Time Machine: The last time Wakefield Trinity went to Wembley

As Wakefield return to Wembley for the 1895 Cup Final, our time machine travels back to 1979 to revisit the last time Trinity played on the hallowed turf.

“WHEN I played rugby union, Wembley didn’t mean anything to me. I’d never been as a spectator. I thought rugby league was a mugs’ game. Now it’s marvellous!”

So said Mike Lampkowski after playing a pivotal role in Wakefield Trinity’s thrilling 9-7 win over St Helens in the Challenge Cup semi-finals in 1978-79.

A trip to the national stadium certainly gets the juices flowing, as the current generation of Wakefield players and fans are discovering following their team’s passage to the 1895 Cup final – and Lampkowski found the last time Trinity reached Wembley 45 years ago, when they met Widnes.

The former England scrum-half, who played for Headingley in the days before they merged with Roundhay to become Leeds RUFC (later Tykes), was no stranger to the big sporting stage.

Lampkowski had turned out three times at Twickenham in 1976 (against Australia, Wales and Ireland) and also faced Scotland at Murrayfield that year.

In February 1977 at the age of 24, he turned professional with Wakefield, where he was to form an exciting halfback partnership with Trinity’s local hero and Great Britain international Dave Topliss.

Neil Fox-inspired Wakefield had won two league titles and enjoyed three Challenge Cup triumphs in the sixties.

The seventies had proved less successful, but Trinity were still capable of troubling the top sides, as the previous season’s beaten Challenge Cup finalists St Helens found out in the semi showdown at Headingley, Leeds in April 1979.

It was a real thriller as Saints, having already knocked out Doncaster, Rochdale Hornets and Castleford, were given the runaround by Wakefield for much of the match.

“Topliss stamped his class all over the game. He was the rapier, Lampkowski the bludgeon. The Trinity scrum-half made no pretence at subtlety. He threw himself at the Saints defence and repeatedly smashed it,” reported one newspaper.

Wakefield scored the first try, then worth three points, when Cumbrian hooker Alan McCurrie hoisted a speculative kick, Saints fullback Peter Glynn missed it, and winger Andrew Fletcher pounced.

Centre Keith Smith, another former England rugby union international who was signed from Roundhay, claimed the conversion, and later landed a field-goal.

But Saints wouldn’t go away, and having registered points through Welsh centre Roy Mathias’ try before loose-forward Harry Pinner dropped a goal, they took a 7-6 lead with just four minutes remaining through winger Les Jones.

Topliss, who died aged 58 in 2008, later recalled: “I could have wept when Jones scored his try. I thought that was the end of my Wembley dream. All I could think of was that it was up to me or Keith Smith to produce something special.”

Sure enough, Topliss broke free from the Saints cover and from deep inside his own half, raced to the halfway line. The skipper transferred the ball to the supporting Smith, who charged forward then passed perfectly for Fletcher to claim another try.

Victory was Trinity’s, with Saints added to the previous scalps of Featherstone Rovers, Oldham and Barrow, and a Wembley visit clinched for the first time since the heartbreaking 11-10 defeat by Leeds in the famous ‘Watersplash’ Challenge Cup final of 1967-68.

It was a great way for Bill Kirkbride, who as a Castleford second rower, had won the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in the 1969-70 final when Wigan were beaten 7-2, to mark his arrival as Wakefield coach in succession to Ian Brooke, who had played in the Trinity centres in the Watersplash clash.

Topliss was also to collect the Lance Todd Trophy, but as a member of the losing side as ‘Cup Kings’ Widnes lifted their fourth piece of silverware that season.

Player-coach Doug Laughton’s side already had the Lancashire Cup, BBC2 Floodlit Trophy and John Player Trophy in the cabinet by the time they clinched the club’s fourth Wembley visit in five years by beating Bradford Northern 14-11 in the other semi-final at Swinton’s Station Road (they had defeated Workington Town, Wigan and Huddersfield in the earlier rounds).

That made them firm favourites against Wakefield, who as well as Smith and Lampkowski, had two other former rugby union players in their ranks in Welsh backs Steve Diamond and Brian Juliff.

Kirkbride selected a backs section of ex-Castleford man Les Sheard, Fletcher, Smith, Diamond, Juliff, Topliss and Lampkowski.

His pack was made up of props John Burke, another signing from Castleford who had played for Leeds in their 24-7 defeat by Leigh in the 1970-71 Challenge Cup final, and Trevor Skerrett, McCurrie and a back row of veteran Great Britain international Bill Ashurst, an £18,000 signing from Wigan in March 1978, Keith Rayne and Graham Idle, a BBC2 Floodlit Trophy winner with Bramley at the expense of Widnes in 1973-74.

It was two substitutes only at that time, and Kirkbride had back Trevor Midgley and Rayne’s twin and fellow forward Kevin on the bench for a clash which attracted 94,218.

Unfortunately, it was a dour defence-dominated game which despite the best efforts of Topliss, remained scoreless until the 49th minute, when Mick Burke put Widnes ahead with a penalty-goal.

On the hour, winger Stuart Wright stretched the lead by chasing his own kick and touching down, with Burke kicking the conversion before hooker Keith Elwell made it 8-0 with a field-goal.

Fletcher claimed a try for Trinity after Keith Rayne chipped through, but Smith was off target with the conversion attempt.

And Widnes sealed a 12-3 win as fullback David Eckersley dropped a goal before stand-off Eric Hughes scored a try after feigning to kick.

Topliss became a Challenge Cup winner in 1981-82, scoring two tries as Hull beat Widnes 18-9 in the final replay at Elland Road, Leeds following a 14-14 draw at Wembley.

He coached Wakefield between 1987 and 1994.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 497 (June 2024)

Click here to subscribe to the print edition of Rugby League World

Click here for the digital edition available from Pocketmags.com to read on your computer, tablet or smartphone