“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.
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.