As has often been the case in the Super League era Saints and Wigan were the dominant forces in 2000. Defending champions Saints had won their first Grand Final the previous season when a generous knock-on decision against Bradford’s Michael Withers had preserved an 8-6 triumph at Old Trafford over the Bulls. They had deposed Wigan, whose 1998 win over Leeds Rhinos had been an equally tight affair with the Warriors coming out on top 10-4 in the inaugural Grand Final.
Coming into their July meeting of 2000 the Warriors needed a win to overhaul Bradford Bulls at the top of the Super League table. One of the more interesting developments of the early years of Super League had been the emergence of the Bulls as a genuine rugby league power. They had won the title in 1997 in the last season of the old first past the post system, and had been involved in two epic Challenge Cup Final battles with Saints 1996 and 1997, losing both. They would go on to win three Grand Finals over the next five seasons before the financial meltdown and subsequent decline that has seen them slip down the divisions took hold. In July of 2000, when Saints and Wigan met at the then JJB Stadium both had reason to be worried not only about each other but also about Matthew Elliott’s side.
Wigan’s side contained former Australian international Test centre Steve Renouf. The former Brisbane Bronco spent two seasons with the Warriors, scoring 43 tries in 59 appearances. Outside of him was Brett Dallas, a former Canterbury Bulldogs and North Sydney Bears winger who had played 10 times for Queensland in State Of Origin and five times for Australia. He was rather more at home in Super League, staying for six seasons of which 2000 was his first, and scoring 89 tries in 156 appearances in the cherry and white. Some of the old guard remained such as Jason Robinson, who would make the switch to rugby union at the end of the 2000 season, and Gary Connolly, seven years on from his controversial move over Billinge Lump and still far from forgiven by many of the Saints faithful. Andy Farrell skippered the side, slotting in at stand off for this one in the absence of the injury prone Tony Smith, which meant a pre-Wakefield Chris Chester starting at loose forward. Forwards Terry O’Connor, Terry Newton, Neil Cowie, Mick Cassidy and Dennis Betts were all veterans of many a successful title campaign in the pre-Super League era.
Saints were without star centre Paul Newlove, so Sean Hoppe slotted into his position alongside former Wigan man Kevin Iro. I remember watching on sorrowfully at Wembley in 1989 when Iro destroyed Saints (and a young Connolly) with a devastating performance in the Challenge Cup final. Saints were humiliated 27-0 and the story goes that controversial, cod-mouthed coach Alex Murphy had put the entire squad up for sale such was his disgust at his side’s performance. Even some 11 years later you wanted a man like Iro on your side and in getting him Saints had showed just how far they had come as a club since that wretched May day in 89. Yet he didn’t last all that long in this one as it turned out, replaced just after half-time by the tireless but significantly less destructive Tim Jonkers after picking up an injury.
While it is Sullivan’s try that lives longest in the memory from this classic encounter, the star of the production was Tommy Martyn. Saints had dug themselves a 16-point hole to get out of early on, which if nothing else was the most Saintsy thing imaginable. Renouf had crossed after just four minutes and when David Hodgson and Chester added further scores it looked like it was going to be a long day for the Red Vee. Yet they stormed back, Hoppe jinking inside from the left and leaving a trail of defenders in his wake to go over for one of his 36 tries in 98 appearances for Saints. It gave Ian Millward’s side a crucial foothold in the game, and they built on it five minutes later when the genius that was Martyn charged down Farrell’s attempted grubber, hacked on again and then somehow beat the rather more pacy Kris Radlinksi to the ball to touch down for Saints’ second try. It was a typical moment of pure inspiration from Martyn who, while he could frustrate at times, was capable of producing what few other players could even at a time when off the cuff rugby was still very much A Thing.
Saints trailed by four at the break at 18-14. Martyn added his second when he brilliantly stepped inside the Wigan sliding defence to go over untouched, yet it was cancelled out just two minutes later when Renouf grabbed his second and Wigan’s fourth try of the contest. Perhaps they would not be denied after all. Perhaps they would. Martyn made many a memorable contribution to this game, ending it with a hat-trick, but it was his involvement in Sullivan’s try which was perhaps his most surprising contribution. Farrell had placed another searching grubber into the Saints in-goal area, whereupon it was scooped up by Martyn. For once the otherwise uber-disciplined kick-chase of Frank Endacott’s side let them down as Martyn hared up the middle of the field towards the Wigan line. At about his own 30m line Martyn was run down by Radlinksi but, ever aware of his surroundings, Martyn looked to his left to find Sullivan running where Stevo no doubt described in the Sky Sports commentary as ‘back on the inside’. Sullivan had a lot to do when he received the ball, with still 60 metres between him and the Wigan try-line.
Anthony Sullivan arrived at Saints in 1991. Son of the great Clive Sullivan, captain of Great Britain’s victorious 1972 World Cup side and the first black player to skipper any British sporting side. Clive had played for both Hull FC and Hull KR and it was from the latter that Saints acquired Anthony after he had enjoyed a three-year spell with the Robins. Yet the first three years of his Saints’ career had not gone so well and it was not until the appointment of Eric Hughes as the club’s coach in 1994 that the Welshman started to turn the corner;
“I wanted to do well all the time but I wasn’t playing well and I kept picking up injuries and couldn’t put a good run of form together.” Explains Sullivan;
“I think Eric put down some great structures that helped the team over the longer term. After Eric came Shaun McRae who I worked well with and my confidence and performances continued to improve.”
By the time Millward got hold of Sullivan he was the wrong side of 30 but a double Super League champion, no more the raw youngster struggling to find his form and fitness. And he was still a sensational athlete. All of which takes us back to 2000 where Sullivan has received the inside ball from Martyn just as Radlinski is about to bring the Saints stand-off down. It is all over from that moment on as Sullivan cruises through the gears, twisting the blood of a bewildered Robinson before holding off the attentions of David Hodgson. Wind this clip on to about five and a half minutes in to see the whole magnificent episode unfold. The early promise of a Farrell grubber turned into one of the greatest tries of the Super League era in what seems like the blink of an eye.
In many ways this score is a precious relic from a bygone age. It’s that good. Witness the balance and grace of Sullivan as he almost glides down the field in the way that a thoroughbred racehorse seems to glide across the ground while actually displaying monumental power and athleticism. Not only do they not make tries like this any more they don’t make wingers like this anymore. Sullivan was one of the last great real traditional flyers, a solid enough defender without being obsessive about it, and free from the burden of having to act as an extra prop close to his own line which is the fate of most modern day wingers. Now they are nothing more than battering rams for the most part. Some, like Saints own Tommy Makinson, have developed a reputation as acrobats in the way that they can exploit the change in rules around the corner posts to complete some dramatic, flying scores, but very few in the modern game take the ball in space and serenely whizz their way to the line leaving opponents floundering. It’s a lost art. Jermaine McGilvary deserves all the accolades that come his way after a fantastic World Cup with England in Australia recently but he cannot hold the proverbial candle to Sullivan in full flight.
Still Wigan led by four despite the heroics of Sullivan and Martyn. But the latter had one more trick in his bag. Taking Sean Long’s pass just short of the Wigan 10 metre line he shaped to pass to his right, but brought the back under his spell while at the same time causing Wigan’s Lee Gilmour to wonder whether he might be charged an entrance fee to get back into the stadium. In his desperation, Gilmour flung out an arm and managed to dislodge the ball from Martyn’s grasp. Everyone watching on in the stadium and at home on television waited for referee Stuart Cummings to blow for a knock-on against the Saints man but as the ball rolled towards the Wigan line and into the in-goal area Martyn played to the whistle and touched down under the posts. After an interminable examination by video referee (some things don’t change in the Super League) the try was finally given and the simple conversion gave Saints a truly memorable 30-28 win in enemy territory.
Sullivan left Saints in 2001, joining Cardiff Rugby Union club after a glorious decade in St.Helens. In all he won three Super League crowns, three Challenge Cups (all after beating Bradford in the final, Bulls fans) as well as the 2001 Wold Club Challenge as Renouf’s former club Brisbane Broncos buckled in the Bolton snow. Sullivan finished his Knowsley Road career with 213 tries in 305 appearances, roughly a try every 114 minutes that he spent on the field. He will be remembered as one of the greats of Super League, a key figure in Saints’ impressive rise in the professional era as the memories of cherry and white dominance were finally banished. He’ll also remembered for his style, playing the game in a way that is all but extinct in the modern day grind where barge-overs and set completion are very much en vogue.
As far as 2000 goes Saints had one more miracle up their sleeves. Faced with defeat by those pesky, persistent Bulls in a Knowsley Road playoff game they came up with a last-gasp try now known simply as the ‘Wide-To-West’ try due to the commentary of Eddie Hemmings as he struggled to believe what was unfolding before his eyes. Chris Joynt finished off Dwayne West’s break to seal Saints win and spark dog mascot-related pandemonium. That set Saints up for a Grand Final meeting with their old adversaries from Wigan, and on that occasion it was somewhat more straightforward than on this July day at the JJB as Saints ran away with a 29-16 victory thanks to two tries from Joynt and others from Hoppe, Jonkers and Fereti Tuilagi.
That win gave Saints their third Super League title and it was 13 long years before Wigan could match that tally, by which time Saints had moved on to five titles having won the Grand Final again in 2002 (against who else, Bradford?) and in 2006 when they overcame Hull FC. Just a year after Wigan’s third Saints added a sixth, conquering the Warriors once more thanks to Makinson’s outstanding leap and touch down in a physical battle marred by Ben Flower’s attack on Lance Hohaia in the opening minutes.
It was the sort of try that Sullivan just wouldn’t have needed to bother himself with.