Rugby League World takes a trip down memory lane when Widnes ruled the world with a star-studded line-up that turned the club into a trophy-magnet. Like what you’re reading? There’s articles like this, and so much more in every edition of Rugby League World. The next ‘Time Machine’ feature has French feel to it. The next RLW is out on the 26th May. Get your copy in stores or online at TotalRL.com/RLW.
Mention the term ‘Cup Kings’ to Rugby League fans and many will think you are talking about the great Wigan teams of the eighties and nineties, but Widnes can stake an earlier claim to such a title.
From 1975 until 1990 Widnes won a staggering 24 trophies and were the dominant team in Rugby League, and the majority of their success came before any full-time professionals were at the club.
The Chemics, as they were known at the time, started this glorious era off with the 1975 Challenge Cup when they defeated fierce rivals Warrington 14-7 at Wembley. They then went on to win that famous trophy three more times with their last success being a 1984 triumph over Wigan when Joe Lydon scored twice and picked up the Lance Todd Trophy award.
During that time they managed to win the league championship for the first time in their history in the 1977-78 season, before winning back-to-back titles in 1988 and 1989 as their rivalry with Wigan really reached its pinnacle.
Widnes were not just lifting the trophies we have in now in the Super League era; they also managed to win six Premiership titles, the Lancashire Cup five times, the Charity Shield and John Player Special Trophy twice and the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy once.
And who can forget that famous night at Old Trafford on Wednesday, October 4, 1989, when they defeated Australian champions Canberra Raiders 30-18 to be crowned the best Rugby League side in the world?
When you look through the archives at the teams from those periods it is easy to understand why they were successful – the Widnes player roster basically reads like a who’s who of legendary Rugby League players.
The late Mick Adams, John Basnett, Mal Aspey, Mick Burke, Andy Currier, Darren Wright, Jonathan Davies, Tony Myler, Kurt Sorensen, Alan Tait, Keith Elwell, Paul and David Hulme, Paul Moriarty, Joe Lydon, Keiron O’Loughlin, Martin Offiah and Phil McKenzie were just a few of the household names that will still bring a smile to the face of many Widnes supporters.
To achieve such consistency of success over such a long period of time is a magnificent feat in itself, and let’s not forget these were the days when the game was not fully professional and the majority of these players had full-time jobs to contend with as well.
Martin Offiah, who joined Widnes in 1987, was an unknown in Rugby League due to his union background, and although he might not have the best of relationships with some Widnes fans now following his later switch to Wigan, he was once the darling of Naughton Park.
“I didn’t know anything about Widnes before I signed,” said Offiah.
“The first time I stepped foot in the town I had already signed the contract. It was just an opportunity to play Rugby League and it is one I’m glad I took.”
The switch to Widnes turned Offiah into a household name and the flamboyant tries that helped the Chemics win back-to-back league titles ahead of Wigan certainly got him noticed.
His try scoring efforts against the Riversiders during those four years prompted Wigan to do what they did at the time and just sign any player that played well against them, but before that he was a thorn in their side, and every club Widnes faced, as they were eventually crowned World Club Champions.
Offiah has fond memories of his battles against Wigan and that victory over Canberra Raiders is one he will never forget: he had set his sights on lifting that particular trophy after witnessing Wigan do it two years earlier against Manly.
In 1989, the Green Machine of Canberra led 12-0 at one stage at Old Trafford, but a spirited performance with Offiah scoring twice along with further tries from Jonathan Davies, Richie Eyres, Paul Hulme and Darren Wright saw the Chemics shock the star-studded Raiders, who had Gary Belcher, Mal Meninga, Laurie Daley, John Ferguson, Ricky Stuart, Steve Walters, Glenn Lazarus and Bradley Clyde in their starting line-up.
“I remember that Wigan was the club everybody looked up to and aimed at,” added Offiah. “They were the bastion of professionalism. I was in the crowd with Doug Laughton the night Wigan beat Manly in 1987. What a night that was. Every time we played Wigan we were eager to prove ourselves. None better than the championship decider of 1989.
“The World Club Challenge game of 1989 at Old Trafford was one of the greatest nights of my professional career. To come back from the dead against the likes of Mal Maninga, Laurie Daley and Ricky Stuart was no mean feat. The highlight for me was skinning my winger and beating Gary Belcher to the corner for my second try.”
Offiah will never forget that night and he would love to see the recent World Club Series victories for Wigan and Warrington set a trend for success for the Super League clubs and even rub off on the national team.
“What a difference a year makes; the performances of Wigan and Warrington in this year’s World Club Challenge bodes well for the World Cup later in the year.”
When you think of the great Widnes teams of the eighties there is another player that springs to mind – Kurt Sorensen.
Sorensen soon became a massive fans favourite with the way he played; he never took a backward step and was captain for quite a few of their trophy wins.
“My memories are still very vivid of my time at Widnes. It was a place where my three children were born and raised for a time, a place where I experienced many high points in my career,” he told Rugby League World.
“I thought I played my most consistent football there as well. Generally it was a big part of my life being there and I have many fond memories. A lot of that has to do with the warm welcome I always received. Widnes people are tremendous.
“I didn’t know much about Widnes, only the bits and pieces you pick up in conversation with people. All I knew was that once Vinny Karalius rang me up, I had to go.”
Vince Karalius played a big part in bringing Sorensen to the club, but it was Doug Laughton who took his game to the next level.
Laughton returned for his second spell as head coach in 1986 and the respect these two have for each other as player and coach is clear to see even to this day, Sorensen will always be grateful for what Laughton did for his career and believes he deserves a lot of credit for the success at Widnes.
“Obviously Dougie had a big influence on everyone,” remembers Sorensen. He certainly turned my thinking around on lots of issues. His main gift was that he was able to recognise talent and knew how that talent would add to the jigsaw that made up a great compliment of players.”
We know live in a time where Rugby League players are often leaving to join rugby union, but that was not always the case. In the eighties it was the union guys making the jump to the 13 a side code and they were not your normal run of the mill players.
Widnes probably did the best business in those years with the likes of Offiah, Davies, Tait and Moriarty just a few of the names that successfully switched codes. Sorensen admits they all worked hard to get used to the pace of the game but every single player that was brought in added something to the team and Laughton deserves credit for that as well.
“I think those players were handpicked to adapt and succeed at Widnes. Generally they all added to the mix really well I thought. They were all welcomed and encouraged into a tremendous environment.
“Everyone really bought into what Dougie was trying to create and our team spirit became very strong. It was hard to beat and that showed with the trophies we won.”
It would be remiss of Sorensen not to mention that unbelievable night at Old Trafford seeing as he was the one that led the Chemics as captain to that win over Canberra Raiders.
“A lot has already been said about that night,” added Sorensen. “But basically we had a great side at that stage. We were able to overcome Canberra after they had a hurricane start. Because it was another game in our season, it probably didn’t hit home what a big deal it was until years later.”