Christmas is a quiet time for rugby league these days – but of course that didn’t used to be the case.
Even with the switch to summer in 1996, the lure of high profile games over the festive period remained.
Norweb put up prize money of £20,000 for the so-called “Norweb Challenge” between St Helens and Wigan ahead of the 1997 season.
Wigan’s pre-Super League invincibility had been hit by losing both the league title and Challenge Cup in Super League’s maiden year in 1996, with arch rivals St Helens claiming both.
Indeed Saints lost just twice in the 1996 season in finishing top of the table, in the days before the Grand Final.
The Norweb Challenge comprised of two meetings – one at Central Park on Boxing Day, before the return ‘leg’ at Knowsley Road in January 1997.
Norweb Challenge Game 1 – Wigan 32-22 St Helens – Boxing Day 1996
In the Christmas meeting, Wigan recorded a surprise 32-22 win in front of a crowd of more than 16,000.
Although both were missing several first-teamers, including Saints’ skipper Bobbie Goulding, there were still plenty of recognisable names on show.
Lee Briers started at half-back for St Helens, while Sean Long played at stand-off for Wigan.
Icons of the early years of Super League like Steve Prescott, Paul Newlove, Anthony Sullivan, Alan Hunte and Apollo Perelini all started for Saints.
Skipper Andy Farrell led Wigan, who also had the likes of Stephen Holgate, Neil Cowie and Lee Gilmour in their line-up.
Wigan were short of several players who were due to return to rugby league following spells in rugby union, including Gary Connolly.
Now a key member of their executive, then full-back Kris Radlinski scored a first half hat-trick to put Wigan in command.
Debutant David Murray and Gael Tallec added further tries in the second half to put them 28-6 to the good.
Australian Derek McVey scored his second try for Saints but Wigan added a sixth try through Danny Ellison.
There were late consolation tries for Briers and Alan Hunte.
Wigan: Murray; Ellison, Radlinski, Johnson, Cardiss; Long, Murdock; Sherratt, Hall, Cowie, Holgate, Barrow, Farrell. Subs: Tallec, Gilmore, Baines, Hatton.
Tries: Radlinski 3, Murray, Tallec, Ellison. Goals: Long 4.
St Helens: Prescott; Arnold, Northey, Newlove, Sullivan; Hunte, Briers; Perelini, Cross, O’Neill, McVey, Pickavance, Morley. Subs: Booth, Matautia, Busby, Anderson.
Tries: McVey 2, Briers, Hunte. Goals: Prescott 3.
Norweb Challenge Game 2 – St Helens 44-12 Wigan – January 1997
The return fixture at Knowsley Road was originally slated for New Year’s Day 1997, but was postponed at the last minute due to ice on the terraces.
That left several frustrated, with players having sacrificed their New Year’s Eve celebrations for the game.
Goulding was set to return for Saints, who had transfer-listed Steve Prescott in the build-up to the game after contract talks had broken down.
A stronger Saints side eased to a 44-12 win, to take the Norweb Challenge – and the prize money – 66-44 on aggregate.
Goulding was the star of a show against a Wigan side missing nine internationals.
Tommy Martin, Keiron Cunningham and Karle Hammond all also returned for Saints in front of 10,147.
Wigan were at least boosted by the return of stand-off Nigel Wright after nearly two years out injured, but in the build-up, Saints coach Shaun McRae had suggested maybe the Warriors didn’t fancy the second game.
Captain and reigning Man of Steel Farrell sat out with a thigh strain, with one eye on Great Britain’s trip Down Under for the World Nines.
Apollo Perelini opened the scoring after just four minutes before Paul Newlove set up Anthony Sullivan for a long-range score.
The half-time score was 16-6 to Saints, who cut loose in the second half to rack up the 40.
Saints stand-off Tommy Martyn said afterwards: “It would be great to beat Wigan at dominoes, never mind Rugby League!”
St Helens: Prescott, Arnold, Hunte, Newlove, Sullivan, Martyn, Goulding, Perelini, Cunningham, O’Neill, McVey, Pickavance, Hammond. Subs: Morley, Northey, Matautia, Anderson.
Tries: Perelini 2, Sullivan, Hammond 2, Goulding, Matautia, Hammond. Goals: Goulding 6
Wigan: Murray, Ellison, Radlinski, Johnson, Cardiss, Long, Murdock, Sherratt, Hall, Cowie, Holgate, Barrow, Tallec. Subs: Johnson, Baynes, Wright, Knowles
Tries: Ellison, Johnson. Goals: Long 2
Ahead of the 1997 season, Wigan were embroiled in financial troubles and were forced to sell their Central Park home, which was eventually bought as part of Dave Whelan’s plans to build a new stadium for both the rugby league and football club.
Wigan’s woes were compounded on the field as they met St Helens again in February, losing 26-12 in the Challenge Cup.
Christmas had meant Wigan and St Helens meetings almost annually from 1905 onwards, with it taking greater importance from 1967.
Sadly, the growth of summer rugby has spelled the end of the traditional Boxing Day meeting of Saints and Wigan – but they still at least have the Good Friday classics to look forward to.