Super League split the Rugby League world in two, but the stars still shone brightly on the field in both hemispheres.
Richard de la Riviere picks out the front-runners.
Super League continued to dominate the Rugby League landscape in 1996, with the groundbreaking competition finally getting underway in Europe, and with the ‘war’ in the Southern Hemisphere reaching crisis point. The courts initially banned any Super League competition in Australia until at least 2000, only for an appeal court to overturn that at the end of the year. Chaos reigned in Australia and New Zealand in the middle of a battle that would eventually cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Nearer home, Super League’s inaugural season was stuffed full of magnificent highlights, with the (still first-past-the-post) title race going down to the last day of the season. The Challenge Cup threw up two of its all-time great moments, yet, sadly, the year ended disappointingly for the British game with a distinctly forgettable tour of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, that ended in near farce as 11 players were sent home to keep down costs.
Wigan wrapped up the Stones Bitter Centenary Championship which ended in January, and beat St Helens in a magnificent Regal Trophy Final in Huddersfield. Saints, incidentally, had beaten Warrington by the incredible score of 80-0 in the semi-final. Wigan, with a new era dawning, were still the team to beat, it seemed, but their bubble was to burst quicker than anyone could imagine. Having been drawn against first-division Salford in the fifth round of the Challenge Cup, the BBC cameras decided to go elsewhere – surely, they thought, the result would be a formality. The Reds, however, were coached by a certain Andy Gregory, and they produced one of the great Cup performances to bring to an end Wigan’s incredible run of Challenge Cup victories which stretched back to 1988. With The Willows rocking, the home side prevailed 26-16.
1996, though, was all about Super League, and not even Wigan’s defeat at Salford was going to distract anybody from the launch of the summer era as a huge crowd packed into the Charlety Stadium to watch Paris St Germain beat Sheffield Eagles in a thriller of a match. Elsewhere St Helens hammered hapless Workington, Wigan thrashed Oldham and a Iestyn Harris-inspired Warrington won at Leeds. Super League was born.
Having already beaten Wigan in another blockbuster of a match over Easter, St Helens lifted the Challenge Cup at Wembley beating Bradford in one of the truly great finals, winning 40-32 having trailed by 14 points in the second half. But it was the runners-up who provided the star player as Robbie Paul scored a hat-trick of sensational tries to win the Lance Todd Trophy. Overnight Paul became a star and he maintained his form throughout the year, helping the Bulls into third place.
The title turned into a straight shoot-out between Wigan and Saints. Each side lost twice during the season – to each other and once each at Odsal to Bradford, but St Helens won the title by a point courtesy of a Wigan dropped point at home to London Broncos, with Terry Matterson famously kicking a last-gasp touchline conversion. The Warriors, however, gained some revenge with an Old Trafford Premiership thrashing of Saints with Gary Connolly, the Saints’ old boy, in outstanding form.
In Australia, the mood wasn’t quite so celebratory. The Super League-aligned clubs actually forfeited their round-one matches, while Gorden Tallis, then at St George, actually sat out the entire season, such was his desire to play for Brisbane Broncos instead. State of Origin lifted the spirits – those south of the border, at least – as New South Wales won an outstanding series, winning all three matches, with Geoff Toovey, Andrew Johns and Steve Menzies officially adjudged the best players in each game. Back on the club scene, Manly-Warringah made up for their disappointment 12 months earlier by beating St George on Grand Final day. Kiwi fullback Matthew Ridge came up with the crucial play as his short kick-off fooled the Dragons defence and led to the gamebreaking try early just before half time, to give them an unassailable 14-2 advantage.
In the Test arena, New Zealand won the World Nines, a Super League event, with Wales winning the Trophy competition, Fiji the Plate and the Cook Islands picking up the Bowl. England beat Wales 26-12 in the European Championship decider, with Bobbie Goulding walking off with the man-of-the-match award after playing most of the game at hooker. In ARL internationals, Australia were far too good for Fiji and Papua New Guinea. But the big event on the international calendar was Great Britain’s tour of Oceania.
With Phil Larder in charge for the first time, it was very much a new-look Great Britain squad that was called together, especially in the backs. Jason Robinson, Gary Connolly and Lee Jackson were unable to play as they were contracted to the ARL. Shaun Edwards and Paul Newlove were injured and Martin Offiah was not selected. Newly crowned Man of Steel Andy Farrell was a surprising choice as captain ahead of Denis Betts.
On the first leg of the tour, Great Britain scraped a 32-30 win over Papua New Guinea with Kris Radlinski scoring twice. Goulding also crossed, kicked six goals and was adjudged to be his side’s best player. The squad moved onto Fiji with the Lions winning the only Test 72-4 with Goulding enjoying another memorable game – he scored a hat-trick of tries, kicked ten goals and was caught up in an early fight which saw Mal Yasa sent off. On to New Zealand, where the tourists failed to win a game. All three Tests were lost as were two tour games, while the first, against a Lion Red XIII, ended in a 22-all draw. Britain’s stand-out player was Denis Betts who scored in every Test and showed the Kiwi audiences what he could do after a disappointing debut season for the Warriors. In the halves, Goulding and Harris, who had both until then enjoyed an excellent 1996, failed to gel with the latter dropped to the bench in the third Test.
For the Kiwis, union convert John Timu was the star of the first Test in Auckland – his two late tries overturned an eight-point deficit as they ran out 17-12 winners. A week later in Palmerston North, Ruben Wiki, then a centre, scored twice, with future Test coach, Stephen Kearney having an excellent game in the second row, while Sean Hoppe scored twice in the last Test with Gene Ngamu also scoring and playing a key role.
For Great Britain it was a taste of what was to come in the Super League era.
In wonderful form at fullback, Ridge was instrumental in Manly clinching the Minor Premiership ahead of Brisbane Broncos, even though he didn’t play until the ninth round and went on to play a massive role in them winning the Grand Final as his cheeky kick-off, on the verge of half-time, resulted in the try that broke the Dragons’ backs. For New Zealand, Ridge was superb in their Test series whitewash against Great Britain, where his kicking game was flawless. Defensively, his positional play was of the highest order throughout the Test series and he was a potent attacking force. He won the New Zealand player-of-the-year award.
Along with Ridge, Toovey, the Manly captain, played a huge part in the Sea Eagles getting their hands back on the Premiership trophy in 1996. The diminutive scrum-half was at the centre of everything the side did well on the field. He scooped the Clive Churchill Medal as the best player on Grand Final day – with coach, Bob Fulton, starting Nik Kosef at stand-off instead of Cliff Lyons, effectively playing seven forwards, with Toovey the only ballplayer.
But Toovey rose to the occasion and led his side to their first Premiership since 1987. He played in both of Australia’s Tests in 1996, captaining them in the second against Papua New Guinea.
Goulding enjoyed a superb season in 1996 for St Helens, leading them to success in the Challenge Cup and the inaugural Super League competition. At Wembley, it was his trio of spiralling bombs that exposed the Bradford fullback, Nathan Graham, leading to the tries that overhauled the Bulls. In Super League, he inspired his side to a number of close, come-from-behind wins, notably in games against Warrington and London, as Saints pipped Wigan to the title by a point. He was Great Britain’s best player in the opening stages of their Oceania tour, and had a good game in the first Kiwi Test, especially with his field kicking, but struggled to maintain his best form in the remaining Tests.
The younger Paul brother came of age in 1996, announcing himself as a world-class star by producing the best Rugby League display at Wembley since Brett Kenny 11 years earlier with his hat-trick of tries the centrepiece of an imperious display. Paul transferred that form to Super League where he scored 18 tries in 22 matches, and created many more. He mesmerised opponents on a regular basis, helping the Bulls to an excellent year. He agreed to play rugby union in the off-season, ruling him out of New Zealand Test contention.
Langer may not have enjoyed success with club or state in 1996, nor did he get the chance to play for Australia, due to the ongoing Super League war, but he was in imperious form throughout the campaign, often coming up with the crucial play when his Broncos side needed it the most. Langer’s side came second on the Premiership ladder, and had the Broncos not forfeited their round-one match to Auckland, they could have pipped the Sea Eagles to the Minor Premiership. In the end they bowed out of the play-offs with defeat to Cronulla in week two. Langer was crowned the competition’s best player by winning the prestigious Dally M Medal.
Still only 24, Kearney had already captained his country and was just shy of 20 Test caps by the end of 1996. With a reputation for being a fearless runner and a ferocious defender, Kearney also had the ability to promote the football and contribute to his side’s attack. He caused Great Britain numerous headaches in the Kiwi’s 3-0 sereies win over the Lions, having a great game in the 17-12 first Test win, and being adjudged to be the Kiwis’ best as they clinched the series with an 18-15 win in Palmerston North where he produced a wonderful offload for Ruben Wiki’s crucial second-half try.
Summary of 1996:
International Rugby League:
France 14-34 Wales
England 73-6 France
Wales 12-26 England
Australia 84-14 Fiji National Rugby League
Papua New Guinea NRL 6-52 Australia
Papua New Guinea 30-32 Great Britain
New Zealand 62-8 Papua New Guinea
New Zealand 64-0 Papua New Guinea
Fiji 4-72 Great Britain
New Zealand 17-12 Great Britain
New Zealand 18-15 Great Britain
New Zealand 32-12 Great Britain
State of Origin:
Game 1: Queensland 8-14 New South Wales
Game 2: New South Wales 18-6 Queensland
Game 3: Queensland 14-15 New South Wales
Domestic Rugby League:
Stones Bitter Centenary Season (1995-6): 1. Wigan 2. Leeds 3. Halifax
Regal Trophy Final: Wigan 25-16 St Helens
Challenge Cup Final: St Helens 40-32 Bradford
Super League: 1. St Helens 2. Wigan 3. Bradford
Premiership Final: Wigan 44-14 St Helens
Winfied Cup Grand Final: Manly 20-8 St George
Rothmans Medal: Jason Taylor
Dally M Medal: Allan Langer
Clive Churchill Medal: Geoff Toovey
Man of Steel: Andy Farrell
Lance Todd Trophy: Robbie Paul