Time Machine: Warrington’s cup quadruple – and the most complicated competition format in history

Trophies to the power of four – and memories of a short-lived competition for which qualification took quite a bit of working out!

Warrington’s ongoing search for success has been well chronicled, with new coach Sam Burgess the latest to take on the task of satisfying the Wolves supporters’ appetite for silverware.

It’s a sobering thought that in the whole of the summer era (and we’re now into the 29th Super League season), one of the biggest clubs in the game have enjoyed just a quartet of final triumphs, all in the Challenge Cup.

Yet turn back the clock 50 years – to a 1973-74 campaign played out against the backdrop of power cuts, a general election (with another soon to follow), the emergence of Bay City Rollermania and relegation for the mighty Manchester United – and for Warrington, the champagne corks were popping on four separate occasions.

For a Wilderspool side led by player-coach Alex Murphy, the canny and silky halfback, and boosted by the early-season £10,000 signing of Wales and British Lions rugby union winger John Bevan from Cardiff, won the Captain Morgan Trophy, the Players No6 Trophy, the Challenge Cup and the Club Championship.

It’s only fair to be point out that at the time, there were far more things to win as the Rugby Football League, grappling with falling attendances and tight finances at most clubs, strived to increase interest in the game, and create additional revenue-generating fixtures, while also embracing the growth of sports sponsorship.

Having launched the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in 1965-66 and Player’s No6 Trophy, effectively a version of football’s League Cup, in 1971-72, for 1973-74, the governing body came up with the Captain Morgan Trophy, backed by the makers of the rum of that name and contested by the winners in the first rounds of the two county cups.

They had also taken the decision to switch from one to two divisions with four-team promotion and relegation in a bid to create more jeopardy, and therefore increase interest, especially towards the end of the season.

As in 1962-63 and 1963-64, when two divisions were introduced then dropped, the team finishing top of the top flight (in 1973-74, Salford), were declared league champions.

Previously the title had been decided via play-offs leading to the Championship Final, and the RFL were reluctant to dispense with additional end-of-season matches.

Their answer was the Club Championship, to involve 16 clubs, based on both two preliminary rounds (both two-legged) involving the top 12 of the 14 Division Two teams to ensure at least three from that section were involved, and a merit points system to fill the other 13 slots.

Three merit points were awarded for winning a tie in a knockout competition, and points were also awarded to reflect final league positions, from 30 for the top side (and therefore league champions) in Division One down to one for the bottom team in Division Two.

Finally, four points were subtracted from the total of the four relegated sides and four added for those promoted, with the club with the higher number of merit points in any tie from the first round up to the semi-finals having home advantage – not complicated whatsoever!!

It led to the curious case of Workington Town making the first round proper despite being knocked out in the first of the two preliminary rounds, which eventually led to Bradford Northern, the Division Two champions, Keighley and Hull also making the 16.

Warrington had finished fifth in Division One, but were top of the merit points chart, thanks to their various cup exploits.

While knocked out at Whitehaven in the second round of the Lancashire Cup and at Salford in the first round of the Floodlit Trophy, Murphy and his men won at Wigan, at home to Castleford and at Leeds to make the final of the Captain Morgan Trophy, in which they beat Featherstone Rovers 4-0 at The Willows, Salford.

In the Player’s No6 Trophy, Wire beat Oldham, Castleford, Dewsbury and St Helens, all at Wilderspool, then saw off Rochdale Hornets 27-16 in the final at Central Park, Wigan.

By then, the Challenge Cup had begun, with visitors Huddersfield dispensed with in round one.

There followed victories over Huyton (home), Wigan (away) and Dewsbury (at Central Park in the semi-finals), before the Wembley showdown with Featherstone, who were seen off 24-9.

Warrington’s big-match build-up had been through Club Championship wins at home to Hull (34-12), Bradford (15-9) and Wakefield Trinity (12-7).

And seven days after Wembley, on Saturday, 19th May, 1974, it was back to Central Park, where Warrington had beaten Wigan 14-13 in the annual pre-season Locker Cup clash nine months and 52 matches earlier, for the Club Championship final against St Helens, who had defeated Workington and Castleford at home and Leeds away.

The final game of the domestic season – Great Britain were about to set off on an Australasian tour aiming to win back the Ashes which the visiting Kangaroos had regained with a 2-1 series success just months earlier, was played out in heavy rain in front of 18,556.

They were treated to a hotly-contested and exciting match which was in the balance until the last kick, with Saints skipper Kel Coslett just inches off the mark with a long-range field-goal attempt which if successful, would have clinched the two points required to overhaul Warrington’s 13-12 lead.

The finalists were never separated by more than six points, but Warrington just had the edge thanks largely to the tireless hard running of their forwards – hooker Kevin Ashcroft, props Dave Chisnall and Brian Brady, back rowers Bobby Wanbon, Ian Mather and Barry Philbin and replacement John Warlow (Mike Nicholas missed out after being injured during the Challenge Cup final).

Winger Mike Philbin, Brady and centre Derek Noonan scored tries (then worth three points), two of which fullback Derek Whitehead converted.

Ashcroft and Bevan both then toured with the Lions, who were beaten 2-1 by Australia before a 2-1 success in New Zealand.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 494 (March 2024)

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