There’s no doubt rugby league has changed. The ushering in of a fully professional era born 21 years ago has brought with it some dramatic changes. You can list them and as you do you might get angrier and angrier until you can’t stand it no more. You yearn longingly for the good old days before video referees, before Stuart Cummings, before The Grind, before winning the league became a piffling achievement that makes rival fans shrug and snigger with indifference as you applaud your heroes on their lap of honour.
Yet some things are the same. Take midweek league matches, for example. With every announcement of a Thursday night fixture at the behest of the games’ broadcasting paymasters comes wave after wave of social media outrage. How are fans supposed to get to the game on time after work? What about the traffic? Negotiating the M62 becomes something Indiana Jones would baulk at if you believe everything you read on social media. But midweek games are nothing new, really. Winter rugby coupled with meagre resources and a subsequent lack of anti-weather technology to preserve pitches meant many postponements. Those games still had to be played, so it was not uncommon to have to pitch up to Knowsley Road on a Wednesday evening to see Saints put 40 past a disinterested Salford or Featherstone side.
But what about Mondays? The Twitterati would go blue at the thought, but it is one such Monday night game from 1991 that brought about one of the most memorable tries in recent Saints history. Saints welcomed Hull FC to Knowsley Road on February 18 1991, a miserably cold and damp night of the kind we thought we would see the back of with the switch to summer until some bright spark had the idea of starting the season in February. Some things don’t change. Only 64 days to go. Wrap up warm, won’t you?
Just like in 2017 the 1990-91 Saints were an inconsistent bunch, capable of blinding brilliance one week and woeful incompetence the next. They came into this one with a record of nine wins, seven defeats and one draw in the league. They had suffered four consecutive defeats over the festive season, crashing out of the Regal Trophy to Warrington at Wilderspool before league defeats at Sheffield Eagles and Widnes either side of a 28-15 Boxing Day loss to Wigan. Saints would finish the season in a disappointing sixth place while Wigan went on to claim yet another title, their third in what would turn out to be a run of 10 in 12 seasons before full-time professionalism signalled the end of their putrid dominance.
In 1991 sixth was nowhere. No Super Eights, no playoffs, no Grand Final. Just the old Premiership trophy in which the top eight at the end of the league season would play a straight knockout competition with a final at Old Trafford. Grand Final lite, if you like. Hull FC knocked Saints out of that one as it turned out, recording a 28-12 success at the Boulevard in April. The black and whites went on to win the Premiership, beating Widnes 14-4 in the final.
So the events of February 18 1991 were just about as good as it got for Saints that year. In the league at least. The Red Vee did make it to Wembley for the Challenge Cup final but were downed 13-8 by you know who, Alan Hunte scoring Saints only try in the second half after Wigan had taken a 12-0 half-time lead through tries from goal-kicking maestro Frano Botica and the ill-fated David Myers. Yet improvement was coming for Saints with a team featuring the talents of a 20-year-old Hunte, Paul Loughlin at the peak of his underestimated powers at 24, and a pack led by the no nonsense veteran Kevin Ward and featuring such mavericks as George Mann and Shane Cooper. And John Harrison who once created a try for Mann by heading the ball over the try-line. Yet of the 15 on duty that night in 1991 against the Airlie Birds only Hunte would still be around when Saints lifted that inaugural Super League trophy some five years later. Though he would go on to make 244 appearances for Saints and score 189 tries even he was coming to the end of his Saints career by then, unsure of a starting spot in a backline which featured Scott Gibbs, Paul Newlove, Anthony Sullivan and the emerging talents of Danny Arnold. Hunte enjoyed a very good final season at Saints, scoring 27 tries but sadly missed out on the 1997 Challenge Cup final win over Bradford Bulls through injury.
As well as winning the Premiership Hull FC finished third in the championship in 1990-91 behind Wigan and Widnes. They had opened the season with seven straight league wins, only suffering their first defeat in early November with a 22-6 reverse at Wakefield Trinity. After which their form wavered somewhat, going out of the Regal Trophy to Widnes while suffering further league defeats to Featherstone Rovers and derby rivals Hull KR before the turn of the year. By the time they arrived at Knowsley Road they were seven points better off than Saints and still harbouring hopes of maintaining a serious challenge to the big two. Arguably, Quirk’s try was the dagger in the heart of their title hopes that year as they were resoundingly thumped 28-2 by Widnes nine days later and went on to lose six of their last 10 league outings. That they picked themselves up to win three consecutive games to take the Premiership title is a testament to their character in many ways. Nowadays those six losses would count for little and we’d all be doffing our caps to Hull FC and calling them the champions. Some things in rugby league do change.
A tight, fairly dour first half yielded just two points as Saints went in with the lead thanks to Loughlin’s penalty. Loughlin was a fine player who rarely gets a mention when the conversation turns to great Saints centres. Spoiled by the likes of Mal Meninga, Newlove, Scott Gibbs and Matt Gidley and the odd cameo from the likes of Jarrod McCracken we forget just how talented a player Loughlin was. He had pace, he was tall but ran excellent lines and could time a pass as good as anyone around at the time. He played close to 300 games for Saints, scoring 80 tries and kicking 842 goals with unerring accuracy. His departure to Bradford Bulls in 1995 as part of the deal which brought Newlove to Saints and heralded a trophy-laden era for the club is a cruel legacy for a special player who made 15 appearances for Great Britain.
In the second half Tea Ropati crossed for Saints but it looked like they were going to come up short as Rob Nolan and Brad Webb registered for coach Noel Cleal’s side. Enter Quirk. Saints took possession from a scrum deep inside their own half as the game entered its last minute. The ball was shifted to Mann, who stepped inside but was brought to ground by three FC defenders. His quick play the ball allowed Saints to get the ball out to the left hand side where Quirk was waiting, hovering, about to make a decisive contribution to proceedings.
First the ball arrived with Ropati, who dummied one way and then shipped it out to Loughlin whose exquisite catch and pass is a much under-rated part of this particular painting. Quirk was finally in possession and in space for virtually the first time in the entire 80 minutes. Only FC’s French scrum half Patrick Entat stood between Quirk and glory. Not to mention immortality in Ron Hoofe’s now fabled video commentary in which he described Quirk’s intervention as a try of ‘orgasmic proportions’.
“What I meant to say was that it was the ultimate climax to a great game.” He would later explain. Quite. The memories are hazy some 26 years on, but I will confess to being quite excited by the whole affair at the time. I was one of only 6,893 fans to make the effort that Monday night, a stark reminder of how things really were for those who look back on this period all misty-eyed while declaring the modern game to be all but dead. For context, 9,419 fans saw Saints last home game of the 2017 season against Huddersfield Giants. Not everything was better in the old days.
Back on Quirk’s big night in 1991 I was in the wheelchair area at Knowsley Road, on the opposite side of the ground from where he touched down but at the same end of the ground. The same end of the ground that was populated mostly by Hull FC fans displaying a mixture of anger and despair. Perhaps they could see their title aspirations slipping away before their very eyes. They should never have written off the Saints.
Entat only played that one season with FC before similarly brief spells with Leeds and with Paris St.Germain in that first season of Super League in 1996. He played seven times for France, never once tasting victory. And he would not taste it on this night, as his desperate dive at the ankles of Quirk just gave the whole thing a more aesthetic quality. Quirk spent seven years with Saints after joining from Barrow in 1987, racking up 98 tries in 160 appearances before finishing his career back in his native Cumbria with Whitehaven. His other defining moment in a Saints shirt had come two years earlier when his late try knocked league champions Widnes out of the Challenge Cup in the semi-final. Yet for sheer drama, skill and excitement and for Hoofe’s unforgettable description, it is this effort against the black and whites for which Quirk will forever be most fondly remembered.