1996 Week – Whatever happened to Prescot Panthers and more tales from the lower divisions

AMID the glamour and hype around the new Super League, it is perhaps easy to forget there were still 23 other professional teams going about their business beneath the top flight in the summer of 1996.
The RFL opted to stick with two divisions below Super League and this was a situation which would remain until they were merged to form the Northern Ford Premiership in 1999.
The make-up of the two divisions was exactly the same as it had been for the Centenary season due to there being no promotion or relegation, which led to 1995-96 Division One champions Keighley Cougars threatening legal action after being denied a place in Super League.
They eventually withdrew this threat after the lower division clubs were promised a larger share of the £87million deal with broadcaster News Ltd as part of the formation of the new top flight, but on the pitch they would be denied again.
It was Salford Reds who were crowned champions of the first summer Division One campaign, with Keighley having to settle for the runners-up spot and losing to the Reds in the Division One Premiership final.
This would prove to be the last hurrah for ‘Cougarmania’, with a takeover by Carl Metcalfe the following year eventually ending in the entire squad being sold and the club going into administration.
Even with the switch to summer and the extra money being pumped into the game from television was not the answer to all of rugby league’s problems though – and no more was that true in Division Two, where five of 12 clubs playing there in 1996 no longer exist.

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The one-time home of Prescot Panthers at Hope Street

PROPPING up the professional ranks that year were one of rugby league’s great survivors, Prescot Panthers.
The Panthers could trace their lineage back to Wigan Highfield – a club previously profiled on this blog – who were formed in 1902, moved to London’s White City stadium for one season in 1933 and then to Liverpool.
Spells under the guises of Liverpool Stanley and Liverpool City followed before the move to Huyton in 1967. But once they left the run-down and oft-vandalised Alt Park in 1984, they became something of a nomadic club.
The first stop was Canal Street, home of Runcorn FC, and a change of name to Runcorn Highfield. Six years later, Highfield agreed a groundshare of St Helens Town FC’s home at Houghton Road in Sutton – a move which was opposed by the town’s rugby league team, but eventually approved by the Rugby League Council.
But when St Helens Town increased the rent in 1994, the club was on the move again and ended up at Prescot Cables’ Hope Street ground, which was to be their final home.
The Panthers actually began the first season of summer rugby under the Highfield name in the Challenge Cup, although suffered a humiliating 35-20 loss at home to giant-killing amateurs West Hull in the third round.
By the time Division Two kicked off, they had adopted the Prescot Panthers moniker, yet it did not lead to a change in fortunes.
Prescot recorded just two league wins all season, coming against Barrow Braves and Chorley Chieftains, and finished six points adrift of 11th-placed Bramley at the bottom of the table.
They also shipped 883 points, with the nadir of the campaign coming in a 90-0 defeat against eventual runners-up Swinton Lions.
Trying to keep the club afloat amid all this carnage was Geoff Fletcher, who had joined Huyton in 1978 as a player, eventually fulfilling nearly every role at the club before becoming chairman.
But although they managed to survive the first season of summer rugby, the demand for an instant repayment of a brewery loan which had been used to keep the Hope Street social club open and provide the Panthers with modest income brought about the club’s demise at the end of 1997.
Carlisle, who finished fourth in 1996, disappeared at the end of the following year too following a merger with Cumbrian rivals Barrow. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Bramley continued until 2000, before reforming in the amateur ranks.
New to Division Two for 1996 were South Wales Dragons, who split their home games Aberavon’s Talbot Athletic Ground, Morfa Stadium in Swansea and Cardiff Arms Park.
Coached by legendary dual-code Welsh international Clive Griffiths, the Dragons achieved a respectable sixth-place finish. However, being overlooked for being fast-tracked to Super League – Gateshead Thunder getting the place instead – and small crowds saw the project disbanded after just one season.
Of the clubs no longer playing, Chorley lasted the longest. They were renamed Lancashire Lynx and moved to Deepdale in 1997 after being purchased by Preston North End, but this arrangement lasted only until the turn of the Century.
Businessman Trevor Hemmings returned the Lynx to Chorley’s Victory Park in 2000. However, their demise came about four years later, with coach Mark Lee and 16 players moving to Blackpool Panthers.
Even a long-established club like York Wasps struggled in the transition to summer, going out of business in 2002 and being replaced the following year by York City Knights.
Many of these clubs are now little more than footnotes in rugby league history. Yet it is only right their contribution to the game, however small, should be remembered – along with serving as a reminder of the stark realities of life at the lower end of the professional game.

1996 Week Part One: The birth of Super League

1996 Week Part Two: New kings are crowned in the Challenge Cup

1996 Week Part Three: Wigan cross the divide in the ‘Clash of the Codes’

1996 Week – Wigan cross the divide in the ‘Clash of the Codes’

THE mid-1990s proved a time of massive change for both codes of rugby.
While rugby league was embarking on its shift to summer and the launch of Super League, the 15-man game was making its first steps into the world of professional sport having been declared ‘open’ in 1995.
The fact the decision by rugby union’s powerbrokers came exactly 100 years after the schism between the RFU and the Northern Union perhaps did even more to enhance the significance of such a decision.
Of course, all this really did was lift the hypocrisy of ‘shamateurism’, with anecdotal evidence suggesting payments to players had been rife for years in a sport which held itself up as the last bastion of Corinthian virtues.
But what the open declaration did as well was to free up players to play either code without fear of discrimination or being banned for life by union’s authorites. It also paved the way for two of the top teams from each code to go head-to-head in a battle for superiority.

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IT started with a phone call from rugby league players’ agent Alan McColm, who got in touch with the Bath players in a bid to set up a showdown between themselves and Wigan, which would see the pre-eminent powers in each code go up against each other in one game of league and one game of union.
However, there were a few hurdles to be overcome before the so-called ‘Clash of the Codes’ could go ahead – with the union authorities unsurprisingly resistant to any such matches being played.
“Twickenham wouldn’t play ball with them. So myself and David Bradshaw, the marketing guy from Wigan, started putting it together,” recalled Bath president Danny Sacco in an interview with The Rugby Paper.
“I installed phone lines in the Teachers Stand [at Bath’s Recreation Ground], I had my wife and relatives answering the phones and off we went. In those days it was like East meeting West.
“Every time I went to Twickenham the frosty reception was unbelievable. They thought I was evil and were set in their ways and didn’t want to see the game take place”
Not only that, but Bath were told in no uncertain terms that Twickenham would be unavailable for the union match due to their pitch reseeding programme – only for that to suddenly be put back when Cardiff Arms Park offered to host it.
The RFL were hesitant about the idea as well, particularly as the dates for the games would come early in the new Super League season and necessitate Wigan’s game with Sheffield Eagles being moved.
Nevertheless, those hurdles were overcome and the dates were set for the league encounter at Manchester City’s Maine Road on May 8 and the match under union rules at Twickenham on May 25.

IN the run up to the first game, Bath completed a Premiership and Pilkington Cup double, while Wigan’s failure to make the Challenge Cup final for the first time since 1987 saw them enjoy a week off before thumping Paris Saint-Germain 76-8 in Super League.
To prepare for the match under league rules, Bath arranged a training session with Second Division outfit South Wales. However, it proved disastrous for them with the side still nursing the effects of celebrating their double success.
The first of the cross-code clashes in front of 20,148 curious spectators at Maine Road could hardly have got off to a worse start for the union boys either as Jon Callard, playing at scrum-half, failed to make the required 10 metres from the kick-off.
There was no respite for them as Martin Offiah, who started his career playing the 15-man code for Rosslyn Park, breezed past several would-be tacklers to put Wigan ahead with a try after just three minutes.
Offiah grabbed two more tries in the first half, along with Scott Quinnell, Henry Paul, Terry O’Connor, Craig Murdock, Jason Robinson and Andy Johnson all going over as the Cherry and Whites racked up nine tries in the first half alone.
Four conversions apiece for Andy Farrell and Martin Hall had Wigan 52-0 clear when referee Russell Smith blew his whistle for half time, although one bright point for Bath in the first 40 minutes was a crunching tackle from full-back Audley Lumsden on O’Connor winning the respect of the watching league fans.
The main problem for Bath was their defence being unable to get set in time or cope with the lines of running and support play from the league side, and things did not get better after the break.
Their persistence was rewarded in the 48th minute when Callard stepped the defence and sniped through for a try – which even some of the Wigan fans cheered – and converted, yet that proved only scant consolation for his side.
Offiah would end the night with six tries to his name, Robinson, O’Connor and Johnson all went over again as well, and Mick Cassidy got another as Wigan ran out 82-6 victors.

IF any further proof were needed that the wall between league and union was starting to come down, then Wigan taking part in rugby union’s traditional end-of-season party, the Middlesex Sevens, was it.
Wigan were one of the 22 founder members of the Northern Union when it split from the RFU in 1895, so there was perhaps an extra significance to them taking part in these cross-code encounters than them being simply the all-conquering rugby league side of the previous eight years.
Contrary to Bath’s disastrous preparations for the league match, the Cherry and Whites could hardly have wished for a better introduction to the world of union – albeit in the seven-a-side version.
The biggest worry was how the league boys would adapt to the mysteries of the breakdown – rather than having a play-the ball after a tackle – and the dark arts of contested scrums, although those worries would have been eased by their Sevens triumph at Twickenham.
Established powers such as Richmond, Harlequins and Leicester all fell by the wayside as Wigan set up a meeting with Wasps in the final. And despite losing Paul and Quinnell to injury earlier in the tournament, they ran out victors 38-15 after coming back from being 15 points down.
There might have been much harrumphing from some of the RFU blazer brigade at these northern oiks having the temerity to come and win their tournament, but Wigan won plenty of admirers too.
“Wigan had pace to burn and power to spare and even though Wasps, inspirationally led by Lawrence Dallaglio and badgered along by the busily effective Andy Gomarsall, denied them the ball for long periods during the final and opened up what should have been a decisive lead, there was only ever going to be one winner,” wrote The Independent’s rugby union correspondent, Chris Hewitt, who also picked out Paul as his star man.
The 15-a-side union game at Twickenham would prove somewhat different though.

“NO problem; I think Wigan’s professionalism will take them through. It won’t be a shock for me to see them win,” were the bullish words of a smirking Mike Stephenson in Sky Sports’ build-up to live coverage of the union encounter.
Ex-Bath and England fly-half turned union pundit Stuart Barnes, on the other hand could barely hide his sneering contempt for all things league.
“The man has been taking some sort of mushrooms up in the north of England,” he snorted. “There is no doubt at all – Bath are going to win this one by 30 points. They’re going to be too strong up front.”
The Wigan team included 42-year-old head coach Graeme West and 32-year-old Joe Lydon coming out of retirement to play in the specialist positions of lock and fly-half respectively, although it still took Wigan time to adapt to the nuances of union.
Bath were clearly out for revenge after their drubbing in Manchester and the first scrum resulted in both sets of forwards getting a little better acquainted.
Callard kicked Bath in front from a penalty and they were then awarded a penalty try for an infringement at the scrum. Two tries from Adebayo Adebayo and one from Jon Sleightholme.
Gary Connolly thought he had got Wigan on the board as half-time approached, finishing of a scintillating move started by a burst from Robinson. However, he was denied when referee Brian Campsall pulled play back for a forward pass on the say-so of his touch judge.
“I’ve been watching rugby union for years and I didn’t know you HAD the forward pass!” spouted an incredulous Stevo, adding: “That looked A-Okay to me!”
Leading 25-0 at half time, Bath moved further ahead after the break through tries from Mike Catt and Phil de Glanville. Yet soon after, Wigan started to mount something of a fightback.
Murdock finished off a move which had started deep inside their half, followed by Va’aiga Tuigamala bursting through the defence after Wigan had managed to turn the ball over at a ruck deep in Bath territory.
Ian Sanders dotted down off the back of a scrum for Bath’s seventh, but it was Murdock who had the last word after Wigan again broke from the own line, with Robinson providing the final pass for the half-back to go over for his second.
Although Wigan suffered a 44-19 loss, their comfortable win in the first leg saw them take an aggregate victory in the two-match series.
There were further long-term impacts too, with Robinson, Paul, Tuigamala and Farrell all eventually switching codes with varying degrees of success.
Lydon and Edwards would both take up coaching roles in union, with the latter particularly becoming feted in the 15-man game as a defensive mastermind and continuing at faithful sidekick to Wales coach Warren Gatland to this day.
Bradford Bulls later followed Wigan in entering and winning the Middlesex Sevens in 2002, while Twickenham has hosted two Challenge Cup finals and England’s first game of the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.
The ‘Clash of the Codes’ also led to some gleefully predicting the end of league and both games coming back together as just ‘rugby’. Fortunately, such a situation has never occurred and does not look likely too either.

1996 Week Part One: The birth of Super League

1996 Week Part Two: New kings are crowned in the Challenge Cup

1996 Week Part Four: Whatever happened to Prescot Panthers and more tales from the lower divisions

1996 Week – New kings are crowned in the Challenge Cup

St Helens Challenge Cup

St Helens win the 1996 Challenge Cup

“YOU might find that when Super League starts, the Challenge Cup no longer assumes the overwhelming importance it does now,” were the somewhat prophetic words of RFL chief executive Maurice Lindsay in the months prior to the start of rugby league’s brave new era.
Indeed, back in 1996 it seemed as if the most prestigious domestic knock-out competition had been something of an afterthought amid the switch to summer and the launch of Super League.
Because that year, the competition started in the depths of winter – a situation which continued for nine years until the final was put back to its now-traditional slot over the August Bank Holiday weekend.
That may well have contributed to the prestige of the Challenge Cup being somewhat dented, while the introduction of play-offs and the Grand Final to decide the Super League champions have taken a little more sheen off it as well.
Nevertheless, the Challenge Cup final at Wembley remains rugby league’s annual big day out in London and one of the few opportunities it has to showcase what the sport is all about on the national stage.
And afterthought though it might have been, the 1996 competition could hardly have asked for a better way to show it still had plenty to offer.

IT all began with 36 amateur and student teams early in January, although the latter fell at the first hurdle. Student RL Old Boys, Humberside University and Sir John Moores University went down to Heworth, Lock Lane and Woolston Rovers respectively, while Durham University were on the wrong end of a 100-2 scoreline against West Hull.
Blackpool Gladiators and Nottingham City – both had been in the professional ranks three years earlier before being relegated to the National Conference League due to Lindsay seeking to reduce the number of pro teams – were involved too, although Nottingham fell 74-10 to West Bowling in round one and the Gladiators were put to the sword by West Hull in round two.
West Hull’s run continued as they defeated Highfield 35-20 and then proved that to be no fluke by beating York 10-6 in round four. Thatto Heath caused an upset too, knocking out Chorley Chieftians 27-12 before bowing out to Rochdale Hornets in a 54-8 defeat.
But the biggest upset of all in this year’s competition came at The Willows on Sunday, February 11 in round five, where eventual 1996 First Division champions Salford Reds would overcome the team who had dominated the Challenge Cup – and, indeed, the domestic game in the UK – for the previous eight seasons.
A crowd of 10,049 were there to see Wigan defeated 26-16 by a Reds team coached by Cherry and Whites legend Andy Gregory, along with a number of familiar faces to the travelling support starring for the hosts.
Scott Naylor grabbed two tries and Steve Blakeley, who kicked five goals, was named man of the match. Scott Martin and David Young got one try each as well to put Salford into the quarter-finals and dethrone the reigning cup kings.
“There was a massive crowd at The Willows and I remember noticing when we saw Salford run out they were really pumped up for it,” Wigan’s Terry O’Connor recalled some years later.
“But it was no great cause for concern because of the players we had: (Andy) Farrell, Jason Robinson, Henry Paul.
“But then the game kicked off and they absolutely tore into us – we didn’t know what had hit us.
“Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and admit you were beaten by the better side.”

WITH Wigan out of the way, the eight remaining teams would all have fancied their chances, but it was Salford’s quarter-final opponents who would go on to lift the famous trophy and set the tone for what would be a season laden with success.
St Helens had not won the Challenge Cup since 1976, but wins over Castleford, Rochdale and then Salford saw them take a step towards ending that 20-year drought.
First Division Widnes, who had shocked Hull 20-0 in the quarter-finals, were beaten 24-14 in the first week of March to seal a return to Wembley for the first time since their loss to bitter rivals Wigan five years prior. The fact that win over Widnes came at Central Park may well have made it even sweeter.
Their opponents in the final were to be Bradford Bulls, who beat Yorkshire rivals Leeds 28-6 at Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium thanks in no small part to a hat-trick of tries from Jonathan Scales. Both teams would go on to emerge as forces to be reckoned with in the early years of Super League, so the stage was set for a thriller.

WITH Super League getting underway in March, the final of the 1996 Silk Cut Challenge Cup was held over until April 27, but it proved a game worth waiting for.
St Helens stormed ahead inside the first quarter-of-an-hour thanks to two tries from Steve Prescott, both of which were converted by Bobbie Goulding, but Bradford led 14-12 at half time and by the 53rd minute were 24-12 up on the back of two tries from Robbie Paul, and one each from Scales and ex-Saints player Bernard Dwyer.
Cue the Goulding-inspired fightback, with the mercurial half-back putting in a steepling bomb which Bulls full-back Nathan Graham let bounce, allowing Keiron Cunningham to grab an opportunist converted try.
Goudling repeated the same trick soon after, with Graham contesting the high-ball but coming off worse with the sun in his eyes as Simon Booth grabbed the loose ball to storm over and the skipper converted to put St Helens ahead.
Amazingly, it worked a third time and it was Ian Pickavance who was the beneficiary, dotting down behind the posts and giving Goulding a simple conversion.
Paul’s third, a stunning solo effort which saw him become only the fourth player to score a Challenge Cup final hat-trick, gave Bradford hope, but Apollo Perelini’s try secured a 40-32 triumph for the Saints as they claimed the first part of what would be a league and cup double.

Robbie Paul Challenge Cup

Robbie Paul won the Lance Todd Trophy

THE final itself broke several records: St Helens’ comeback from 14 points down, which started with 23 minutes remaining, was the biggest deficit a team had overhauled in a Challenge Cup final, while the aggregate score of 72 points was the highest for the game as well.
Bradford had the unwanted recorded of the most points scored by a losing team in the final, while Paul became the eighth player to win the Lance Todd Trophy man of the match award while being on the losing team.
Try telling any of the players on either side that day the Challenge Cup was losing its importance.

1996 Week Part One: The Birth of Super League

1996 Week Part Three: Wigan cross the divide in the ‘Clash of the Codes’

1996 Week Part Four: Whatever happened to Prescot Panthers and more tales from the lower divisions

1996 Week – The birth of Super League

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SATURDAY, April 8 1995 was the day it all changed.
That was the day when rugby league media gathered at Central Park to hear RFL chief executive Maurice Lindsay announce the formation of the European Super League and the 13-man code switching to become a summer sport.
It all came about during one off rugby league’s recurrent periods of self-doubt, with all-conquering Wigan continuing to sweep all before them, crowds declining and financially-strapped clubs being swayed by the millions of Rupert Murdoch, who was waging a battle over broadcasting rights War back in his homeland of Australia in what would become known as the Super League War.
So fast forward nearly a year from that fateful day and on a Friday night at the Charlety Stadium in Paris, the new era finally got underway, although looking somewhat different to the initial plans.
Still, since when did anything in rugby league ever run smoothly?
For starters, there were originally intended to be 14 teams competing in Super League – two in France and six merged regional teams alongside standalone clubs Wigan, Bradford, Leeds, St Helens, Halifax and London Broncos – rather than the 12 which kicked off the inaugural season.
Almost as soon as the mergers to form Cumbria (Whitehaven, Workington, Barrow and Carlisle), Calder (Castleford, Wakefield and Featherstone), Cheshire (Wigan and Warrington), Humberside (Hull and Hull KR) and South Yorkshire (Sheffield and Doncaster) were agreed, the chairmen of the clubs involved were searching for a way out of them.
Not that anyone would know by Sky Sports’ coverage of the following day’s Stones Bitter Championship clash between Wigan and Bradford, with Mike Stephenson relentlessly positive and insisting these clubs pooling their resources was the only way to stop the Cherry and Whites dominating as they had done for the previous seven seasons.
Indeed, not even one dissenting voice could be found among the fans when Sky’s cameras went out and about, although regional news reports from the time seemed to suggest otherwise.
And anyway, Stevo’s prediction of Wigan continuing to be unchallenged top dogs unless the mergers went through did not quite turn out to be true.

FRIDAY, March 28 1996 was the day it all kicked off, although if Keighley Cougars had their way it would not have kicked off at all – at least not without them involved.
The make-up of the new 12-team Super League proved somewhat controversial, with London Broncos being fast-tracked into the top flight for the final season of winter rugby league and Paris Saint-Germain coming in for the first summer campaign to bring the total number of teams up to 12.
It was decided that the 1995/96 season – the season which marked the Centenary of the Northern Union splitting from the Rugby Football Union – would be contested with no promotion and relegation, with a reduced number of teams in the top flight.
However, Keighley were upset at being excluded from the Championship after winning the 1994/95 Second Division, which was the culmination of the period known as ‘Cougarmania’.
Ironically, many of the ideas incorporated for promoting Super League and the matchday entertainment which is now commonplace at professional clubs were first introduced at Keighley, but they were to be denied involvement in the new competition.
However, their threat of taking out a court injunction to prevent it going ahead was withdrawn when Murdoch and News Ltd’s offer changed to include more money for the lower division clubs.
And if there was any doubt rugby league really was entering a new era, the fact the first game of the new Super League was held on a cool spring evening in Paris with 17,873 people in attendance should have been enough to checkmate the cynicism of the naysayers.
No-one really knew what to expect from this bold approach, which had come about “all because an Australian multi-millionaire has bought the game for his satellite TV station,” in the somewhat withering assessment of the BBC’s Damian Johnson.
In fairness, there was some truth in what he said, although as Lindsay supposedly uttered in the aftermath of that first night as Paris ran out 30-24 victors over the Eagles: “Some reporters came for a funeral and had to write about a Super League party.”
Before kick-off, the players were introduced to the field by Stevo reading out their names over the public address system – and struggling with some of the pronunciations in his broad Dewsbury accent – while fireworks crackled and thick smoke blew across the field.
The match itself descended into farce at the end of the first half as well, with referee Stuart Cummings failing to blow up for half time as he could not hear the timekeeper’s hooter over the crowd.
This was a minor blip in what was otherwise a pulsating game, with two tries from Arnaud Cervello, one apiece for Darren Adams, Freddie Banquet, Pierre Chamorin and Michal Piscunov, plus three goals from Patrick Torreiles sealing a famous win for the new boys.
Sadly, that was about as good as it got for the Parisians, who only recorded two other wins all season and were prevented from finishing bottom by the hapless Workington Town, before withdrawing completely after the following season.
To date, Workington remain Cumbria’s only representatives to play in Super League and that inaugural season proved their only one. Their only victories came away to Oldham Bears – edging a 29-27 thriller – and at home to the aforementioned Paris outfit, winning 14-10.
It was always going to be tough for the side who had finished bottom of the Centenary Championship by six points and despite all the extra money flooding into the game, Workington were relegated beset by severe financial problems.
Attendances were low too, with the home game against Wigan the only time Derwent Park attract a crowd above 3,000 all season. Despite all the crowing about a new era, some of the issues affecting rugby league still remained.

Bobbie Goulding Super League trophy

St Helens’ Bobbie Goulding with the Super League trophy (Picture: Saints Heritage Society)

NOT that you would find the words ‘rugby league’ used anywhere to describe the sport, with the Super League brand almost exclusively used in any description of the game being watched.
This was all in the name of global expansion. “They can distinguish between the two (rugby league and rugby union) in Wigan, but they certainly can’t in America or Hong Kong,” was how Lindsay put it to The Independent’s Dave Hadfield.
On the field, there was an air of change too, with one of the game’s traditional powers re-emerging as a force to be reckoned with.
It was St Helens, under the stewardship of Australian coach Shaun McRae, who were the story of the season as, led by maverick half-back and captain Bobbie Goulding, they ended the near-unchallenged dominance of league Wigan had enjoyed in this country for nearly 10 years.
The Saints had ended the last season of winter rugby fourth in the standings – Wigan, Leeds and Halifax (the latter of whom ended the first season of Super League tenth and sixth respectively) being the sides above them – and 12 points behind the champions.
But the signing of Paul Newlove for £250,000 from Bradford the previous November would prove to be money well spent and the final piece in the jigsaw for St Helens, with the centre’s 36 tries powering them towards the Super League title, while Goulding was top point-scorer with 257.
This was a side stacked with talent too and no less than eight squad members –Goulding, Keiron Cunningham, Karle Hammond, Joey Hayes, Alan Hunte, Chris Joynt, Steve Prescott and Anthony Sullivan – were chosen for Great Britain’s end-of-year tour to New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
The signs were there as early as the end of April when they came from 14 points down to beat the Bulls in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley, with Wigan’s eight-year stranglehold on the knock-out competition having been ended by a shock defeat to First Division side Salford Reds in the earlier rounds.
But, this still being the pre-play-off era, the title race went right down to the wire as old rivals St Helens and Wigan battled it out until the final weeks of the campaign.
Arguably an 18-18 draw at home to fourth-place finishers London Broncos in the middle of the year perhaps did as much damage to Wigan’s title challenge as the losses to the Saints – later avenged – and Bradford, with the Cherry and Whites finishing just one point behind their bitter rivals in the final standings.
Nothing could stop St Helens though and they sealed their first league title since 1975 in style, running up over 60 points in their last two games of the season against Sheffield and Warrington Wolves, the latter of those with 18,098 fans packed into Knowsley Road.
Wigan did gain a small measure of revenge by beating St Helens in the Premiership final at Old Trafford, winning 44-14 as Danny Ellison ran in a hat-trick of tries. Yet this was little more than a last hurrah as their years of dominance were over.
This was the start of a new era and, for better or worse, Super League was here to stay.

1996 Week Part Two: New kings are crowned in the Challenge Cup

1996 Week Part Three: Wigan cross the divide in the ‘Clash of the Codes’

1996 Week Part Four: Whatever happened to Prescot Panthers and more tales from the lower divisions

Marwan Koukash continues to make headlines at Salford Red Devils

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Salford Red Devils’ AJ Bell Stadium (Picture: Anthony Parkes/Wikipedia)

SINCE he first strode through the doors of the AJ Bell Stadium as new owner of the then-named Salford City Reds three years ago this month, Dr Marwan Koukash has rarely been out of the news in the world of rugby league.
This past week has proved no exception, with Koukash having to defend the club against allegations of salary cap impropriety – again – and then announcing on Twitter he had been hit with two fines and two tribunals from the RFL.
Which, combined with three years of Salford continuing to struggle in the bottom half of Super League despite some lavish spending, must make The Good Doctor wonder whether it is worth the time and effort – not to mention the money?
Koukash’s back-story is well-known: The Palestinian refugee who grew up in Kuwait, moved to England to continue his education and made a fortune from the corporate training company he set up.
His first sporting love was horse racing, but a chance meeting with RFL chief executive Nigel Wood on a flight to Dubai paved the way for him to invest his not inconsiderable millions into the ailing Salford.
To have a man with an estimated net worth of between $900million and $3billion involved in rugby league should have been a massive fillip to the sport, yet instead Koukash seems to have achieved a status somewhere in-between pantomime villain and Bond villain in the eyes of a large number of fans.
Many eyebrows were raised when Koukash splurged on signing no less than 14 – count them, 14! – new players for Super League XIX after Salford finished bottom of the standings in his first season as owner.
Of those, only Salford captain Tommy Lee, Junior Sa’u and Greg Johnson remain at the club, with the others having moved on or retired from playing.
Among those new faces for the 2014 were maverick half-back Rangi Chase and fiery second row Gareth Hock, both of whom departed under something of a cloud and have since rocked up at nearby Leigh Centurions.
Then there was the saga over Kevin Locke resigning from the club alleging he was due unpaid wages, while signing of Tony Puletua was questioned in a letter from Bradford Bulls chairman Marc Green to the RFL – as revealed in the past week’s League Express.
Head coaches have come and gone too, with Phil Veivers, Brian Noble and Ieystn Harris all having the axe swung on them – the latter being replaced by current director of rugby Tim Sheens towards the end of last season following an uncertain two-month period.
Koukash has become something of bête noire for the game’s administrators as well, which must leave Wood and the Red Hall brains trust wondering why he ever suggested the 57-year-old get involved in owning a Super League club in the first place.
It was Koukash who proved one of the main instigators behind the introduction of the marquee player rule, which allows for a signing outside of the salary cap, and has been vocal in his criticism of the recent Super League broadcasting contract with Sky Sports.
He has also become embroiled in something of a feud with Leeds Rhinos chief Gary Hetherington, while Leeds head coach Brian McDermott was scathing in his criticism of Koukash following their 70-6 win over Salford last season.
“To concede 70 points you usually ask questions of the players but, on this occasion, Marwan Koukash needs to stand up and apologise to everybody,” McDermott was quoted as saying in the Manchester Evening News.
“It embarrasses me to be involved in rugby league when there is an owner of a club conducting himself how he is – saying what he wants, when he wants and how he wants.
“He needs to realise that that is not how to lead a club.”
And what does he have to show for all of this? Consecutive finishes of 14th, 10th and 11th in Super League, and Salford being just over £6.8million in debt, according to their latest accounts filed with Companies House – not to mention a dispute with Salford City Council over an old loan.
Yet for all of the opprobrium he has attracted, it is worth pointing out some of Koukash’s outbursts chime with some of the concerns the average rugby league fan has – certainly with regards to the way the RFL administer the sport.
Perhaps most revealing is the interview he gave to Jamie Jones-Buchanan in the ‘JJB Meets…’ section of Rugby League World in July 2013.
“Now, I’m not a Rugby League expert, I’m a business man, but the way I look at it, with the rules and regulations that people impose in the game I would say that we are deliberately making the game a second class sport,” said Koukash.
“The game is beautiful, and there are thousands of Marwans out there who will come to the game and fall in love with it. But the RFL as owners need to believe that the sport is a sleeping giant.”
Whether Koukash’s gripes about the salary cap are for altruistic purposes or just because he wants to be able to out-spend Salford’s opponents is anyone’s guess, but few would argue he is desperate for rugby league to gain the higher profile it deserves.
This season is almost a reboot for the Red Devils too, with it seeing the start of a new three-year plan in which Koukash aims for the club to be at least competing in the semi-finals of the play-offs or Challenge Cup.
That would seem to re-affirm his commitment to Salford and rugby league. And if the past three years are anything to go by, one thing that can be guaranteed is the next three will certainly not be dull in that particular corner of Greater Manchester.

Computer love – The simple joy of playing ‘Rugby Coach’

Rugby game screen

It was a real thriller at the Harvey Hadden Stadium

ASIDE from a few sporadic efforts, rugby league fans have generally not been well-served by the computer games industry.
Fortunately, Tru Blu Entertainment’s long-running ‘Rugby League’ series, which has been going for over 12 years and saw the release of Rugby League Live 3 on all formats last September, has served to address this gap in the market.
Last year also saw Alternative Software – publishers of the ‘Rugby League’ series in the UK – bring out Rugby League Team Manager 2015 on PC, allowing all supporters out there the chance to prove they really do know better than their team’s head coach.
So if you happen to be a rugby league fan who likes video games as well, you have arguably never had it so good. Not that the 13-man code has been completely ignored by developers in the past though.
Even EA Sports, better known for their ‘Madden’ and ‘FIFA’ franchises, made a foray into the sport back in 1995 with Australian Rugby League on the Sega Megadrive which, despite the name, also included Northern Hemisphere and international sides.
The following year came Wembley Rugby League from Audiogenic Software, with their PC-only title allowing players to pick their favourite English professional team and play friendlies or through a Challenge Cup-style competition right from the opening round to the final at…erm…Wembley.
At the same time, Alternative first dipped their toe in the water with the seemingly Sensible Soccer-inspired Super League Pro Rugby, which featured fully-licensed teams and the vocal talents of Sky Sports duo Eddie Hemmings and Mike Stephenson on commentary duty.
It was then four years before Midas Interactive – “the sponsors of Super League referees” being their proud boast – decided it was time to bring out a rugby league management sim, no doubt in the hope of replicating the success of Championship Manager et al.
Unfortunately, Super League Championship Rugby Manager was heavily-derided. Complaints included unrealistic basketball-esque scorelines, not being able to sign overseas players and stuttering in-game commentary from Eddie and Stevo.

Rugby home screen

The main screen for Rugby Coach

This was not the first attempt at a rugby management game though as D&H Games had brought out Rugby Coach back in 1992, which allowed one to four players the opportunity to take charge of a team of their choosing.
Rugby Coach was unique in that it had the option of managing either a league or a union team, with all of the sides from the Rugby League Championship and Second Division, and the top three divisions of unions Courage Leagues featured.
Pressing either ‘L’ or – if you were so inclined, for some reason – ‘U’ at the start of the game allowed you to pick your code of choice.
However, as both seasons ran concurrently, players were still able to view results from the other side and attempt to engineer cross-code transfers. Not that any money changed hands between clubs and players in union before professionalism was legalised in 1995, of course…
Unlike many sports management sims, you could not simply select from any team to manage. Rather, you had to select from five teams who offered you a job at the start of the game – in the case of league it was Second Division outfits Dewsbury, Fulham, Doncaster, Trafford Borough or Huddersfield.
Playing the game itself was a simply affair. You just picked your team based on which 13 players had the best overall, try-scoring and goal-kicking statistics and away you went – not so much as an attempt was made at differentiating between positions.
There was no setting up of match tactics or being able to view in-game action, with the week’s results randomly generated and the player praying to the computerised Rugby League Gods while clicking through to find out if their team had won that vital match away to Runcorn Highfield.
The County Cups and national knock-out competitions were included as well, although the pendantic will have been infuriated by the Challenge Cup and “Silk Cut Cup” being two separate competitions, especially as the Challenge Cup was effectively the Regal Trophy in this virtual world.

Rugby training

Pre-season sucks

As might be imagined for a DOS-based game, it was all pretty basic, yet there were still the options to set training routines, appoint coaches, a scout and a physio, plus a full transfer market and financial overview of the club. Even here though, running a rugby league team was a tortuous exercise in balancing the books – especially if your team was not winning.
Neither was Rugby Coach without its flaws. Yet, somehow, it was all strangely compelling too as you found yourself clicking through the days and weeks thinking “just another game”, more so if your team were on a cup run or in a title battle.
More by accident than design, Rugby Coach serves as something of a time capsule as well, being based on the 1990-91 season. It was the last of the winter seasons where the professional game was split into two divisions, the last time Rochdale Hornets were in the top flight and the last season before Fulham became London Crusaders.
A quick scan of the Second Division also shows some long-forgotten names, such as the aforementioned Trafford and Runcorn, Chorley Borough, Nottingham City and Carlisle.
Rugby Coach is well-worth seeking out for video game fans and anyone with an interest in rugby league history alike. Now, back to trying to get Trafford into the Stones Bitter Championship…

Looking back at rugby league’s other cup competition

Widnes Regal Trophy

Widnes lift the 1993 Regal Trophy

SAY what you like about the RFL, but they bloody love a cup competition.
It only takes a quick glance at the history of rugby league in the UK to see the myriad of knockout tournaments which have formed part of the fixture list down the years – some fondly-remembered and some not missed at all.
Traditionally, the Yorkshire and Lancashire County Cups were competed for along with the Challenge Cup before being axed after the 1992-93 season following complaints from some clubs about the amount of fixtures being played.
The BBC Two Floodlit Trophy, which has already been covered in detail on this blog, formed a part of the fixture list for 15 years as well, although there have been a number of other short-lived competitions which have vanished into the ether.
One of those was arguably the most unattractive tournament in the history of professional sport, the 1964 Bottom 14 Play-Offs.
Lasting for just one season and won by Huddersfield – who do not even bother to mention it on their honours list – it was notable only as a testing ground for a bizarre, and ultimately failed, experiment untaken at the behest of then-RFL secretary Bill Fallowfield where the play-the-ball was replaced with a rugby union-style ruck.
The height of cup fever was undoubtedly the 1973-74 season, where there were no less than six – count them, six! – knock-out competitions up for grabs thanks to the introduction of the Club Championship (later Premiership) and the Captain Morgan Trophy.
The latter of those was introduced to fill a gap in the schedule which existed only in the minds of the brains trust at Red Hall and featured an arcane qualifying system whereby the first-round winners in the County Cups and the team losing by the smallest margin in the Lancashire competition were all eligible to enter.
The Captain Morgan Trophy was concluded in an appropriately low-key manner, with two Derek Whitehead goals seeing Warrington beat Featherstone Rovers in front of just 5,259 spectators at The Willows on a January afternoon, and quietly shelved after one season.
Indeed, aside from the county competitions, the only one of the other cups introduced which had any serious longevity was the League Cup, which featured all of the professional teams and provided another platform for Imperial Tobacco to shill their smoky wares.
The RFL council had been toying with the idea of introducing a secondary knock-out tournament to complement the Challenge Cup for several seasons, intended to mirror the success of the football League Cups in Scotland and England.
It was eventually introduced in 1971 and branded as the Players No.6 Trophy, with the first season featuring all 30 professional clubs plus two of the top amateur sides, Warrington-based Thames Board Mills and Ace Amateurs from Hull.
The first round saw all 16 ties played between Friday, November 12 and Sunday, November 14 and, incredible as it may seem, three of them went to replays after finishing drawn.
Castleford, eventual runners-up Wakefield Trinty and Hull all progressed at the second time of asking, with Wigan also needing a replay to overcome Leeds in the quarter-finals.
But it was Halifax who were the first name on the new trophy, downing Wakefield 22-11 in the final at Odsal in January 1972, only to be dethroned in a 22-20 defeat at home to St Helens in the first round the following season.
Leeds and Warrington would go on to win the Trophy in the next two years, with the Wire beating Rochdale Hornets in a year which saw them lift the Challenge Cup, Club Championship and the aforementioned Captain Morgan Trophy.
It was a rare cup final appearance for Rochdale, although the biggest surprise finalists in the Trophy were Blackpool Borough in the 1976-77 season where only a disastrous year for Doncaster prevented the Lancashire side from propping up the Second Division.
Having edged out Championship outfit Barrow 16-15 in the first round, Borough saw off divisional rivals Halifax 7-3 before downing two more Championship sides, Working Town and Leigh, to reach the decider at The Willows.
The final was broadcast on the BBC as part of that day’s Grandstand and featured an awkward-looking Mal Reilly being presented with a giant stick of Blackpool rock ahead of kick-off, along with actor Windsor Davies being among the 4,512 spectators.

Mal Reilly rock

Mal Reilly receives his commemorative stick of rock. It was a simpler time…

As for the game itself, Castleford proved too strong for Blackpool in the final and ran out 25-15 winners thanks to tries from Geoff Wraith, John Joyner, Phillip Johnson, Bruce Burton and Gary Stephens, plus five goals from Sammy Lloyd.
The 1977-78 season produced a shock as well, with Hull-based Cawoods becoming the first amateur team to beat a professional side in a cup tie since 1909 after they saw off Halifax 9-8 at Thrum Hall in the first round thanks to a late penalty goal, being eliminated by Wakefield in round two.
The format remained unchanged until the 1980-81 season when Fulham joined the professional ranks, leaving St Helens Recs as the sole amateur representative in what was by now called the John Player Trophy.
Cardiff City and Carlisle’s addition to the league the following year saw the amateur sides left out altogether, with a preliminary round now being played to account for the odd number of entrants which now stood at 33.
The amateur sides eventually returned in 1984 when Myson and Bradford Dudley Hill joined a competition which by now had expanded to 38 entrants following the number of new teams from outside the sport’s traditional northern heartland which had been accepted into the professional game.
And although that season saw Hull Kingston Rovers defeat cross-city rivals Hull 12-0 in the final, the 1985-86 campaign saw Wigan win what would be the first of seven Trophy titles in the next 11 seasons.
The amateur sides still proved capable of providing shocks though, with Myson defeating Batley 8-2 in 1986 and Leigh East downing Chorley Borough 2010 in the 1991-92 Regal Trophy.
By the 1990s though, the tournament had started to lose its appeal and even the addition of French clubs in 1992 – Carcassonne, XIII Catalans, AS Saint Esteve and Pia all took part in the final editions – did little to arrest the decline.
Aside from wins for St Helens, Warrington, Widnes and Castleford, Wigan’s dominance continued unabated – much as it did in all competitions throughout this era – although their 33-2 humbling by Castleford in 1994 lives on in the below YouTube clip which became something of a online viral sensation.


Wigan would become the final name on the trophy in 1996 though, beating St Helens 25-16 as Henry Paul ran in four tries to set the Cherry and Whites on their way to completing a domestic treble.
The Trophy was scraped following the switch to summer rugby to avoid more fixture congestion. It’s legacy arguably lives on in the inclusion of French entrants to the Challenge Cup and the English domestic leagues.
And even though it perhaps never had the glamour or prestige of the Challenge Cup, it certainly produced some memorable moments.