We take a step back in time to more than 30 years ago and the start of the greatest Challenge Cup winning run in the history of the sport…
When you think back to some of the great sides that have graced the sport of rugby league, not just in Britain but also even down under in Australia.
The St. George Dragons team of the 50s and 60s, the Leeds Rhino side between 2007 and 2012, the 90s Brisbane Broncos, St. Helens of the early noughties and even the mid-2000s Melbourne Storm all certainly spring to mind when we discuss some of the great rugby league teams. However, there was one that many have suggested stands above the rest. A team that over the course of its 100 + year history put together one of the best trophies portfolios in the history of the sport.
Between the years of 1988 and 1995 a certain Wigan Warriors side produced one of the most remarkable runs the sport had seen, winning eight consecutive Challenge Cup wins and in the process etched themselves into history as arguably one of rugby league’s greatest ever sides.
A squad that consisted of some of the greatest British and international talent to step on a rugby pitch.
Now, this may seem slightly off tangent but in American Football there was a saying that was used to describe the 1999 St. Louis Rams and that was the ‘greatest show on turf’ due to their record breaking and new-found form of attack on offence.
This a saying no more than befitting for this Wigan squad, who produced some of the finest rugby not just in Britain but in the world. They dominated sides not just domestically but across the reaches of Australia and were team that just oozed a certain type of quality.
Looking back, now although they were certainly a powerhouse club at county level, the Lancashire side were in the midst of a title drought by the start of the 1980s, not winning a major honour since the 1960s. However, as the 80s came by and bringing with it a whole new world of music, fashion and fads, the changes at Wigan began to take centre stage.
A new era brought with it new faces and faces which would certainly leave their mark on the team and the sport in years to come.
There are obviously many contributing factors to Wigan’s success over this length of time and one thing we can point to is the inclusion of Maurice Lindsay.
The former Preston North End and Wigan chairman joined the club back in the early 1980s alongside directors Jack Robinson, Tom Rathbone and Jack Hilton.
A change made more than significant that when you realise that long after Lindsay’s appointment, Wigan became one of the first teams in the league to achieve a professional full-time status and led to a surge in the teams’ fortunes.
As Sam Cooke profoundly told, ‘a change is gonna come’ and that it did. A sudden burst of recruitment looked to be just one answer for one of the countries most historic and pioneering clubs. Even with their recent success of winning the 1985 Challenge Cup and the likes of Shaun Edwards coming through the ranks and prodigious winger Gill Henderson already at the helm, it was seemingly still not enough for the Wigan side to feel like they could start challenging for more of the sports major honours once again. The year of 1985 probably saw the sides most exclusive ever signing as they pried a certain Ellery Hanley from Bradford Northern and the rest there they say is history.
By 1986, Wigan would go one step further seeing them make changes not just on the field but from a coaching standpoint as well, as New Zealand’s Graham Lowe would take over proceedings as head coach replacing Colin Clarke in the process.
The addition of an international coach, brought with it inclusions from the southern hemisphere as Dean Bell, Kevin and Tony Iro joined a vast improving squad in 1986 and proved to be so much more than fruitful to Wigan’s title aspirations. In the end, alongside Hanley they all would in some shape or form, solidify themselves as a collection of the teams’ best and in some cases more than so.
If we look back those 30 years and Wigan’s Challenge Cup campaign in 1988, it was easy to see what this team was starting to become. Their route to the final was just that indication as after a tight 2-0 win in the first round against Bradford Northern, wins came by in convincingly. The Cherry and Whites brushed aside Leeds in the second round before dispatching Widnes and Salford in respective fashion.
The final itself taking place at Wembley was made more enticing with their opponents Halifax coming in as the defending champions but with a less than dominant run to the final this time round. Their route was by no means a simple one, coming through a tightly contested 4-3 semi-final replay against Hull. A packed house, with over 90,000 spectators in attendance and Wigan certainly did not disappoint and just like their path there, they blitzed it in a way that was starting to become all too familiar. Lowe’s new stars would rise to the occasion, with a 32-12 win over the West Yorkshire club. A seven-try performance that saw the likes of the Iro brothers, Bell, Hanley, Henderson and Lydon all getting on the score sheet. In what was a more than dominant win became the foundation of something special.
As they came into that 1988 season, fresh off the back of a RFL Championship victory in 1987 and with the plethora of homegrown and international talent starting to blossom, there was already more than whiff of optimism in the air. If we look back to that time and the qualities that were possessed, you had the hard and electric running of Dean Bell, the toughness of Andy Gregory, the sheer presence of Ellery Hanley and the superb try scoring ability of the Henderson. There was always a different weapon that could be utilised to hurt their opponents.
However, not many could have predicted the feat of which they accomplished over the next 10 years. A team boasting with ludicrous talent over this decade went on to secure eight back to back Challenge Cup titles between 1988 and 1995. This however was only just the tip of an ever-dangerous iceberg as Wigan’s profound Challenge Cup success quickly reflected onto their league aspirations, winning another seven back to back league titles between the years of 1990 and 1996.
It is without a doubt easy to sit here and sing this team’s praises, but the achievements will never give it full justice as this team and collection of players were a team were unlike anything that was seen before. A feat never that could be something we may never ever see again in the sport. A once in a lifetime achievement from a once in a lifetime team.