WHEN the draw for the quarter-finals of this year’s Ladbrokes Challenge Cup was made just over a month-and-a-half ago, arguably the most eye-catching tie of the round was the pairing of old rivals Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings.
Come Friday night at 8pm, the latest instalment of the Cheshire Derby will be played out on the national stage thanks to the BBC broadcasting the match live on their second channel.
Both teams have a proud history in this competition, with Warrington lifting the Cup on eight occasions and Widnes seven, although it is 23 years since the latter last graced the Wembley turf and 32 since their last triumph in the competition.
This is not the first time the Wire and the Chemics have done battle in the Cup and they have even met twice in the final, with Warrington winning 19-0 in 1950 and Widnes triumphing 14-7 in 1975 to defeat the holders.
The rivalry itself stretches back to before the formation of the Northern Union though and the first recorded meeting of the side came in 1878, with newspaper reports of the time commenting on “some fierceness on both sides”.
Warrington’s first 10,000 crowd also came against Widnes eight years later in the West Lancashire and Border Towns Cup at Wilderspool, which saw play temporarily suspended following the collapse of a stand containing 200 people, although no-one was seriously injury.
The zenith of the rivalry was arguably during the 1970s and 1980s when both clubs were regularly competing for the various honours on offer in the domestic game during that era.
That was epitomised no more so than the memorable battles between the forwards – most notably fiery Widnes prop Jim Mills and Warrington front-row enforcer Mike Nicholas.
“Jim and I used to keep the disciplinary committee busy in the 1970s,” recalled Nicholas on the launch of Mills’ autobiography, ‘Big Jim’. “We used to go in with the other players on charge and they would save our hearings till last.
“They used a trolley to wheel our files in and the committee used to boo us as we came in.
“I was sent off 15 times and Jim 20. Jim didn’t do anything by halves; he ended up banned from the whole southern hemisphere at one point.
“He got sent off everywhere except New Zealand, and that’s because they wouldn’t allow him in the country to play.”
But if the ‘70s was about the two Welshmen going toe-to-toe, the ‘80s had a somewhat more Antipodean flavour to it in the form of Widnes’ New Zealander, Kurt Sorensen, and Warrington’s Australian, Les Boyd.
Both are still highly revered at their respective clubs, with Sorensen’s eight-year spell seeing him win Championship, Premiership and World Club Challenge honours, while Boyd’s finest hour in the primrose and blue was captaining them to glory in the 1986 Premiership.
Among those watching at the Halliwell Jones Stadium on Friday will be BBC pundit Jonathan Davies, who featured for both clubs during his league career.
Having been snapped up by Widnes from Welsh rugby union side Neath in 1989 for a then-record fee of £230,000, he crossed the divide in 1993 when financial problems forced the club to sell him to their rivals.
The derby matches went into abeyance in the mid-1990s following Widnes’ relegation from the top flight in 1995 and the threat of both clubs being merged to form a Cheshire team to play in the new Super League was successfully staved off as well.
Widnes’ Northern Ford Premiership title triumph in 2001 meant them and Warrington would renew hostilities in the top flight the following year, and a miserable season for the Wolves was compounded by them being beaten in both games as the Vikings narrowly missed out on a play-off place.
Warrington gained a measure of revenge by winning the first encounter between the two of the 2003 campaign and then drew some controversy with their poster advertising the return game at Wilderspool that August.
Playing on Widnes’ history as home of the chemicals industry, it featured the town’s landscape with chimneys belching thick smoke, barrels of toxic waste and a three-eyed fish.
“I would have thought anyone who lived in Widnes would have a sense of humour,” Warrington’s head of marketing Sean Mellor told the Daily Telegraph at the time.
“All we have done is draw attention to a few eye-catching symbols that are unmistakeably Widnes.”
Unsurprisingly, both Widnes townspeople and those involved with the club were unimpressed by Warrington’s attempts to stoke the fires, with Widnes PR man Andrew Kirchin among those to criticise it.
“I do find it objectionable and also inaccurate, because Widnes hasn’t had a chemical industry for 10 years, but it could be more serious than that,” Kirchin told The Guardian.
“Widnes-Warrington games have a history of trouble between the two sets of supporters. We went seven years without a derby until Widnes got into the Super League last season, but all that time didn’t reduce the pain between the two clubs.”
Fortunately, the match passed off without any trouble and did not backfire on the hosts either, with Warrington running out 30-16 victors.
Recent seasons have seen the rivalry spill over off the pitch though, with the 2013 encounter at Warrington seeing a Widnes fan assaulted by a steward and last year’s Super League meeting at the Select Security Stadium seeing play held up after an away supporter threw a flare onto the pitch.
Hopefully Friday’s talking points will be limited to whatever happens on the pitch. Given the history of this rivalry, it can pretty much be assured there will be plenty of fireworks on there as well.