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.
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.