When Wigan (and Wane) shook the world

Richard de la Riviere celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of Wigan’s memorable World Club Challenge victory over Manly in 1987.

One story that hasn’t made my new book, ‘100 Days That Shook Rugby League’ is Wigan’s World Club Challenge win over Manly in 1987. I chose between that and Wigan’s win in Brisbane in 1994 and went with the latter. So, on the 30th anniversary of the club’s first world-title win, here’s the story of what happened on that glorious night at Central Park, which saw current Wigan coach Shaun Wane play a major role in Wigan’s victory.

Wednesday, 7th October 1987

Wigan win world title

Wigan 8-2 Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

“I wish we could go out and get stuck into the bastards this afternoon!”

Wigan’s Central Park stadium hadn’t seen anything like it for years. The sheer size and the noise of the crowd reminded older fans of Ashes Tests of days long gone. The date 7th October 1987 meant just much to the locals, with 36,895 of them cramming into the historic old ground to watch their heroes become champions of the world. After 80 minutes of compelling, try-less, edge-of-the-seat stuff, the Riversiders had defied underdog status to beat the Australian Grand Final winners Manly in a bruising World Club Challenge.
The idea of staging such a match was that of Maurice Lindsay, the Wigan chairman. Having won their first championship in 27 years, Lindsay was desperate to increase the club’s profile further. He had originally wanted to play the 1986 premiers, Parramatta. Despite little support from the governing bodies in England or Australia, he persevered and by the time the concept looked likely to go ahead, Manly had just won the 1987 Grand Final. Lindsay offered the Sea Eagles a winner-takes-all prize of £20,000. Certain they would win, Manly couldn’t resist the bait. After all, Great Britain hadn’t beaten Australia since 1978.
Lindsay’s confidence in the concept, and in his own team, was vindicated. The attendance was three times the Wigan average, and gate receipts of £131,000 rolled into the club’s bank account.
Wigan coach Graham Lowe, a highly regarded New Zealander, fielded an entirely British XIII, with the veteran Kiwi Graeme West left wondering whether his nationality had cost him a spot in the side while Dean Bell had pulled out with a groin injury. The side contained numerous internationals including Ellery Hanley – the captain, Steve Hampson, Joe Lydon, Henderson Gill, Shaun Edwards, Andy Gregory, Andy Goodway and Shaun Wane.
Lowe had more than done his bit to create some interest in the game. When shown a ‘Top Gun’ presentation video of the Manly players, which had been used at the game’s launch, he said: “After watching that, I wish we could go out and get stuck into the bastards this afternoon!” He went on to ask of Manly’s firebrand forward Ron Gibbs: “What’s that bloke’s name – Hibbs or Knibbs?”
Manly had beaten Canberra Raiders to win the Winfield Cup ten days earlier. They fielded a star-studded side which boasted at stand-off the Clive Churchill medalist, Cliff Lyons, as well as internationals Dale Shearer at fullback, Michael O’Connor in the centres, Des Hasler at halfback and Phil Daley at prop. They were captained by another Test player, the flame-haired Queensland State of Origin legend, Paul Vautin.
On the other hand, they were without Kevin Ward, the British prop who was so unlucky not to win the Churchill Medal, and Noel Cleal, their international second-row forward. They were further handicapped when, after four minutes of the second half, they lost another forward when Gibbs was sent off for elbowing Lydon, who was attempting a drop goal. It was Gibbs’ last match for the club. The incident characterised a niggly game, which contained two all-in brawls.
The tone had been set before the game. Manly came onto the field first, and when Hanley led his team out slowly and purposefully, the noise would have been heard for miles. Smoke from the fireworks hung for an age in the night air. This game was more intense and fiercely fought than any Anglo-Australian encounter in nearly a decade. British Rugby League had missed this.
O’Connor, who had scored a try with his first touch on his last visit to Central Park, kicked a second-minute penalty before Wigan had touched the ball. From the next kick off, Vautin broke clear, but the ball was turned over. Finally, Wigan could calm their nerves with some possession, and a penalty soon followed when Hasler stamped on Wane. Stephenson goaled. O’Connor and Stephenson then missed simple shots at goal around the mid-way point of the half – the latter had been awarded after a Lyons foul which had seen him yellow-carded. Wigan soon had the lead courtesy of another Stephenson goal, which followed a huge fight. Bizarrely, the half-time siren sounded early, so Holdsworth overruled it and the game carried on for three minutes.
Stephenson scored another two points early in the second half after Lydon had instigated a thrilling break. Wigan then led 8-2 when the Gibbs dismissal resulted in another kickable penalty for the centre. The game had been far from a penalty-kicking bore, though, with superb ball movement from both sides, particularly from Wigan in the early stages.
O’Connor missed another goal before the game’s crucial period arrived. The 66th-minute sin-binning of Wigan prop Brian Case after a spectacular brawl put his side under immense pressure, but they managed to hold out. When Case returned, they completed the task of holding out their illustrious opponents. Wigan had won by six points, with the man-of-the-match award going to the home side’s other prop, Wane, for a typically industrious display.
The next World Club Challenge was played in 1989 when Widnes beat Canberra Raiders at Old Trafford. Two years later Wigan were on top of the world again, beating Penrith Panthers at Anfield.
The event proved to be a huge public-relations boost for the game – even the ‘Bristol Evening Post’ sent a journalist to produce a full-page match report. The game had been televised live in Australia, on Channel Ten.
“What an atmosphere!” Lowe enthused. “It was a great night for Rugby League, and I was a very proud man.” Four days later he collected another trophy as his side beat Warrington 28-16 in the Lancashire Cup Final at Knowsley Road in St Helens.
A decade of dominance was well underway.

1 Steve Hampson
2 Richard Russell
3 David Stephenson
4 Joe Lydon
5 Henderson Gill
6 Shaun Edwards
7 Andy Gregory
8 Brian Case
9 Nicky Kiss
10 Shaun Wane
11 Andy Goodway
12 Ian Potter
13 Ellery Hanley ©
14 Ged Byrne (dnp)
15 Graeme West (dnp)
16 Ian Gildart (dnp)
17 Ian Lucas

Goals: Stephenson 4
Sin bin: Case

1 Dale Shearer
2 David Ronson
3 Darrell Williams
4 Michael O’Connor
5 Stuart Davis
6 Cliff Lyons
7 Des Hasler
13 Phil Daley
12 Mal Cochrane
11 Ian Gately
10 Ron Gibbs
9 Owen Cunningham
8 Paul Vautin ©
14 Mark Brokenshire
15 Jeremy Ticehurst
16 Mark Pocock (dnp)
17 Paul Shaw

Goal: O’Connor
Dismissal: Gibbs
Sin bin: Lyons

Half-time: 4-2
Referee: John Holdsworth
Crowd: 36,895