The entertainment on show scaled new heights with classic matches galore on both sides of the world, but 1997 wasn’t the kindest of years to Rugby League.
Richard de la Riviere picks out the leading contenders.
The Australian game split damagingly into two competitions, while European clubs were hugely embarrassed in the sport’s first expanded World Club Championship, a competition which included the 12 European Super League clubs and the ten Australasian clubs who had left the ARL to form a Super League down under.
The sport’s highs that year were wonderful. The ARL Grand Final was the most dramatic ever, with Newcastle Knights, coached by Englishman Malcolm Reilly, winning their maiden Premiership with a try seven seconds from time against Manly, the club Reilly had graced so magnificently as a player. In Europe, the Wigan-St Helens domestic stranglehold was broken in superb style by a Bradford Bulls side that clinched the title by winning 20 straight matches from the start of the season, in what turned out to be the last season when first past the post were crowned champions.
However, 1997 will also be remembered for that much-maligned and over-ambitious Super League World Club Championship. With only a handful of notable exceptions, the Southern Hemisphere sides hammered their European counterparts, with scorelines over 50 points a regular occurrence. When, in the first weekend of the competition, Auckland Warriors, then bottom of the Australian Super League, won 42-14 at the home ground of the Super League champions, St Helens, the warning bells were sounded, and it didn’t get much better. Wigan emerged with some credit, beating Canterbury Bulldogs home and away; both superb wins, in particular their 22-18 win at Belmore, a scoreline that flattered the Australians, the only home game a Southern Hemisphere side lost. The Warriors also came closest of the European sides to making the semi-finals, losing narrowly to the eventual finalists Hunter Mariners in the last eight. There were other highlights for the European sides: London’s wonderful comeback against Canberra, Paul Sterling’s much celebrated long-range try which helped Leeds see off Adelaide Rams who also lost to Salford, Sheffield’s late show against Perth who were also whitewashed in Paris, and Oldham’s unlikely home win over North Queensland.
As much as the results, it was also the format of the competition which provided further embarrassment for the organisers, when four British teams with terrible group-stage records, advanced to the quarter-finals ahead of Penrith Panthers who had notched up six wins from their six games against Bradford, St Helens and Warrington, but who hadn’t thrashed their opponents quite as spectacularly as Cronulla or Auckland. In the end, Brisbane were crowned ‘world champions’, (although ARL sides Manly and Newcastle night have had something to say about that), beating Hunter Mariners in the final, with Darren Smith’s first-half hat-trick proving crucial.
At domestic club level, no one could touch Bradford in Super League. They lifted the Super League trophy before they lost a league game. They also saw their hooker, James Lowes, win the Man of Steel, with the former Rhino profiting massively from dummy-half behind a huge pack that steamrollered the rest of the competition into submission. But away from the week-in, week-out slog, the Bulls struggled, arguably being the side most embarrassed in the World Club Championship and losing at Wembley again to St Helens without ever really looking like winning. They also lost at home to eighth-placed Castleford in the last-ever, end-of-season Premiership, which was eventually won by an Andy Farrell-inspired Wigan.
On the Australian representative scene, New South Wales enjoyed success in both the ARL and Super League competitions. They clinched the State of Origin by the second game, with nailbiting 8-6 and 15-14 wins, before Queensland restored some pride with an 18-12 win in the dead rubber at Sydney. Geoff Toovey, Paul McGregor and Gary Larson won the respective man-of-the-match awards. The Super League competition invited New Zealand to join the two states in their Tri-Series competition, a format that was largely derided by ARL loyalists. The tournament had all the hallmarks of a damp squib until the Blues and the Maroons, who had both dispatched the Kiwis, served up one of the greatest ever games of Rugby League in the final – a match that was at the time the longest-ever contest, as New South Wales won 23-22. The records show that Noel Goldthorpe clinched the match for New South Wales with a Golden Point field goal, but stats do little to underline what a wonderfully exhilarating end-to-end thriller the two sides served up.
Internationally, both New Zealand and Great Britain were given the chance to take advantage of an Australian side who were without ARL-aligned stars like Andrew Johns, Brad Fittler, Steve Menzies and Paul Harragon. The Kiwis could even boast an aggregate win over their two games, losing 34-22 in Sydney in April with David Furner and Wendall Sailor each scoring twice for the Australians, before turning the tables in the most stunning fashion with a 30-12 win in September with Syd Eru and Stacey Jones each scoring twice.
But against Great Britain, champion stand-off Laurie Daley stole the show at Wembley with a magnificent performance and his classy first-half hat-trick put the home side to the sword. The British, led by the imperious Andy Farrell, hit back with a wonderful 20-12 win at Old Trafford a week later, with Chris Joynt and Adrian Morley also putting in top-notch performances. Sadly, as is the norm, Great Britain’s hopes were cruelly dashed just when expectation was at its highest. Many of the 39,337 fans in attendance were still taking their places at a packed Elland Road as Ken Nagas scored a whirlwind first-minute try for the visitors. By half-time the score had blown out to 25-2 and Australia ran out victors yet again. At least Great Britain had given their fans one victory and an average crowd of over 40,000 for the three matches pointed to a game that was in good health.
Daley’s leadership and performances on the Australian tour of Great Britain were of the highest order, as the green and golds won the traditional best-of-three series by two matches to one. His display at Wembley deserves to be recognised as one of the finest in Anglo-Australian history, even if the Tests themselves weren’t given the billing they deserved as a result of the Super League war. Daley also lifted silverware in the Australasian Super League Tri-Series as New South Wales beat Queensland in an amazing final, but his Canberra side was frustrated in both their Super League competition and the World Club championship.
Although he won the Man of Steel in 1996, Andy Farrell would probably regard his individual performances the following year – his first full season as captain – as even better. With Wigan struggling in Super League, Farrell delivered consistent performances throughout the year and finished the domestic calendar being named man of the match in their convincing Premiership Final win over St Helens.
In the World Club Championship he was instrumental in both wins over Canterbury, particularly in the first in Australia when his departure from the field almost led to Canterbury overturning the 0-22 deficit he had helped to build.
For Great Britain he was the stand-out performer and match winner in the second Test against Australia.
When Andrew Johns went into dummy-half in the last ten seconds of the 1997 ARL Grand Final between his Newcastle side and the much-fancied Manly Sea Eagles, time seemed to stand still. The Many defence certainly did. The mercurial halfback who almost missed the match with a lung problem – The Sydney Daily Telegraph even ran a story saying that Johns could die if he played! – wasn’t prepared to settle for extra-time, and his blind-side run and vision found young winger Darren Albert who scored possibly the most celebrated try in the Aussie game’s history. Over the next couple of years, Johns would be unrivalled as the game’s greatest player. By 1997, he was well on the way there.
Renouf enjoyed another marvellous year in 1997, cementing his place as the finest centre in the world game. He was named man of the match in the Australasian Super League Grand Final as Brisbane Broncos beat Cronulla Sharks 26-8, with ‘The Pearl’ scoring the first Grand Final hat-trick since 1959 and delivering a sterling defensive display. Renouf also scored in the Broncos’ World Club Championship Final win over Hunter Mariners and was in top form throughout the competition, running in tries for fun against the English sides. Renouf missed the Australians tour of the UK through injury, but it didn’t stop him topping the centres’ polling in the annual Open Rugby World Ratings.
Robinson’s status as a truly world-class player was further underlined in 1997 as he continued to produce top-level performances despite Wigan not competing at the top of the table for the first time in his career, proving he wasn’t a winger who just profited from the quality of his teammates. He scored 20 tries for Wigan including a hat-trick at St Helens and a brace at Bradford in the penultimate round of Super League as the Bulls eventually lost a league game, but he also excelled away from the wing, helping Wigan beating Canterbury with a superb stand-off display and playing fullback for Great Britain in one of their Tests against Australia. He scored in each of those three games.
The current Manly coach was, once again, at the centre of a splendidly consistent season for the Sea Eagles, who won the Minor Premiership by three points ahead of Newcastle and Parramatta. The Grand Final may have ultimately been the biggest disappointment of his career, but his performance, starting ahead of veteran Cliff Lyons at stand-off, was one of the bravest in the code’s history as he received more than one head injury – including a stamp – and numerous big hits, but kept coming back for more. He captained the Blues to State of Origin glory, playing both scrum-half and hooker, and won the official man-of-the-match award in game one.
Summary of 1997:
International Rugby League:
France 30-30 Ireland
Scotland 20-22 France
Australia (ARL) 28-8 Rest of the World
Australia (SL) 34-22 New Zealand
New Zealand 30-12 Australia (SL)
Great Britain 14-38 Australia (SL)
Great Britain 20-12 Australia (SL)
Great Britain 37-20 Australia (SL)
France 30-17 South Africa
Other Representative Rugby League:
State of Origin (ARL):
Game 1: New South Wales 16-12 Queensland
Game 2: Queensland 0-14 New South Wales
Game 3: Queensland 12-27 New South Wales
Super League Tri-Series:
NSW 38-10 Queensland
New Zealand 12-26 Queensland
NSW 20-15 New Zealand
Final: Queensland 22-23 New South Wales (AET)
Domestic Rugby League:
Super League: 1st Bradford Bulls, 2nd London Broncos, 3rd St Helens
Challenge Cup Final: St Helens 32-22 Bradford Bulls
Premiership Final: Wigan 33-20 St Helens
World Club Challenge Final: Brisbane Broncos 36-12 Hunter Mariners
ARL Grand Final: Newcastle Knights 22-16 Manly Sea Eagles
Super League Grand Final: Brisbane Broncos 26-8 Cronulla Sharks
Australian Super League Player of the Year: Laurie Daley
ARL Player of the Year: Brad Fittler
Clive Churchill Medal: Robbie O’Davis
Man of Steel: James Lowes
Lance Todd Trophy: Tommy Martyn
1 Robbie O’Davis (Australia)
2 Jason Robinson (Great Britain)
3 Steve Renouf (Australia)
4 Andrew Ettingshausen (Australia)
5 Wendall Sailor (Australia)
6 Laurie Daley (Australia)
7 Andrew Johns (Australia)
8 Paul Harragon (Australia)
9 Geoff Toovey (Australia)
10 Mark Carroll (Australia)
11 Stephen Kearney (New Zealand)
12 Adam Muir (Australia)
13 Andy Farrell (Great Britain)