Some of Rugby League’s wounds began to heal in 1998, a year of consolidation and progress for the sport.
Richard de la Riviere picks out the leading contenders.
After a year of split competition for the clubs down under, and World Club Championship humiliation for English clubs, some of Rugby League’s wounds began to heal in 1998, a year of consolidation and progress for the sport.
The game continued to thrill the English public with one of the finest Challenge Cup campaigns in living memory and with Leeds and Wigan playing out a quartet of quite brilliant, hugely intense games including Super League’s first-ever Grand Final. In Australia, the National Rugby League competition was born, and so was a team called Melbourne Storm – surely such an extravagant expansionary idea wouldn’t work! But on the club scene, the big headline grabbers were Sheffield Eagles, who stunned the world of Rugby League by doing the unthinkable and beating Wigan at Wembley.
But, alas, the year, once again, ended in misery for the Great Britain team, who, at full strength bar Adrian Morley, were humbled on home soil by a very impressive touring New Zealand side.
In Australia, all eyes were on the first round of the new NRL which saw Brisbane Broncos prove far too good for an indisciplined Manly side in the most eagerly anticipated match-up of the round. In fact, the Broncos were too good for most sides during the course of the year, as, with a team of wonderfully talented players, they topped the league ladder and went on to win their fourth Grand Final (including the 1997 Super League competition), as they beat Canterbury Bulldogs 38-12 in the decider after trailing at half-time. While the final, particularly the second half, was somewhat anti-climactic, the play-offs themselves were superb with the Bulldogs reaching the final from ninth and producing two of the all-time great comebacks – against Newcastle and Parramatta – in the process. The last ten minutes of normal time in their game against the Eels, was one of the most dramatic periods in the game’s proud history as the Bulldogs reversed an 18-2 deficit to force extra-time.
In Origin, it was those north of the border smiling again, as Allan Langer lifted the trophy courtesy of a 19-4 win in the decider in Sydney, a game in which he scored the crucial try. But the series is best remembered for the Queenslanders repeating the miracle of 1994 by winning the first game on the bell with Tonie Carroll’s try, courtesy of a piece of Kevin Walters brilliance, and a fresh-faced Darren Lockyer’s nerveless kick edging out the Blues 24-23.
Despite the Warriors and the Rhinos racing to the top of the Super League table, everything paled into significance when Sheffield Eagles took their place against Wigan at Wembley in the Challenge Cup Final, after wins in classic games against Castleford and Salford along the way. Given absolutely no chance by anybody, perhaps unfairly so given there were only four league positions between the two sides in 1997, John Kear’s men scored an early try through Nick Pinkney, and didn’t buckle. They defended heroically and when Darren Turner scored midway through the second half, victory was theirs. To this day, their win remains regarded as the unlikeliest of all Wembley triumphs.
In Super League, the early-season story was Leeds’s remarkable transformation under the astute coaching of Graham Murray. Darren Fleary, in particular, caught the eye as their forwards smashed everything in their path enabling Iestyn Harris to weave his magic behind the pack. Harris was so good in 1998 that there wasn’t a murmur of opposition when he walked off with the Man of Steel, the Super League Players’ player-of-the-year and the Rugby League Writers’ player-of-the-year awards. But despite two bruising regular-season wins over Wigan, who lost no other matches that year, Wigan finished the season the stronger and topped the table with Leeds second and Halifax a credible third.
The play-offs were kicked off by St Helens and Bradford, who had come fourth and fifth, but instead of the game being remembered for being Super League’s first-ever play-off match, it is remembered for Stuart Cummings’ bizarre decision to send off the Bulls’ Graeme Bradley after just 15 minutes. The decision was later rescinded, but it was too late for the Bulls, who were soundly beaten. Halifax were next to exit after losing narrowly to Leeds and then to St Helens, before the Rhinos despatched the Saints emphatically to book their Old Trafford spot against John Monie’s Wigan, who had two weeks to prepare for the game. Leeds caught them cold and were much the better side in the first half, but only had a Richie Blackmore try to show for their efforts and creativity. The killer blow came just before the break, when Jason Robinson moved into dummy-half outwide on the Leeds 20-metre line. He crabbed sideways, searching for a weakness, and when the tiniest of gaps appeared, he exploited it to the max and won the Grand Final for his side as Leeds failed to trouble the scorers in the second half. Robinson was named man of the match.
Internationally, 1998 was a busy one for the Kiwis. The men in black played best-of-three series against both Australia and Great Britain, and firmly established themselves as the world’s number two side. They beat the green and golds first up in the traditional ANZAC Day Test, which proved to be the final match of Bob Fulton’s glorious reign as Australia’s coach. They won 22-16 with fullback Matthew Ridge in exceptional form. The second and third Tests were delayed until later in the year and, as they often do, Australia overturned the deficit to win the series with 30-12 and 36-16 wins under the coaching of Wayne Bennett.
The Kiwis then flew to England for short tour, playing none of the club or other representative sides that they had done in the past. The first Test at Huddersfield was an absolute classic, won 22-16 by the visitors, with British fans complaining about referee Bill Harrigan’s refusal to award Britain a last-minute penalty try as Robbie Paul tackled Andy Farrell in the air over the try line. At Bolton in game two, the British bossed the first half, leading 16-8 at the break with Iestyn Harris scoring a pearler of a try in the closing stages of the half, but all the good work was undone by a shocking second-half display as the Kiwis ran in try after try to win 36-16, winning the series in the process, their first such triumph in England since 1971. The third game at Watford was a superbly entertaining 23-all draw with Tony Smith kicking a field goal as the siren sounded to ensure his side avoided a whitewash of defeats.
The damage was done, though – the Super League years were being brutally unkind to the Great Britain Test team.
Harris was untouchable in England producing a season packed with stunning individual displays, helping the Rhinos to what would have been seen at the start of the season as an unlikely Grand Final berth. His round-two hat-trick at Odsal as Leeds thrashed champions Bradford laid down a marker, and Harris went on to win an incredible 12 League Express gamestar awards, only one other Super League player got more than five. At Test level, he scored a wonderful individual try to give Great Britain a half-time lead against the Kiwis in game two. He didn’t make the world XIII, but collected votes at both fullback and stand-off.
Langer enjoyed a dream year in 1998, captaining Brisbane Broncos to Premiership glory and Queensland to State of Origin triumph. In the first game, three of his grubber kicks led to tries, including one for himself, as he won the man-of-the-match award. He also scored the series-clinching try in game three and went on to pick up the Wally Lewis Medal as the Maroons’ best player of the series. He lost his Australia jumper to Andrew Johns in the ANZAC Test which Australia lost to New Zealand but won it back for the last two with Johns playing stand-off, then hooker. Australia won both of those games with Langer in great form and he ended up ahead of Johns in the World XIII.
Kearney was an absolute rock in the New Zealand pack in 1998, while his club performances for Auckland Warriors were of a high enough standard to alert Melbourne Storm, who snapped him up for the 1999 season, ending the second-rower’s four-year association with the Warriors. For the Kiwis, Kearney was controversially suspended from the ANZAC Test but returned for the side’s two remaining Tests against Australia. But it was in England that the big forward really stood out. He scored the first try of the series, getting to a Stacey Jones kick inches before Kris Radlinski, the British fullback. He was man of the match as his side went one-up, and was equally effective in games two and three, leading to his selection in the World XIII.
Robinson’s ability to pop up when it mattered rose to new levels in 1998 as he stole the show in the Super League Grand Final. With his side well under the cosh, Leeds-born Robinson broke Rhinos’ hearts – not for the first time – as he scored the type of try that only he could on the verge of half-time, one that proved to be the matchwinner. On the Test scene, Robinson again shone like a beacon in an underachieving side, scoring a try in each of the Tests against New Zealand – a feat that he had achieved the year before against Australia. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the year, he was voted ahead of Wendell Sailor as the game’s number-one winger.
Smith enjoyed a dream year in 1998, probably his finest in the game. A versatile player, he played largely in the centres for the Broncos and scored a bucketload of tries – 23 to be exact – as he finished the year the club’s top tryscorer ahead of Wendell Sailor. His number included one in the first-ever Grand Final under the National Rugby League banner, as the Broncos put the Bulldogs to the sword with an emphatic second-half display. He also scored a crucial try in game one of the State of Origin series. Aside from the tries, Smith was one of the game’s outstanding defensive players, and was an absolute rock at the heart of the Brisbane, Queensland and Australia teams with whom he enjoyed so much success in 1998.
The ‘Raging Bull’ played a massive part in the three teams he represented, Brisbane Broncos, Queensland and Australia, enjoying success in 1998. For the Broncos he scored eight tries including one in the Grand Final as the Broncos swept aside Canterbury, with Tallis picking up the coveted Clive Churchill Medal, having been adjudged to have been the best player on the pitch. Another club-level highlight for him was returning to St George, his former club, and enduring 80 minutes of abuse, but scoring a crucial try. For Queensland his powerful break set up Ben Ikin’s crucial try in game three and for his country, he was sensational in the second game of the three-Test series with New Zealand, scoring two tries.
Summary of 1998:
International Rugby League:
New Zealand 22-16 Australia
Cook Islands 18-10 New Zealand Maoris
Cook Islands 14-24 New Zealand Maoris
Cook Islands 8-24 New Zealand Maoris
Tonga 20-20 Samoa
Tonga 24-8 Samoa
Tonga 24-22 Samoa
Tonga 14-22 Fiji
Fiji 14-16 Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea 34-12 Fiji
Papua New Guinea 10-14 Fiji
Australia 30-12 New Zealand
New Zealand 16-36 Australia
Papua New Guinea 46-6 Cook Islands
New Zealand Maoris 23-12 Tonga
Papua New Guinea 44-28 Tonga
Cook Islands 16-8 New Zealand Maoris
Papua New Guinea 46-0 New Zealand Maoris
Tonga 30-22 Cook Islands
New Zealand Maoris 28-6 Cook Islands
Papua New Guinea 54-12 Tonga
Ireland 22-24 France
France 26-22 Scotland
Scotland 10-17 Ireland
Great Britain 16-22 New Zealand
Great Britain 16-36 New Zealand
Great Britain 23-23 New Zealand
State of Origin:
Game 1: New South Wales 23-24 Queensland
Game 2: Queensland 10-26 New South Wales
Game 3: New South Wales 4-19 Queensland
Men of Matches – Allan Langer, Rodney Howe, Shane Webcke
Domestic Rugby League:
Challenge Cup Final: Sheffield Eagles 17-8 Wigan Warriors
Super League Grand Final: Wigan Warriors 10-4 Leeds
Winfied Cup Grand Final: Brisbane Broncos 38-12 Canterbury Bulldogs
Dally M Medal: Andrew Johns
Clive Churchill Medal: Gorden Tallis
Man of Steel: Iestyn Harris
Lance Todd Trophy: Mark Aston
1 Darren Lockyer (Australia)
2 Jason Robinson (Great Britain)
3 Darren Smith (Australia)
4 Steve Renouf (Australia)
5 Wendell Sailor (Australia)
6 Laurie Daley / Kevin Walters – tied (both Australia)
7 Allan Langer (Australia)
8 Quentin Pongia (New Zealand)
9 Jason Hetherington (Australia)
10 Shane Webcke (Australia)
11 Gorden Tallis (Australia)
12 Stephen Kearney (New Zealand)
13 Andy Farrell (Great Britain)