The Wigan school which triumphed at Wembley in this year’s schools final

Although a much earlier kick-off now prevents most spectators at Wembley getting in to see it, the traditional schoolboys curtain-raiser is still a key part of cup finals day for those taking part and their families.

THE 2024 Steven Mullaney Memorial Trophy Boys Year 7 Inspire Sport Champion Schools Final may not, on the face of it, have been among the most closely-contested of the hugely popular curtain-raisers to the Betfred Challenge Cup Final – the 26-6 result in favour of St Peter’s, of Orrell, over Cardiff’s Ysgal Glantaf is proof of that – but the scoreline doesn’t quite do justice to the input of the Welsh youngsters.

Glantaf were 14-0 adrift after only twelve minutes, having conceded three tries (two following superb kicks by St Peter’s player Leo McMullen) and there was a feeling that a real walloping could be on the agenda. 

That it didn’t work out that way is testimony to the sheer resilience of the boys from Cardiff who, after going 20-0 down early in the second period – Harry Brown’s solo effort following the earlier tries by Joseph Dewsnip, Max Dowthwaite and Jake Porter – shared the spoils in the closing stages, with Trystan Nichols touching down and Jack Witchell adding the extras. 

St Peter’s, however, deservedly had the last word, Jake Roberts crossing and McMullen kicking his third goal, to collect the cup and their medals from members of the Mullaney family in one of the most moving moments of any Wembley Finals day; the trophy is named after the youngster who delighted millions of tv viewers with his joyous celebrations after scoring a wonderful solo try in the 1986 curtain-raiser. Tragically, Steven Mullaney was killed in a motor accident outside his school gates the following year. 

There had been another moving moment previously when those spectators who were present for the 10.00am kick-off (parents having been allowed entry this year after having had to wait until later in the morning in 2023) burst into applause in the seventh minute, in tribute to Rob Burrow. And, at the end, it was good to see Jack Johnson of ‘Joining Jack’ fame joining in the celebrations. 

Neil Ashton, who is – together with Paul Santus – at the helm of the St Peter’s side, has been at the school for a quarter of a century (importantly being mentored, initially, by Wigan and New Zealand ‘great’ Dean Bell). He stressed: “We don’t class ourselves as rugby league coaches, we’re very much PE teachers that try and provide opportunities and support for our pupils across a range of sports. Last year our school was ranked as the fourth best comprehensive school across the country for sporting achievement and, being in Wigan, rugby league is obviously a huge part of what we offer.

He continued: “While there was plenty of focus, understandably, on those of our players whose fathers are or were famous names, such as halfbacks Harry Brown, James Johnson and Max Amor (their dads are, respectively, Kevin, ex-Wigan player Andy and Kyle) the key fact is that we’re a team, with each and every boy in the squad making an important contribution.”

The 10.00am kick-off means that the match is, these days, staged before a near-empty stadium. “Previously, we have played just before the Challenge Cup and there’s no question that it makes the occasion that little bit more special as the crowd builds throughout the game,” reflected Ashton. “I’d love to see a return to it being the traditional curtain raiser, although I do appreciate that the Women’s Challenge Cup and 1895 final also deserve to be there. I have noticed that the game has had over 10 thousand views on YouTube, so that shows there is a real appetite from spectators to watch it.

“All our parents were able to get in for the game, which was great, but it was disappointing that the general public weren’t able to access early as I know many, many people that did want to watch the game live. I appreciate this will be down to stewarding but I would like it to be looked at moving forward.

“I would like, however, to express our heartfelt thanks to everyone who contributed to making this an unforgettable experience; to the RFL for providing these opportunities. it was wonderful to see so many senior RFL members, along with the Mullaney family, as part of the presentation team.”

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 498 (July 2024)

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