Sport is full of dynasties. Over the last 40 years alone, we’ve seen the West Indies and Australian Cricket teams dominate for long periods, Manchester United win trophy after trophy and the Chicago Bulls win six NBA Championships in the 1990’s. Around the same time as that Bulls era, Wigan went on an unparalleled run in English Rugby League, winning seven consecutive league titles and eight Challenge Cups in a row.
Wigan were a who’s who of rugby league talent. Ellery Hanley, Shaun Edwards, Martin Offiah, Denis Betts, Jason Robinson from home shores, Dean Bell, Va’aiga Tuigamala, Henry Paul from the other side of the world; there were plenty more besides.
In English Rugby Union, Bath were the team to beat. Although not quite as successful as Wigan, they won six league titles in eight seasons and ten Pilkington Cups out of thirteen. In their ranks during those years were the likes of England internationals Jeremy Guscott, Stuart Barnes, Andy Robinson, Ben Clarke and Mike Catt.
League and Union were both making significant changes in the mid-90’s. Super League was launched in the UK in 1996, which moved the sport from winter to summer. This coincided with Union turning professional. With those walls tumbling down, league players agent Alan McColm started making some phone calls to Bath players to see if they’d be interested in some sort of cross-code series of games. Many were and things started to take shape. Bath president Danny Sacco and Wigan Commercial Manager David Bradshaw started to develop the plan and there would be a double header; one game under League rules, a second under Union rules. Manchester City’s Maine Road would host the League encounter but the most obvious stadium for the Union fixture, Twickenham, was ‘unavailable’ due to their ‘pitch reseeding programme’. Funnily enough, when Cardiff Arms Park said they would be happy to host, the Rugby Football Union changed their mind….
If the RFU were lukewarm on the proposal, they weren’t alone. Star centre Jeremy Guscott decided it wasn’t for him and declared he wouldn’t be taking part. The Rugby Football League were hesitant as fitting the fixtures in would mean changing Wigan’s schedule during their new season calendar. They got over it though and the dates were set; League on 8th May and Union on 25th May.
Bath’s season had finished on 4th May when they beat Leicester 16-15 in the Pilkington Cup Final at Twickenham in front of 75,000 fans.
Captain Phil de Glanville recalled preparation for the Wigan match wasn’t ideal.
‘We had celebrated appropriately on the Saturday night and then most of Sunday. Clive Griffiths gave us a Bank Holiday Monday training session in League (against South Wales RLFC)….I think at that stage they were about Division Four. We were all hung over, had no idea what to do and we got absolutely thumped. We knew we were in big trouble….Until then we had been focused on the Courage League and the Pilkington Cup so that was a big shock. We weren’t very well prepared to say the least.’
He was right. In front of 20,148 curious supporters and a live tv audience, Jon Callard (playing at halfback rather than his Union position of fullback) failed to make 10 metres from the opening kick off and it went rapidly downhill from there. Within 3 minutes, Martin Offiah scored the first of his 6 tries that night. Wigan led 52-0 at halftime and the match finished 82-6.
Before the dust had settled, Wigan travelled to Twickenham just three days after that comprehensive victory to compete in the Middlesex Sevens Union tournament. Their squad that day was full of quality, so much so that they’d entered the tournament as firm favourites with the bookies, even though it was their first appearance. Jason Robinson, Martin Offiah, Gary Connolly, Shaun Edwards, Scott Quinnell, Andy Farrell, Inga Tuigamala, Henry Paul and Kris Radlinski saw Wigan score 25 tries in their four matches beating Richmond 48-5, Harlequins 36-24, Leicester 35-12 and finally Wasps 38-15 in the final.
In the build up to the Union game opinion was predictably divided.
‘I think Wigan’s professionalism will take them through. It won’t be a shock for me to see them win’ were the words of Sky Sports Rugby League co-commentator Mike Stephenson.
Former Bath player and by this time Sky Sports Rugby Union co-commentator Stuart Barnes took the opposite view, saying ‘There is no doubt at all – Bath are going to win this one by 30 points. They’re going to be too strong up front.’
Wigan’s concern about Bath’s pack was evident as their team included 42-year-old head coach Graeme West at lock alongside Andy Farrell; 32-year-old Joe Lydon also came out of retirement to play first five. Their fears were justified as Bath raced out to a 25-0 lead at half time. Wigan half back Craig Murdock scored two and Va’aiga Tuigamala one consolation try to bring some respectability to the scoreboard with Bath running out 44-19 winners in front of 42,000 fans. It was over double the attendance of the first match, but less that the 60,000 that had sporadically attended the Middlesex Sevens two weeks before.
So, what about the aftermath. Well, for Wigan, Jason Robinson and Henry Paul left Wigan and played for….Bath. Gary Connolly left and joined Harequins. Farrell and Shaun Edwards also made their way to Union, both becoming successful coaches in due course as well Farrell’s playing career which saw him play at the 2007 World Cup.
Much of the Bath team retired over the next few years without having made a decent living from the sport they loved; professionalism had come too late for them.
RFL chief executive Maurice Lindsay predicted the two codes would come together within five years and we’re still waiting.
In terms of future matches, St Helens played Sale in 2003 with the first half under Union rules and the second under League; Sale edged it 41-39 in front of 12,257 fans. Since then the concept has died. Fun though 1996 was, don’t expect it to return anytime soon.
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