“THERE seems to be no getting away from headlines on this programme involving referees,” were the words presenter Bob Hall greeted viewers with as they tuned into the March 1981 edition of ‘RL Action’ featuring highlights from the Second Division clash between Huddersfield and Wigan.
The referee in question was Manchester official Vin Moss, although he could scarcely have expected this match between the two promotion rivals to transpire as it did.
Wigan arrived at Fartown on March 15 top of the Second Division and aiming for a swift return to the Slalom Lager Championship following what remains to this day the only relegation in their history.
Meanwhile, the hosts were sitting fifth, just outside the promotion places, and still harbouring their own hopes of promotion to the top division.
The signs were there this could be a hard-fought encounter from the moment early on when Wigan scrum-half Gary Stephens was cynically tripped as he went for the try line, with skipper George Fairbairn kicking the resulting penalty.
The visitors were not averse to dishing out some of the rough stuff either, with the touch judge intervening for Eddie Bowman fouling at a scrum and again when Bill Melling got into a scrap with Stan McHugh, which led to Graham Swale levelling the scores.
“Tempers are fraying just a little,” observed Lewis Jones, on summariser duty with commentator Keith Macklin for Yorkshire TV that day. It would prove to be something of an understatement.
So would Jones’ assessment of a high tackle by Huddersfield scrum half Glenn Knight, first decrying it as “the sort of tackle we must stamp out” before dismissing its seriousness as “only an impulsive sort of thing.”
This had come after Huddersfield had taken the lead through an Ian Slater try converted by Swale, although a converted try from Foy soon got the visitors back on level terms.
The physicality continued unabated though and Huddersfield’s skilful loose forward Tony Johnson in particular came in for some punishments, being inexplicably shoved over by Stevens while trying to play the ball and then being on the receiving end of a high tackle from Bowman, which led to Swale kicking Huddersfield back in front before the half-time hooter sounded.
Any hopes that the interval might give both teams an opportunity to calm down were swiftly snuffed out at one of the first scrums of the second period though.
Tensions finally reached breaking point when a mass punch-up ensued in back play which ended up involving most members of both teams and continued as Mr Moss repeatedly blew hard on his whistle to no avail.
After discussing matters with his two touch judges when the teams had finally finished settling a few “private wars”, as Macklin described it, Moss – stern-looking, slicked-back hair and firmly chomping on some chewing gum – ordered off Jimmy Johnson and Alan Hodkinson, along with Knight and Les Bolton.
Even in these seemingly-lawless times for rugby league, four players being sent off in one game was rare enough, but more were to follow when it erupted again at a scrum deep in Huddersfield’s half.
This time it was Huddersfield replacement Steve Lyons and Wigan hooker Nicky Kiss who were sent for an early bath, leaving each team to finish the match with just 10-a-side.
No further scores occurred during the game as Huddersfield won 9-7. But, unsurprisingly, the main talking point after the final hooter was how it ended up with six players being dismissed.
In scenes which would be unimaginable today, Mr Moss was called upon by Yorkshire TV to give his version of events in a post-match interview.
“I felt the first 20 minutes would be the critical point and we seemed to get over that,” said Moss.
“Everything went alright up to half time and then, suddenly, in the second half everything seemed to blow up.”
Wigan, who fined their entire team for their part in this affair, would meet Huddersfield at Central Park the following month, running out 23-9 victors and going onto secure promotion as Second Division runners-up.
As for Huddersfield, the win in the first match did not prove enough as they ended up missing out on the top four by two points. But it is a game that will never be forgotten, even if it is not quite for the right reasons.