Referee during infamous Wigan Warriors-St Helens brawl recalls 20th anniversary of iconic incident

Ross Heppenstall

“They’re swinging them right and left, they’re all coming in, the touch judge is getting involved… this is unbelievable!” said Mike ‘Stevo’ Stephenson, describing the most infamous all-in brawl in Super League history as it unfolded live on Sky Sports.

“Farrell has lost total control, they all have.. I knew it was going to explode!”

If Stevo was almost beside himself in the commentary box then it was nothing compared to the emotions on the pitch where St Helens and Wigan Warriors players did battle, quite literally.

It was the 2004 Good Friday derby at Knowsley Road and a 21-21 draw which is best remembered for the 26-man scrap that broke out during the second half. Twenty years on, the incident remains iconic.

Not only because of its gladiatorial nature but because it featured some of the finest players in Super League history. Karl Kirkpatrick was the man in the middle that day and one of rugby league’s top referees at the time.

Speaking exclusively to Love Rugby League, Kirkpatrick said: “The games got allocated on the Tuesday afternoon and that’s when I knew I was doing the Saints-Wigan derby.

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“It was clearly the stand-out game of the Easter weekend, if not the season, and every referee in Super League at the time wanted it. I got up that morning and it just felt right for a lunchtime Saints-Wigan derby live on Sky Sports.

“There was a real buzz around the ground because there were some huge names involved; Paul Sculthorpe, Andy Farrell, Terry Newton, Sean Long, Keiron Cunningham and Kris Radlinski to name but a few.

“It was just massive and you knew that the whole of rugby league and beyond would be watching.”

Almost 16,000 people watched from the packed terraces as Lee Gilmour – twice – Willie Talau and Jon Wilkin went over for Saints with Kevin Brown, Newton and Danny Orr scoring for Wigan.

Long and Farrell exchanged drop goals and the match ended all-square, but it was the fight that erupted which made the rain-soaked affair so memorable. There had been flare-ups throughout the opening hour but then St Helens’ Wilkin and Wigan’s Newton exchanged blows at a ruck.

That sparked a brawl which saw Farrell and Sculthorpe angrily throwing punches at each other. Chaos was everywhere and Kirkpatrick remembers: “It initially unfolded in backplay, unbeknown to me, with Jon Wilkin and Terry Newton on the floor fighting.

“Jon’s take on it is that – and I’ve spoken to him about it since – is that he was getting beaten up. He thought he would give some back and so Wilkin and Newton are fighting in backplay but then Willie Talau and Dom Fe’aunati got involved with some Wigan players.

“Ian Millward, the Saints coach at the time, used to call the two Samoan lads ‘Samoa One’ and ‘Samoa Two’. The involvement of Talau and Fe’aunati led to a scuffle but there was already this scuffle going on in backplay with Wilkin and Newton.

“When they decided their fight wasn’t good enough, they actually stopped fighting, got up and came over to join the big fight.”

Touch judge Tony Martin, a diminutive figure, even raced onto the field to try and quell the trouble. Kirkpatrick explains: “I actually pulled Tony Martin out of it and you can see that on the YouTube footage of the incident.

“Tony was from Oldham and in his own sweet way was trying to break things up, which by the way he had no chance of doing. And we were told not to do that anyway – we were told to back off and watch.

“So I’m pulling Tony out and at the same time Andy Farrell and Paul Sculthorpe have got hold of each other but no man in the world is going to separate those two.

“That became the focus of the fight on television because they were the big names and everyone else was either trying to separate them or get involved.

“I remember Terry O’Connor, who is a good friend of mine and was always a good friend on the field too, trying to get involved and help but I think Terry copped one from one of the Saints players.

“He then decided he wasn’t going to help anymore and, from a referee’s point of view, it felt like it went on for about 15 minutes but I’m sure it was less than two and maybe one and a half.”

Remarkably, the only immediate disciplinary action which followed the rumpus were yellow cards for Wilkin and Newton.

Kirkpatrick says: “Because there were so many people involved and so many unknowns at the time, the only thing I could do was put Jon Wilkin and Terry Newton in the sinbin.

“My rationale was ‘well, you two fighting in backplay is what started this’ and whether that’s right or true I don’t know but someone had to go off the field.

“They were the obvious two and they came back on and the game continued and ended up a draw.” Fe’aunati later received a three-match ban for his role in the brawl but Saints captain Sculthorpe, who had also been summoned to appear at the disciplinary hearing for trading punches with Farrell, was found not guilty of any offence.

Farrell, then Great Britain skipper, was fined £500 after being found guilty of misconduct but not suspended. It was the first blot on a previously unblemished record which may have helped Farrell escape a ban.

“That brawl actually added to the occasion because this was a game that had everything,” argues Kirkpatrick. “It was just absolutely bonkers how it panned out and for it to end a draw as well was something else.

“That was probably one of the last mass brawls we’ve seen in rugby league and indeed professional sport if we’re honest because cameras and accountability have stopped all that nonsense.

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“If indeed it was nonsense, I don’t know, but that Good Friday derby in 2004 will always be remembered for a long time. This conversation we’re having now proves that. I think the fight was the culmination of both teams’ will to win, the passion, the desire, the sense of occasion and the crowd winding the players up.

“The event caused the fight but you wouldn’t get that nowadays.”

Kirkpatrick refereed the 2003 and 2006 Super League Grand Finals and the 2004 Challenge Cup final, between Wigan and Saints, plus numerous internationals.

“The 2004 Challenge Cup final was at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff – only a month after the derby at Knowsley Road on Good Friday – and everyone thought it was going to be a rematch of that brawl,” says Kirkpatrick.

“But it was fairly timid, as most cup finals are, and Saints won 32-16.” Kirkpatrick opted not to become a full-time referee in 2007 because he had a well-paid job with the Royal Bank of Scotland.

He ended up quitting rugby league before moving into rugby union refereeing and officiating in the 15-a-side code. Based in his hometown of Warrington, 59-year-old Kirkpatrick now works as a self-employed asset finance broker.

He remains involved in rugby union as a coach for the national panel of referees. Kirkpatrick will be watching this year’s Good Friday clash at the Totally Wicked Stadium with interest but accepts the game has moved on massively from 20 years ago.

He says: “Back then, there were a lot of ferocious games like that – you also had Leeds-Saints, Hull-Leeds, Leeds-Bradford and some of the Cas games.

“Being honest, it just became the norm and there was never any thought of ‘oh my God, this is going to be tough’. They were what they were and there were some massive games around at the time with some massive characters.

“I think that’s what is missing from the game; it so much more sterile nowadays and all the players look the same. Back in the day, you would think ‘any minute now, this could kick off’.

“Twenty years ago, it was almost like the players thought ‘I don’t care what’s going to happen to me at disciplinary, I’m going to fill his face in’.

“But you don’t get that lawlessness anymore because the game has just changed beyond all recognition.”

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