I don’t really want to talk about the Challenge Cup in the period between 1988 and 1995. It was a largely miserable time for Saints fans as Wigan managed to win the famous old trophy no fewer than eight times in a row during this time. In that run Saints had two cracks at them at Wembley, firstly the humiliating 27-0 loss of 1989 in which Gary Connolly looked like he had come straight from finishing his last GCSE exam (or was it O Levels in those days?) all for the privilege of being run over by Ellery Hanley and Kevin Iro, and again two years later when a spirited second half fightback could not stop Wigan from recording a 13-8 success for the fourth of their incredible run of wins.
Yet within the misery there were some fleeting moments of joy. One such moment came in February of 1992 and a second round tie against the pre-Rhino Leeds outfit at Headingley. The Leeds side was skippered that day by a chap named Bobbie Goulding, who would go on to have a glorious four-year spell at Saints before the double whammy of his own inner demons and the emergence of Sean Long sent him on a tour of mediocrity that took in Huddersfield, Wakefield, Salford, Leigh and Rochdale before his retirement in 2005. Well, his first retirement, at any rate. He did make three appearances for Barrow in 2014 at the age of 42 but we’ll gloss over those.
Anyway it is not Goulding who is the main focus of this particular delve back into the retro selection box. Saints captain that day was Shane Cooper, a then 29-year-old loose forward who went to make 271 appearances in the red vee before joining Widnes in 1995. Cooper is involved twice in this move that leads to this Great Saints Try, applying the finishing touches to a sweeping attack which went through 13 pairs of hands (or 10 if you don’t count the fact that Cooper, Bernard Dwyer and Jonathan Griffiths were all involved twice from the moment Kevin Ward played the ball just outside his own 20). Phil Vievers, Sonny Nickle, Dwyer, Griffiths, Gary Connolly, Alan Hunte, Paul Bishop, Anthony Sullivan, Tea Ropati and Cooper all get at least one touch of the egg before a Leeds defender can be said to have even seriously contemplated making a tackle. It’s the kind of movement you just don’t see in the modern game which on the one hand fills you with a misty-eyed joy and on the other makes you sob as you listen to another Australian coach lecturing you post-game about going through the processes.
The 1991/92 season was an all too familiar tale overall. Wigan romped to their third title in a row and Saints were once again left trying to catch the bouquet at the end of the wedding. A runners-up spot was a marked improvement on the sixth placed finish of the previous season but Saints finished the campaign eight points behind the Central Park outfit. They were still some way off bridging the gap that had opened up as Wigan went full-time in a league still largely made up of groundsmen and PE teachers. Hunte was apparently a Finance Rep according to the BBC graphics in the coverage of this match. Saints had proved they could occasionally match Wigan in a one-off game, beating them 28-16 in a Lancashire Cup semi-final before going on to claim the trophy with a 24-14 triumph over Rochdale Hornets, but had managed to lose both league encounters with Wigan by the same 16-6 score-line. They were also knocked out of the Challenge Cup by Wigan that year, 13-6 in a game which they trailed 6-2 at half-time and in which Connolly’s second half try was not enough as Shaun Edwards and Steve Hampson crossed for Wigan.
None of which would have happened without the events of this February afternoon in West Yorkshire. Saints came into the game on a run of five consecutive league wins as all of Widnes, Salford, Featherstone Rovers and Wakefield Trinity were sent away with losing pay. Just six days before they met Leeds they had to overcome Widnes again in a first round Challenge Cup tie, which they duly did 10-2 thanks to tries from Bishop and Mike Riley at Naughton Park.
Despite what modern coaches would grumpily refer to as a short turnaround, Saints had recovered sufficiently from those exertions to sweep Leeds aside in this one. This was not a vintage Leeds side. They finished fifth in the league and were thrashed 24-0 by Widnes in the Regal Trophy final at Central Park In January. Aside from Goulding not many of the names in the Leeds 15 trip off the tongue, though it was a side containing Great Britain international three-quarters Phil Ford and John Bentley. Forwards Gary Divorty and Paul Dixon both had representative honours and there was a prop by the name of Shaun Wane who had previously spent eight years at Wigan. He left just as their most successful period in terms of league wins was starting. Just saying. Alongside him was Cavill Heugh, who played three times for Queensland in State Of Origin and had been a title winner with Halifax six years earlier.
Saints set about Leeds early, and it is the first of their seven tries on the day that most captures the imagination. Watch from about a minute in to this clip as Ward is brought to ground by Heugh and Colin Maskill just outside his own 20 metre line and plays the ball to Vievers. The Australian fullback dishes it out to Nickle, who tries to step inside two defenders who just manage to cling on to him. Yet before he hits the ground Nickle offloads to Griffiths, who twists away from two Leeds tacklers and hands on to Dwyer. Local-born Dwyer was operating in the second row alongside Nickle, with Paul Groves at hooker. Chris Joynt was still seven months away from arriving from Oldham, and Keiron Cunningham would not be unleashed on an unsuspecting rugby league fraternity for another two years. Like Paul Loughlin, Dwyer’s value at Saints is often underestimated owing to the fact that he was also used as bait in the deal which brought Paul Newlove to Saints and arguably changed the culture of the whole club. That and the fact that Dwyer’s successor in his usual hooking role was Cunningham. But Dwyer made 232 appearances for Saints and scored 39 tries. He didn’t score this one but the parts he played in it were vital.
Dwyer’s first contribution was to shift the ball on to Connolly in space on the right. Connolly was a sprightly 20 years old at the time and it is fair to say that he could shift a bit for a centre. He was still slightly built but had terrific hands and was as defensively solid as anyone twice his size. Here it was his attacking skills which were on show as he burst away from the Leeds defence. It should surprise nobody to note that Wane, finding himself like the proverbial fish up a tree in a wide position defensively, made a lazy effort to shoulder charge Connolly to the ground but as he did so the Saints centre swept the ball out to Hunte on the right wing.
If Connolly was quick, Hunte was Are You Nuts? on the Spaceballs speedometer. If you can stand to watch this without weeping at the injustice of the Connolly-Hunte axis being broken up by a mixture of self-interest and spinelessness just a year later, see how he effortlessly gallops down the right hand flank before a desperate grab from the fullback stops his progress. Like Nickle earlier in the movement, Hunte did not surrender easily and managed to flip the ball inside to his left to the supporting Bishop.
For a long time as a child I thought the only difference between rugby league and rugby union was that in the former, the scrum halves didn’t produce a ridiculous, overblown dive every time they passed the ball wide. If I’d still believed it I would have had it wiped from my mind by Bishop whose lunging pass out to Dwyer was worthy of a Bill McLaren voiceover. Dwyer didn’t hang around with his second intervention in this masterpiece, turning the ball quickly inside to Griffiths who despite a small stumble after coming into contact with the head-hunting Divorty managed to keep the movement going with a quick pass to Cooper.
Before you can say ‘what the Hell is Anthony Sullivan doing there?’ the Welsh winger popped up in the left centre position and took Cooper’s pass. Sullivan, doing a fairly passable impression of the absent Loughlin tore into the space but didn’t quite do enough to draw in Leeds centre David Creasser. When Ropati received the ball from Sullivan he still had quite a bit to do. No problem. Ropati, who for this writer spent his best years at Saints at stand-off where his magical box of tricks could be deployed all over the field, cut inside Ford and ran into Creasser. All the while, the game intelligence of Cooper had switched into overdrive. Still supporting the play on the inside of Sullivan, he rocked up on the right shoulder of Ropati who produced an outrageous right-hand flick out of the back door which Cooper collected with ease before scooting the last few metres to score.
If this early demonstration of Saints’ prowess with ball in hand didn’t knock the stuffing out of Leeds, they were left in no doubt about the gulf in quality between the sides on the day as Saints added six further scores. The first saw Cooper involved again, finding Griffiths on the right who moved it on to Dwyer who put Connolly over in the right hand corner. Goulding dropped a goal to level the scores at 8-8 but when Leeds knocked on from the ensuing kick-off Cooper picked up the ball from the base of the scrum, wriggled out of Divorty’s challenge and nonchalantly strolled over for his second and Saints third. All of which gave Saints a 12-8 half-time advantage.
Sullivan was next on the scoresheet, sauntering through after Hunte had made a searing break from just inside his own half. Connolly then grabbed his second after good work from Bishop and Ward, the latter showing that prop forwards used to be able to pass the ball and weren’t totally consumed with dreams of set completion. He could run from dummy half too, as witnessed in the build up to the next try for which the former Castleford man scoots away from the play-the-ball as if he’s James Roby, before handing on to Cooper who hands on to Hunte to outpace his opposite number Bentley and complete a brace of his own. It didn’t add to the score, but at about 10.20 in this clip you can see a textbook 40/20 from Bishop which unfortunately did not yield possession for Saints, the rule still five years away from being introduced in Australia and brazenly stolen by the British game’s authorities soon after. Nevertheless it is a thing of beauty from the fondly remembered Bishop, who didn’t hang around long, but was always fun to watch during his short stint at Knowsley Road.
The final try that day at Headingley came from Sullivan, the third Saint to score twice in the game. He finished off a move which again involved Bishop and Ropati, before Sullivan took Groves’ final ball and ran away from the cover to touch down.
Saints’ good form continued in the latter part of the season but a costly draw at Castleford in March and back to back defeats to Warrington and Wigan in April finally did for Saints title hopes after opening the season with five straight league wins. With that Challenge Cup exit to Wigan a fortnight after this impressive victory over the Loiners it was another case of what might have been for Saints in terms of silverware, bar the early season success in the Lancashire Cup. Widnes had denied them a Regal Trophy final appearance with an 18-10 semi-final win and it would be more than a year before Saints would hoist another trophy aloft.