemed was prescious in this tight game and on the 78th minute, the score was deadlocked at 14-a-piece and heading for a mid-week replay. Nails were being bitten. Man of the Match Paul Groves, of St. Helens on the last tackle tried his luck with a chip over the top but it failed. Wigan now had possession midway into their own half as the clock ticked down to the final minute. Steve Hampson, desperate for Wembley, scoots from dummy half and gains ground up field at pace until eventually being hauled down over the half way line. Rather comically on the next play, Wigan prop Andy Platt runs towards the touchline and fails to try and evade a tackle, falling to the ground in slow motion like he had been theatrically shot. He was probably knackered. Edwards then finds his best mate Andy Gregory who simply twisted his body and threw the ball to Ellery Hanley. Now, with Wembley at stake, scores tied heading for a replay etc etc... it's times like these that the big guns shine. "LONG LIVE THE KING!" Hanley powers forward and bounces off a would-be tackle with ease, runs around Man of the Match Groves and dummies his way around panicking Saints defenders. He finds Andy Goodway in support and offloads just in time for Goodway to run in under the sticks without a finger laid upon him to win the match and send Wigan to Wembley yet again! Jubilation from the Wigan crowd as the try made it 18-14 with no time left for St. Helens to score a late winner of their own. Joe Lydon accepts the 2 point gift to make it 20-14. The Double was on but more importantly, Saints were beaten (which is first) and Wembley was on the cards again (which is second priority).

St. Helens had made more than enough of a show against Wigan to eliniate their humilty barely a year previous during their 27-0 loss in front of the whole world. The game could have gone either way, with Wigan being pushed all the way. It took a moment of magic from the Black Pearl Hanley to unlock the defence in the most entertaining fashion at a supreme moment. Wigan fans, if they hadn't already, were now booking the coach tickets yet again that Saturday evening as they could now look forward to a Final tie against Warrington.

In the run up to the Final, Wigan had the usual loss to Widnes to contend with, along with a blip against Castleford in the League. It wasn't too much of a worry as Monie decided to rest a few players with some representing Great Britain against France. Phil Clarke made the most of his first team appearances (even at centre) in the mean time and a cameo appearance by Graeme West against Castleford was one for the pub quizes. Dean Bell then made a welcome return to the Wigan lineup after his fisty-cuffs against Leeds in the League game at Central Park in front of a healthy 24,462 and with the League all but wrapped up by now after this win, Wigan could look forward to a Final against Warrington. What better way to warm up for a Challenge Cup Final against Warrington than playing Warrington a week before playing Warrington? Wigan found themselves in this situation a week before Wembley in a Premiership clash at Central Park in front of a low 10,000. Many Wiganers had probably spent their money on coach and match tickets to bother going to an extra game but Wigan managed to win 28-26. Bobbie Goulding shone as the likes of Andy Platt (sub), Lydon, Iro, Edwards, Gregory and Hanley were rested for the Final a week later. All eyes on Wembley!

Game 15: Saturday 28th April 1990. Challenge Cup Final v. Warrington @ Wembley Stadium, London. 36-14. att. 77,729

Wigan had won the Championship after beating Leeds earlier in the month. All eyes were now on a Double. John Monie was quietly confident that Warrington would be second best. Games with the Wire over the season had been pretty close. Wigan had last beaten them in a Monday night match 8-2 (a game which I somehow remember as a kid purely because of the low score, which was weird for Wigan at the time) but Warrington had been hit and miss in the League, finishing eighth. They had some stars of their own in their team like Great Britain captain Mike Gregory and irritant Paul Bishop in the halves, whilst on the wings they had Des Drummond and Mark Forster who were only bettered in speed by Widnes' Martin Offiah.

The weather at last was perfect in North London, a blazing 32C and more was enjoyed by all that day. For the second year running, Lancashire had emptied two-towns for the day and Warrington sent an army of Primrose and Blue as this was their first appearance at Wembley since 1975. Wigan were of course the favourites to win the Cup for a record breaking third time in a row and who could blame anyone who installed them as favourites? Hampson, Lydon, Edwards, Gregory, Hanley, Dermott, Platt, Betts, Goodway were all GB internationals with Kevin Iro, Bell, Shelford and Preston making the numbers up. A team full of World Class superstars. Mark Preston had managed to keep his place in the Wigan team and Kevin Iro was hoping to score two more tries for the third year in succession to create his own bit of history. Youngster Bobbie Goulding had done enough to convince John Monie to give him a spot on the subs bench, with the #15 jersey being awarded to a happy Ian Gildart. Despite Graeme West's sole appearance earlier in the season, it wasn't enough to grant him a trip to Wembley as a player.

Many neutrals were wondering whether or not Wigan's domination of recent times was starting to become a factor. The crowd of 77,729 at Wembley may have put off some of those neutrals who had previously seen Wigan win the game well before half time in the previous two years, and of course, the Hillsbrough stadium changes which meant a lower capacity crowd of course. With the blzing early summer sun it was a tremendous day - if you were a Wigan fan. The neutrals were proved right as the Final was all but over come half time. Saying that, though, Warrington started the game well. Wigan knew that Warrington were always going to be up for the match and start well both in attack and defence. Their experience on the pitch from guys like Mike Gregory and Duane Mann meant that first and foremost they have to neutrlaise any attack and keep Wigan at bay.
After a quarter of the game, Wigan found themselves on the front foot, the forwards of Shelford, Platt and Goodway worked overtime to keep Warrington to within 20 metres of their own line upto the fifth tackle. Finding no obvious way through the Wigan defence the ball is played back to David Lyon, the Warrington fullback who is ready and primed to kick clear. One man on a mission was Shaun Edwards who saw an opportunity to charge the ball down. Now, Edwards is a small chap so he timed it well just as Lyon kicked, the ball bounced forwards and Denis Betts must have thought it was christmas when the ball bounced into his arms, with momentum carrying him over the line despite a desperate tackle from Warrington's Des Drummond. Joe Lydon made the score 8-0 (Wigan had accepted a penalty earlier in the match, courtesy of Paul Bishop). However, Warrington were awarded a small lifeline when silly Wigan play gifted them the chance to be within a converted try.
Now, momentum is a good thing to have, especially in rugby league. Mark Preston, Wigan's wingman (nicknamed 007 for the type of guy he was), had started the season well scoring tries. Too well in fact and by the time Christmas came it seemed that he had enough to finish the season off. Since then he had chipped in less regularly but it was felt momentum had left him, despite sealing the Championship against Leeds with a brace, I suppose. Anyway, with 31 tries in the season it was quite fitting for John Monie to stick with him in the Final. He justified his rightful selection with one of the best wingers tries you could score, especially at Wembley. After the halfhour mark Warrington were in a decent position attacking the Wigan left. Gary Mercer, their centre, tried to be clever and chip the ball over the backs defence. Instead, the ball sliced and found its way into the hands of Mark Preston. Think of Henderson Gills try in the 1985 Final against Hull FC, this was almost an exact replica. Preston quickly found himself with acres of space and advancing, gallpoing, over the halfway line. The only man who could possibly stop him was their fullback David Lyon. Instead of trying to wrongfoot Lyon, Preston stuck to the touchline and stuck his head down and entered top speed. With a few glances at Lyon, the fullback found himself chasing thin air as Preston breezed on by. A last ditch ankle tap attempt failed and Preston managed to improve the kicking for Joe Lydon to score near the posts. A fantastic try, and he was knackered! 14-2.
Whatever Warrington tried for most of the first half, they failed. Their playmaker Paul Bishop missed a couple of kicks and was regularly bashed around the field for fun by, seemingly, all the Wigan players who had the fortune to be near him. They stuck at it though and, despite losing 2 more points which Joe Lydon accepted with the boot, Mike Gregory stormed his way through the Wigan defence to score under the posts deep into first half injury time. Wigan led 16-8 at half time but somehow Warrington had to score twice without conceeding, and Hanley hadn't warmed up yet.
Monie's tam talk at half time wasn't worrying for the players. Everyone knew their role and that they were better than Warrington. They knew that Warrington had nothing to lose and would be at them after the break to try and get back into the game early on. To this, they duly did. It took Wigan a further ten minutes after the restart to score again, this time via Kevin Iro to score his traditional Wembley try. Good work from substitute Bobbie Goulding injected a bit of energy into Wigan's attack after receiving an offload from Andy Goodway midway through the Warrington half. Goulding advanced but gained ground before being tackled. The ball passed from left to right from Edwards who spotted Hanley on his blind side and all The King had to do was find Iro. Iro used his power to easily run through to the try line, running over David Lyon (who seemed to be having a shocker) and extend Wigan's lead further.
Five minutes later, Wigan were stating their case to engrave that famous name on the trophy early. With Warrington attacking, young martin Crompton tried to offload a pass in desperation but the ball only found its way to a Wigan player, close to the Wigan line. Edwards picks it up and passes to his right, with the ball finding Steve Hampson (enjoying the Wembley sun) who suddenly sprints up field towards the halfway line. If you blinked, you would have seen Warrington attacking the Wigan line and when your eyes opened, Steve Hampson was at the halfway line going the other way. Inevitably, The King Ellery Hanley was in support and with his trademark running style, ball in hand with a pass from Hampson, directed his run diagonally towards the Warrington corner flag. With space running out, Warrington managed to close him down and Ellery was stopped. What Warrington failed to do was stop Wigan's support men. Ellery Hanley had no better player to pass to than Shaun Edwards. Edwards had raced up field (easily keeping pace with Hampson) and looked as though he would finish the move he started 80 metres away. Mike Gregory, the solid and lionhearted Warrington captain had managed to scramble across and make a fantastic try saving tackle and put Edwards in touch... or so it seemed. Mark Preston had called to say that he was milling around the area and would dearly love to have the ball. Edwards accepted, and before the tackle could be made, Edwards offloads to Preston who crashes over the line to score in the corner to make it 28-8. Game Over.
This was trademark Wigan. From nothing and under pressure, Edwards started a move standing still and before you knew it, Wigan jerseys were streaming up field with options of support. Trademark Wigan and trademark Edwards, no other player has been better at the support role than Edwards, the never say die attitude proved a winner time and time again and efforts such as this create memorable tries. And Preston had his second of the day at Wembley, he must have felt as cool as 007 sipping a Martini in Monte Carlo that afternoon. The Warrington fans would have to wait a bit longer for their Wembley success (well, about 40 years as it turned out). The game was over but Wigan weren't. Everyone knew that the Double was won but everyone, fans and players alike wanted more. After 64 minutes, eventual Lance Todd Trophy winner Andy Gregory produced a bit of magic. With Warrington shirts around him, he looped his pass up and over to Ellery Hanley in the Warrington 20. You can guess the rest.With Warrington shirts littering the turf motionless, Hanley wriggled, jinked and fought his way to the line to score in the only place he knew at Wembley: under the posts.
Warrington salvaged some pride near the hooter, as impressive Mike Gregory fought his way mid field before offloading to David Lyon who raced in to score, much to his relief I suspect. It didn't matter, the game was won. Kevin Iro, who had scored twice in the previous two Finals was determined to keep his record going and before the hooter scored his second of the game. Good work from substitute Ian Gildart saw him find Kevin Iro in support. With work to do, Iro shrugs off a challenge by Warrington speedster Mark Forster and heads to the corner flag and score. Des Drummond got in on the action and tempers flared as Iro threw the ball at Des. In retaliation, Drummond threw a punch and a small scale scrap emerged. There was nothing more in it than that, partly frustration by the Warrington player and a bit ofannoyance on the part of Iro. The score finished 36-14 after Joe Lydon failed at the conversion attempt, Wigan's Third-in-a-Row.
It was a one sided affair to be honest. Warrington showed some character and passion but that was to be suspected. They had to try and get on the front foot and try and neutralise whatever Wigan threw at them. Once fatigue crept in there was only going to be one winner in the blazing sun. Wigan had the experience, talent and superstar quality to make sure they didn't panic. They played the waiting game and came up trumps eventually into a contest that would have been a bigger mis-match for it had not been for Warrington captain Mike Gregory's performance. Later, people learned that Shaun Edwards had suffered an injury during the match but stayed on the pitch. Despite having a dodgy hand in the week leading upto Wembley, Edwards suffered a fractured cheekbone and eye socket after being walloped by Warringtons Bob Jackson and Gary Sanderson. He stayed on the pitch regardless and as he says, it was not permissiable to miss playing unless you were dead, or something to that effect. Andy Gregory as mentioned received the Lance Todd Trophy for his second time. Mark Preston may have felt a tad aggreived at being overlooked, despite his two length of the field tries, but Gregory ran the show for Wigan. Silent but deadly, his neat passing and positional kicks set up Wigan for some of their tries as the general directed his troops around that bit of North London.
The quiet man, John Monie had been successful afterall. This relative unknown Aussie had big shoes to fill in succeeding Graham Lowe but quickly achieved what no other coach had at Wigan, The Double. Technically, you could call it a Triple as Wigan had already won the Regal Trophy (as it was now known) earlier in the year and the League was sewn up. Wigan had three in a row yet many were thinking that Wigan could achieve a lot more. Maurice Lindsay, the Wigan chairman had his eyes set on greater and better things, as always, but so too did the Wigan fans. Wiganers had always expected their rugby club to do well, at bare minimum reach a Final every year and realistically, win a trophy once a season. In the past three seasons, Wigan had won over ten honours but Monie knew that with a relative open cheque book at his disposal, courtesy of Uncle Mo, the Wigan team could be better as his quest for perfection had only just started.

There was celebration in Wigan that night and who knew how it could get better? Some were already thinking to Monday morning as that was the earliest opportunity to book coach travel a year in advance of a certain (it seemed) appearance at Wembley in 1991. Four is better than Three, so they say...

(Alot of information of this story and quotes adapted from Paul Wilsons book The Best Years of Our Lives, 1996, Mainstream Publishing)