1997 was also the year of the World Club Championship. It involved all twelve European Super League clubs and all ten Australian Super League clubs, with matches taking place in both hemispheres. No European teams made it past the quarter finals, illustrating the gulf between the two competitions and, such was the format of the championship, the Bulls managed to qualify for the second stage despite losing every match in the group round. Brisbane eventually lifted the cup, triumphing over Hunter Mariners in front of 12,000 people. The concept has not been repeated since and is generally regarded as an over ambitious and poorly executed idea.
Back in Britain, the Super League was still pulling in the crowds with the Bulls, Rhinos and Warriors regularly topping the 10,000 mark at home games. The 1998 season was also the year of the inaugural Super League Grand Final, which took place at Old Trafford. Leeds and Wigan emerged from the end of season play-off series as finalists, with Andy Farrell guiding his Warriors side to a second Super League title in three years. It was the first time in 25 years that domestic honours would be decided through a play-off and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
1998 was also the season of the greatest shock in Challenge Cup history. In old Wembley’s penultimate final, Mark Aston’s Sheffield Eagles stood in the way of Wigan’s 17th Challenge Cup victory. The rank outsiders from South Yorkshire were not given a sniff by bookmakers with the in-form Warriors expected to record a comfortable win. John Kear’s men, led around the park by Mark Aston, had other ideas though. Tries from Nick Pinkney, Matt Crowther and Darren ‘Rocky’ Turner were enough to give Sheffield a 17-8 win and bring the famous old cup to the Steel City. Ironically, the Eagles faced Wigan in their next league home game and the visitors romped home 36-6 victors, a scoreline many had predicted seven days earlier!
With Paris St. Germain’s appearance in the opening seasons of summer rugby now a fading memory, the RFL sought to break new ground at the turn of the millennium with the founding of a new team based in the North East. Gateshead Thunder, playing out of the city’s Athletics Stadium, fielded a side made up predominantly of Australian veterans and Super League journeymen. They finished 6th in their first, and what would prove to be their final season in Super League – they were subsequently ‘swallowed’ by cash-strapped Hull Sharks. We hadn’t seen the last of their iconic mascot Captain Thunder though!
Trophy honours in 1999 went to the Rhinos and the Saints. At Wembley, Leroy Rivett’s four tries in the last ever cup final at the famous old stadium helped his side to an emphatic victory over London Broncos. The Broncos had broken the hearts of Castleford fans in the semi-final with a last gasp victory over the Tigers at Headingley. St. Helens triumphed in Super League’s second grand final with over 50,000 packing into Old Trafford. The event was growing in stature by the season and would continue to do so for years to come. A solitary Iro try and two Sean Long kicks were enough to win the day for Saints and bring the curtain down on a stormy year at Knowsley Road, during which coach Ellery Hanley was suspended by the club following an internal dispute.
The sun set on the 20th century with Rugby League in a healthier state domestically than ever. Great Britain and England still toiled without success on the international scene but the country’s elite division had never looked stronger – on or off the pitch.