Only two teams in the history of British rugby league have achieved a perfect season.
Hull FC’s Invincibles team of 1978-79, which won 26 games out of 26 to claim the Second Division title, remains revered to this day.
But that achievement was matched in 2009, when Dewsbury Rams completed a full season of Championship 1 with a 100 per cent record, winning all 18 of their matches under coach Warren Jowitt.
From October training and a tipsy run through Burnley to a quite inexplicable victory, this is the story of how they did it.
The 2008 season was not a pleasant one at the Tetley’s Stadium. A record of two wins and 16 losses sent them tumbling into the bottom tier of the professional game with a thump, with Andy Kelly’s four-year reign as head coach coming to an end after they lost their opening six games.
Two-point defeats against full-time Celtic Crusaders and then Halifax in the opening two rounds at Easter started a rot that Dewsbury simply couldn’t get out as half-back Liam Finn recalls.
“We lost tight games and just couldn’t get off the mark in games that we played really well in, and that took its toll,” he says. “We lost to Oldham, who were a division below, in the Challenge Cup and that’s when Kelly lost his job and it was a struggle from then on.”
Alex Bretherton missed most of that season with a shoulder injury but the back-rower admits: “We just didn’t have a very good team in the end. The results spoke for themselves.” Pat Walker adds: “I don’t think the players gelled particularly well to be honest, so it wasn’t the greatest atmosphere to be around at times.”
A new head coach was required in May and the club turned to Jowitt, who had finished his playing days with Dewsbury after a career in Super League with Bradford, Wakefield, Salford and Hull FC.
“I just got a phone call from the chairman, Mark Sawyer,” he remembers. “I was at home, sat in the bath, and he said ‘I’ve got a bit of a dilemma’. I said ‘what’s that Mark?’ ‘I’ve got no coaches’.
“I said ‘right’ and he went ‘I want to appoint a new coach’. Previously I’d been helping Andy and Ryan (Sheridan, then assistant coach) but I left halfway through because of my work commitments, I wanted to concentrate on my building business.”
Instead Jowitt set on to a different kind of construction project, agreeing to oversee the rebuilding of the Rams. There was little he could do to rescue that season with only wins over Batley and Whitehaven, but the coach had long been looking towards 2009.
A drastic change in personnel was not the medicine required – the majority of the first-team ‘Invincibles’ were already at the club with not only Walker, Finn and Bretherton but experienced and dependable wingers Bryn Powell and Austin Buchanan, powerful centre Kane Epati, and solid forwards Taran Wildey, Liam Crawley and Andy Bostock.
Keegan Hirst, Adam Robinson and Rob Spicer arrived to boost the middle along with hooker Mike Emmett while full-back Lee Lingard and centre Chris Spurr also came in, but the biggest change was in method.
“We came in very early, if I remember rightly we came in October 13th,” says Jowitt. “It raised a few eyebrows with the players but I just said to them it’s my way or the highway, this is how we’re doing it. We’ve got to get fit and we’ve got to get strong if we want to achieve anything.”
So began a long pre-season, mostly involving weights and skills in the first six weeks. Spurr says: “He was straight-talking but expected a lot of you. Training was hard. We were in four times a week in pre-season: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday. We didn’t get many days off.”
“When I was at Bradford Bulls, the training regime was so hard and intense,” explains Jowitt. “I just took that experience from Bradford and implemented it at Dewsbury, and it definitely worked. It’s the hard graft that pays off and gets you results.”
He also transferred from the Bulls a level of professionalism rarely seen, particularly at that time, in the lower leagues. Every player would have their training gear washed and hung up on their own peg, and food would be laid out after each training session.
Finn missed the start of pre-season as he was competing in the World Cup in Australia with Ireland, and he returned to find a very different set-up. “There were things that were unheard of at that level,” he admits. “Woz did a really good job and made us really professional in that sense.”
Walker says: “It was the best we’d had for training, conditioning and stuff, he did it all, and a lot of lads have felt the same. It set them up for the rest of their careers when they went on to other clubs. It was what the club needed at the time. He took the club by the horns and steered it in the direction it needed to go.”
It wasn’t all pain under Jowitt’s regime though; the grind brought the team close together and helped foster the team spirit that would take them to success. Hirst says: “Woz was big on camaraderie in the team. We all did stuff together, he made it a family.”
One particular highlight of pre-season was a full-weekend army camp in Burnley, which saw the players put through their paces with assault courses and swamps before a different challenge on the Sunday.
“They had to carry massive logs in teams,” Jowitt says, “but the army had set up at every pub in the village that they had to have a drink. I remember they got to the end, it’s nearly Christmas time and Burnley town centre has this choir singing, and then all of a sudden you’ve got this team of rugby lads belting through with logs shouting, and I was thinking ‘oh my God!’
“That camp probably was the catalyst to start our season.”
The year began with the opening stages of the Northern Rail Cup, which saw consecutive victories over London Skolars, Swinton, Featherstone and Batley. The league campaign only began in late March with a comfortable 28-4 win at home to York, before a second match which very nearly saw any prospect of an unbeaten season crumble away before it had started.
Dewsbury headed to Spotland to take on Rochdale but were outscored by six tries to five in a performance that Jowitt remembers as their worst. “On that day I think we missed 60 tackles. No team should win missing 60 tackles in a game. We should never have won that game.”
With one minute left on the clock, they trailed 31-30, but Finn knocked over a drop-goal to make it level. A draw would be confirmed as soon as the game restarted, but one almighty wallop of fortune was on their side.
“We’ve scored and there’s only seconds left on the clock,” says Jowitt. “I think ‘right, that’s it’. I was sat in the opposite stand away from the crowd, the half-back went to take the kick-off and it goes out on the full. I couldn’t believe what I’d just watched.
“I felt so sorry for him because someone should have told him what to do. He went for a short kick-off and kicked it out on the full. Patch Walker was on my side of the field, he looked at me and I looked at him at the same time. We both put our hands up for two and it sailed over.”
The hero of the hour laughs: “I don’t like to tell that story, honest! It was just an opportunity that arose at the end of the game. There was only the option to have a go at it and fortunately it went over. I backed myself to do it and I’ve kicked them on bigger fields, but not under that sort of pressure. I knew I could do it, it was whether I could at that time.”
He certainly could, and Dewsbury never looked back from there. Hirst says that scare may have been the best thing that happened to them. “That Rochdale game early on in the season put us in good stead because we thought we should smash that team, and we scraped through by the skin of our teeth. That switched us on and made us think there are no easy games, you’ve got to be on it. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise.”
They hit top form in game three of the league season, hammering London Skolars 70-0 on home turf. They also beat Oldham and Hunslet in April, with the 36-12 win in Lancashire over one of the division’s strongest sides giving Spurr confidence that something special was perhaps achievable.
“They were on top the first 20 minutes and we defended our own line for those 20 minutes pretty much,” he says. “Then Kane Epati picked up a loose ball and went 80 metres, and that took the wind out of their sails. We kicked on from there and won.
“I remember after we beat Oldham away, I said to Woz ‘we won’t lose a game this year’. Oldham were the favourites that year and after that I think we were pretty confident most of the year. We didn’t have many close games after that.”
There was no stopping them in May, which brought wins over Swinton, Blackpool, Workington – a devastating 76-14 win in Cumbria – and York.
Of course, it wasn’t quite a perfect season. While there was nobody to match them in Championship 1, they had been edged out in the fourth round of the Challenge Cup by Sheffield and, more painfully, denied a place in the Northern Rail Cup final by Barrow.
The Raiders were then among the top sides in the Championship and, after a slow start to the semi-final saw them 16-2 down, the Rams made a stirring comeback at Craven Park with two late Buchanan tries putting them 18-16 ahead.
Jowitt says: “It was the last-minute of the game and Liam Harrison crashed over the line and won the game for Barrow. Barrow had spent a lot of money on the team and we gave them the fright of their lives. Even the Barrow players said they’d never played against as physical a team.”
“It was just a one-on-one miss that somebody made and that cost us, otherwise we would have won that cup I think,” believes Bretherton. Instead they had to make do with the one-off Northern Rail Nines tournament, suffering more semi-final disappointment against hosts Blackpool in July.
By that time though, they would only have to wait three more weeks to have silverware in the cabinet. June had seen a 46-6 win over Keighley and another Skolars pasting, 64-0 in the capital, before four more victories in July sealed the league title.
Swinton, Hunslet and Oldham were all swatted away for a second time to make the trip to the second-placed Cougars, moved to Thursday night for Sky Sports coverage, the one that would secure promotion and top spot.
“Before we went to Keighley we sat in the lounge at Dewsbury and I put some clips together from American football, it was a motivational thing,” says Jowitt. “We put that on and hairs stood up on the back of your neck. It was perfect. The players enjoyed it.
“The silence on the bus all the way to the game I’d not noticed before. They were all keyed up. I said to them that Keighley are going to throw everything at you, so be ready for it. You’re going to under the cosh and camped on your try line, and everything that I predicted happened. Keighley gave us an almighty game but I said that despite all of that, your fitness and strength levels and all the hard work you’ve put in this year will pay off in this game.”
And so it came to pass, with Finn producing a masterclass to win the game – and the title – in the second half. The scrum-half says of the Keighley clashes: “Both games were on TV on a Thursday night and we beat them pretty convincingly both times, even though they were billed up as massive games which in the context of our season they were. We played really well in both games and put in decent performances on TV.”
With the title all wrapped up, there was one goal left. The perfect season.
Three games remained, with Workington and Rochdale visiting Crown Flatt before a final-day trip to Blackpool. If any of the players thought that winning the league title meant there would be a let-up in intensity, they were mistaken.
“There was no way I was taking my foot off the gas,” admits Jowitt. “I spoke to the players and said this is the time we’ve got to work even harder. If we want to go through the season unbeaten, we can’t afford to carry any passengers. We all agreed to it and they knew the hard work would pay off.”
“Up until that point, the aim was just getting over the line for promotion,” says Bretherton. “After that it became a target. That meant extra training. Even though we’d won the league and only had a few games left, we were in every Sunday when we didn’t have a game getting flogged. I don’t think Woz liked being at home!”
Hirst adds: “We were chuffed that we won the league away at Keighley, so we knew we’d done what we needed to do, but after that Woz was still training us really hard and flogging us, still driving those high standards and when we got to the Blackpool game we felt like we’d got so far and there was pressure on us not to drop the ball. By the end, we all felt relieved because we were just putting more and more pressure on ourselves.”
Workington were dispatched 50-14 in front of more than 2,000 supporters who came to welcome their champions, and a 40-28 success over Rochdale gave them two weeks to prepare for the 18th and final game. On September 6, they headed to the Lancashire coast on the cusp of history.
“Martin Crompton was coaching Blackpool at that time, and he’d said they were going to give us a guard of honour for winning the league,” recalls Finn. “Woz, in his infinite wisdom, told us not to fall for it, that it’s just a mind game. Just run through it, give them a nod and carry on. We did that and we managed to beat them.”
The job was effectively done by half-time as five tries put them in a commanding position. It finished 34-14, with Spurr getting two of the tries and Walker another plus five conversions to complete a 130-goal haul over the year.
The perfect season had been achieved as a team and it would be celebrated as a team as well. In addition to Mad Monday the majority of the squad went to Magaluf, helped by a collection by experienced forward James Walker throughout the year of fines as well as raffles and events.
Spending money was also boosted by win bonuses, with most contracts providing strong incentives for results that went on to leave chairman Sawyer with an unexpectedly large bill to pay.
“Rather than having base pay, most of it was winning pay,” says Bretherton. “We didn’t have anything for a loss that year, which was Woz’s idea. For that time and that season, that was perfect. Mark knew what he was letting himself in for. He’d have budgeted for x number of victories but not for winning every game!”
He and Finn in particular were quids in, as they were still on Championship winning pay. “I still talk about that with Brethy to this day,” says Finn. “We were both on two-year deals from the year before and we’d signed them while we were in the league above, on match terms that Mark and the club had done with a rough calculation of how many wins we’d get, and we were on higher winning money for being in the league above.”
Even in Championship One, such success could not have been predicted though. Walker laughs: “Smaller clubs can’t account for winning so many. I think Mark Sawyer’s bum was twitching a bit!”
For Jowitt there is some disappointment that Dewsbury’s remarkable achievement did not get as much attention at the time as it might have warranted, but he did at least have one day to remember.
“Me and Mark Sawyer were invited to see the prime minister then, Gordon Brown,” he says. “We went down to 10 Downing Street for our achievements and that was pretty good. There were quite a lot of people who went down who had achieved a lot in that year and we got invited, which was massive for me and for the club.”
The good times were not to last at Dewsbury. Before the final game of the season, Finn’s Player of the Year form had seen him secure a move to Featherstone. Most of the team remained for the Championship campaign in 2010 but a club-record equalling 18 league wins were followed by 11 defeats in a row to start the new decade. Magic could not be struck twice, and the Rams have remained content in the second-tier ever since.
That 2009 season remains an outstanding achievement nonetheless. It has not been matched in the years since with Toronto coming closest in 2017, but after winning all 15 regular games in League 1 they were beaten away at York. As the Knights assistant coach, Spurr was delighted to help keep his old team’s record unequalled.
“It was a very good group of boys who were all mates,” he reflects. “We enjoyed each other’s time when we got the chance as well. It was a great job and Woz did a great job as coach.
“He was a tough taskmaster, he was very disciplined and expected a lot of us. Ultimately, if he hadn’t done that we wouldn’t have gone unbeaten. He set the lead as coach and a lot of our success that year was down to him.”
“We were aware of how unprecedented it was and how difficult it is to do it, in any sport,” adds Hirst. “To back it up, week on week, you can slip up at any level. Especially for us as part-time players with jobs, and considering how young we were. It was a real achievement for the club, for Woz as a coach and for us as players.”
Walker says: “We had a really good craic with all the lads, the training was good, and we were obviously winning every week. It’s about as good as you can get.”