Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos contested the very first Super League Grand Final in 1998, with Wigan coming out on top 10-4 in a thrilling match. Here is the match report that appeared in League Express 17 years ago. A full report of today’s game will feature in Monday’s edition of League Express.
By MARTYN SADLER
NINETY seconds from the end of the season the 1998 Super League Championship race was finally decided in this magnificent match.
The Rhinos were four points behind, and desperate to get back on terms. But then Graham Holroyd knocked on a pass from Daryl Powell, and a season that had gone right down to the line was finally over.
Wigan were the Champions.
But what a battle they had faced from a Leeds team that looked, for most of the first half, as though they had once again found the magic formula that any team needs if it is to get the better of John Monie’s remarkable side.
What a night it was at the wonderful Old Trafford stadium, despite the rain that poured down for most of the match.
It was a night when the fans’ passion matched the intensity of the game, when the quality of the game reflected the importance of the event, and when the event itself matched all the predictions from those of us who for years have urged a Top-5 Play-off system as the best way of deciding the Champion team.
The two teams walked out to the refrains of classical music, and the crowd sensed that they were present when something new and special was happening in the British game. The atmosphere was certainly different from the old, almost festive feeling of the Premiership finals as they used to be, when the result didn’t seem to matter all that much.
On Saturday night you only had to watch the expression on the players’ faces as they entered the arena to understand the intensity of what was about to unfold. And you only had to look at the Wigan players’ celebrations on the final whistle to realise that something very special had indeed been achieved.
But why did the Rhinos not manage to take an unassailable half-time lead when they had enjoyed so much territorial dominance at that stage? That question must be uppermost in coach Graham Murray’s mind, as he reflects on the way his side was so near yet so far from glory.
Apart from knocking on a pass from Terry Newton in the third tackle of the game, Iestyn Harris had a magical first half.
His injection into the line from fullback was always well timed to cause danger to Wigan, he had two brilliant runs deep into the Wigan defence, and his kicking game was of pinpoint accuracy, and streets ahead of Andy Farrell’s for Wigan.
The Warriors could thank Kris Radlinski, however, for defusing everything that Harris and his Leeds colleagues could kick at him. It was Radlinski, more than anyone, who kept Wigan in striking distance in the first half, although Mark Bell, who has enjoyed such a good year with Wigan in 1998, and who flies back to Australia today, brilliantly took one of the first of the Harris bombs to rain out of the sky on the Wigan defence.
Leeds in the first half were moving up very quickly out of defence, and they were running hard onto the ball at first receiver, like Sheffield did against Wigan at Wembley. After Harris’s kicks they were able to pin Wigan in their own 20-metre area with ferocious tackling for lengthy periods.
Unfortunately for the Rhinos, however, their good work was often undone by giving away needless penalties at crucial times when they had Wigan under massive pressure. Martin Masella conceded one for flopping on Tony Smith, for example, Darren Fleary was penalised for offside, and then, following Harris’ first charge down the left of the field and an attempted pass to Morley, Steve Holgate got the ball and Morley flopped on him, and then Masella almost decapitated Holgate to give away another penalty.
But it finally looked to be going right for Leeds when Masella and Newton worked the ball for another magnificent run by Harris into the Wigan defence on 20 minutes. From the play-the-ball Powell fed Sheridan, one of the most under-rated players in Super League, who gave a magnificently timed pass for the supporting Richie Blackmore, who was able to beat Bell and Danny Moore in his charge to the line.
Harris narrowly failed to convert, and a few minutes earlier his attempted penalty conversion had also missed by a whisker, so the Rhinos had to be content with a four-point, rather than an eight-point, lead.
Soon afterwards Blackmore failed to take a Harris pass 20 metres out from the line when he had winger Leroy Rivett outside him and the Wigan defence stretched, and that, perhaps, with hindsight was the real gamebreaker of the Grand Final. If Leeds had moved ahead by two scores at that stage, I suspect that Wigan would have found the mountain a little too steep to climb.
But after 30 minutes of the first half the massive effort Leeds had put in so far suddenly began to catch up with them.
Robinson made his first really dangerous break, and was only held by a fine tackle from Harris. Then Henry Paul made his first dangerous run, followed closely by Tony Smith’s dangerous bomb to the corner, which just beat the defending Francis Cummins and the charging Robinson.
The game was beginning to turn, particularly when Andy Farrell succeeded in dislodging the ball from Anthony Farrell’s grasp in a double tackle with Simon Haughton. The Wigan skipper must have come close to being penalised for reefing, but instead the pressure on Leeds intensified when they gave away a penalty for offside.
In the next set of six Jason Robinson emphasised once more the danger he poses from acting halfback, when Radlinski played the ball on the right hand side, and Robinson came infield, picking his moment to step through Darren Fleary’s tackle, also beating Jamie Mathiou and Daryl Powell before accelerating too quickly for Harris to be able to rescue the danger at fullback. It was a great try, and certainly one of the most important of Robinson’s career. Farrell added the goal to give Wigan an unexpected but ominous 6-4 interval lead.
Leeds must have been shattered, but at the start of the second half they put on the early pressure after an uncharacteristic Farrell knock-on, when Radlinski had to kick a Harris grubber dead.
But after Tony Mestrov’s massive hit on Morley, which forced a knock-on, Wigan proceeded to take control, and the Rhinos back row forwards began to make errors, on several occasions forced by strong tackles from Paul.
Farrell shrugged off Brad Godden’s tackle, and then, when Marc Glanville fouled Smith in the tackle, he landed a penalty to give Wigan a four-point lead.
Wigan kept up the pressure, and Neil Cowie put in a superb bomb to the corner for Bell to collect for what looked like a score, only for the video referee, after much deliberation, to rule that he had knocked on in taking the kick.
Terry O’Connor returned from the blood bin to make a big contribution, but was lucky soon afterwards not to suffer something harsher than a penalty for a forearm into Blackmore’s face. But at this stage it was Leeds making most of the errors, typified by an incorrect play-the-ball from Andy Hay soon after he entered the arena.
One player making no errors on the night was Robinson, who was just tackled by Rivett, and then had another dancing run that caused consternation in the Leeds defence, although Smith dropped the ball to ease the pressure, as the intensity of the game declined slightly.
Marcus St Hilaire was the next to drop a simple pass, and the Leeds defence had to withstand a magnificent set of six, just holding out O’Connor, Smith and Paul Johnson respectively, and soon afterwards Harris and Sheridan pulled off a crucial tackle near the line on Mick Cassidy, back after his six-match suspension.
The Rhinos fought gallantly to get back on terms, but they were looking a very tired team as the game entered its closing stages. Big matches and injuries were at last beginning to tell, as well as Wigan’s own superb defence.
The Rhinos spirits perked up when Radlinski knocked on in the first tackle, and then they were awarded a penalty for offside. Sheridan came close to pulling the game out of the fire, when he tried to get over the line from acting halfback, but lost the ball. Then Blackmore put a kick through, but it was taken by Radlinski, who was superbly positioned, but then Anthony Farrell high tackled Bell, and was lucky to stay on the field.
As we entered the closing two minutes, Martin Masella forced a knock-on in a tackle on Gilmour, but in the next crucial set of six Holroyd knocked it on, and in frustration he fouled Bell. Andy Farrell landed the goal, and the hooter went.
What a memorable occasion!
GAMEBREAKER: When Richie Blackmore dropped a pass from Iestyn Harris in the 24th minute he had Leroy Rivett outside him with only Mark Bell to beat. A try at that point would have put the Rhinos eight points up, at least, and would have made the job very difficult for Wigan
GAME STAR: Jason Robinson won the game with his try, and posed constant problems for the Leeds defence
TOP TACKLE: Tony Mestrov’s shoulder charge jolted the ball out of Adrian Morley’s hands early in the second half, and seemed to affect the confidence of the Leeds star
1 Kris Radlinski
2 Jason Robinson
3 Danny Moore
4 Gary Connolly
5 Mark Bell
6 Henry Paul
7 Tony Smith
16 Terry O’Connor
9 Robbie McCormack
10 Tony Mestrov
20 Lee Gilmour
17 Stephen Holgate
13 Andy Farrell
8 Neil Cowie for O’Connor (18bb rev 48)
14 Mick Cassidy for McCormack (19bb rev 27)
25 Paul Johnson for Moore (37)
12 Simon Haughton for Gilmour (27bb rev 33)
Haughton for Holgate (33)
Cowie for Mestrov (54)
Cassidy for Haughton (64)
Holgate for Cowie (68)
Haughton for Gilmour (71bb rev 75)
Mestrov for O’Connor (75bb)
Tries: Robinson (37)
Goals: Farrell 3
1 Iestyn Harris
22 Leroy Rivett
3 Richie Blackmore
4 Brad Godden
5 Francis Cummins
13 Daryl Powell
7 Ryan Sheridan
8 Martin Masella
21 Terry Newton
25 Darren Fleary
11 Adrian Morley
17 Anthony Farrell
12 Marc Glanville
20 Jamie Mathiou for Masella (25)
24 Marcus St Hilaire for Powell (40)
14 Graham Holroyd for Newton (49)
27 Andy Hay for Fleary (54)
Powell for Godden (58)
Masella for Mathiou (71)
Tries: Blackmore (20)
Penalty count: Wigan 13 Leeds 7
Half-time: Wigan 6 Leeds 4
Referee: Russell Smith (Castleford)
League Express Men of the Match
Warriors: Jason Robinson
Rhinos: Iestyn Harris