It’s 30 years since unfancied Halifax Rugby League club defeated St Helens in a dramatic Challenge Cup final – by a point!
It is hard to believe but it’s all of 30 years since that glorious day when Halifax last lifted the most famous trophy in rugby league – the Challenge Cup.
Who could ever forget the Wembley atmosphere as Fax’s underdogs took on the overwhelming favourites, Alex Murphy’s St Helens, and beat them by a single point?
Who could forget Wilf George’s try in the corner, or Aussie legend Graham Eadie’s magnificent score, or the John Pendlebury drop goal that made the difference between the sides? Or the nail-biting finish as the Saints threatened to pinch the match?
Most of all, who could forget that heartstopping moment, eight minutes from time, when Saints flying centre Mark Elia crossed the Halifax line, set to score the winner, until loose forward John Pendlebury, with a despairing lunge, knocked the ball out of his hands to save the match for Fax? Wow, what a game!
But let’s go back... Halifax, remember, were reigning rugby league champions, crowned on the last day on the 1985-’86 season after a tense 13-13 draw with Featherstone Rovers.
In 1986-’87 they’d not fared quite so well in the league, finishing fifth behind Wigan, who had romped to the title after being pipped by a point by Fax the year before.
This was the Halifax team built by club president David Brook with his great idea – to combine solid English players like Gary Stephens, Mick Scott and Ben Beevers with sometimes ageing but highly talented Aussie stars like skipper Chris Anderson, fullback Graham Eadie and forward Keith Neller.
The team was arguably not just as strong in 1986-’87 as in its championship year but no one was complaining when the Challenge Cup campaign got under way in freezing February at the unlikely rugby league venue of Chiswick Polytechnic in west London, where Fax had been drawn to play lowly second-division side Fulham.
It should have been a walkover – and in the end it was, after a slow start by a rusty-looking Halifax who were behind at half time but who came good in the second half to win 38-10.
The omens were already looking good. Oldham, struggling in the league and relegated at the end of the season, had astonished the rugby league world by knocking out red-hot Challenge Cup favourites Wigan. And two other top teams, Castleford and much fancied Warrington were both out as well. It all promised a somewhat easier ride for the teams left in the competition.
In the second round Halifax drew another division two side, leaders Hunslet. Fax swept the south Leeds side away 29-10 with a power display at Thrum Hall and were through to the quarter finals.
Halifax, now on top form, next took on Hull Kingston Rovers. In front of the TV cameras at Thrum Hall Chris Anderson led Fax to what was later described as “a triumph so complete that even St Helens coach Alex Murphy, watching from the commentary box, made no attempt to hide his admiration”. Halifax barnstormed their way into the semis with seven tries, three goals and a drop goal for a comprehensive 35-7 victory.
Fax’s opponents in the semi-final were Widnes, a team with a giant reputation as cup fighters. But in front of 16,000 fans at Headingley, Leeds, Halifax dominated the first half with a performance made memorable by a try by Aussie centre Grant Rix, described as one of the best ever scored in a Challenge Cup semi-final. He ran on to hooker Seamus McCallion’s pass five yards inside his own half and in a majestic curving run beat six despairing would-be tacklers to score in the left corner.
His brilliant solo try put Halifax 10-0 up and, though Widnes fought back, Fax hung on to win by 12-8 – and Wembley beckoned.
Back in Halifax expectations were high after the previous year’s championship triumph. Now excitement grew to a crescendo as Fax stepped ever nearer to Wembley’s twin towers. The club’s exploits were the talk of every factory, office and pub.
As many as 30,000 fans were expected to make the trip to London and the Rugby League was swamped with pleas for tickets. Coach firms were snowed under with calls, with Yorkshire Rider alone planning to take 80 coaches and desperately trying to find more.
The town was buzzing. Fax president David Brook said: “Halifax is one happy town at the moment. It’s simply marvellous. You go into restaurants, garages, even in the street, everyone is talking about rugby and Wembley. Everyone is walking with and extra spring in their step.”
When Wembley tickets went on sale at Thrum Hall the queue stretched 150 yards down the main drive and tickets were selling at the rate of 1,000 an hour.
Fans jetted in from all over the world for the match, supporters like Vincent Tomley, from Winnipeg, in Canada, Robert Firth from Cape Town, South Africa, and Ken Stott from Melbourne, Australia.
On April 30, two days before the match, the team left Halifax for their London hotel. As 30,000 Fax fans prepared to follow, all was set for Halifax’s biggest match in decades.
IN the run-up to Wembley nobody – no one outside Halifax, that is – gave Fax a chance. St Helens, with stars like skipper Chris Arkwright, fullback Phil Veivers, goalkicking centre Paul Loughlin and halfbacks Brett Clark and Neil Holding, were an awesome combination of power, pace and flair.
In a poll of rugby league’s first division coaches all but one backed the Saints to go marching out of Wembley with the trophy. Their Australian contingent apart, Halifax were largely a team of grafters rather than stars. They would be up against it on Wembley’s wide open spaces.
But on the day they defended like Trojans. An early Grant Rix tackle on Saints’ winger Barrie Ledger showed the way, followed by a piledriving Graham Eadie tackle that bundled left wing Kevin McCormack into touch.
Then a combination of passes by second-rower Paul Dixon, scrum half Gary Stevens and Halifax-born Mick Scott sent Fax crowd favourite Wilf George in at the corner. Colin Whitfield – who had just missed a penalty – converted and Halifax were 6-0 up.
On 19 minutes Halifax conceded a penalty and Saints kicker Paul Loughlin cut the deficit to 6-2. But Halifax started to pile on the pressure. Dixon was brought down a yard short and the darting Seamus McCallion spotted a gap and raced through for Fax’s second try. Whitfield converted and suddenly Fax were 12-2 ahead.
As Saints tried to rally, Halifax were forced into desperate defence, but their line held and the Thrum Hallers maintained their lead at half time.
But within 37 seconds of the restart Saints were back in it through a try by Mark Elia, converted by Loughlin. It was 12-8. Now Halifax desperately needed a score and got it on 10 minutes with Graham Eadie’s wonder try. From a scrum Stevens fed Pendlebury and his lofted pass missed out Anderson to find Eadie bursting into the line.
The Wombat crashed through two would-be tacklers to ground the ball – and extended Halifax’s lead to 16-8, increased by Whitfield’s kick to 18-8.
But the euphoria lasted just two minutes before Loughlin wrongfooted George and Stephens to score and put Saints back into the game. However Loughlin crucially missed the conversion and then came the first of Pendlebury’s two vital interventions, a drop goal, worth a point, that took the score to 19-12 and meant that Saints would have to score twice to win.
How vital that was as, minutes later, Saints substitute Paul Round touched down and this time Loughlin converted to make the score an agonising 19-18.
Three minutes earlier Halifax’s captain fantastic, Chris Anderson, had left the field, substituted by utility player Brian Juliff. Anderson, suffering from a rib injury, had had a quiet game by his standards, but his generalship had been vital, as always.
Anderson’s departure and Round’s try were the signals for an onslaught on the Halifax line and the last 10 minutes especially were almost unbearably tense for the thousands of Fax fans massed in blue and white. One slip and the cup would be lost.
The moment seemed to have arrived with just eight minutes left as slender Saints centre Mark Elia plunged for the Halifax line. Surely it was all over. He only had to touch down and Saints would have a hand on the cup.
But then, as Elia flew over the try line, John Pendlebury flung himself at the Saints centre and knocked the ball from Elia’s grasp a split second before he would have touched it down.
It was a breathtaking moment, but Halifax were rocking and – just in time – Anderson returned to the field to regain control and spur his team on.
Even then the drama was not over. With three minutes to go Elia again crossed the line – only for referee John Holdsworth correctly to disallow the try for a forward pass. That was Saints’ final shot. Halifax had won the cup, for the first time since 1939 and the fifth time in all.The teams that day were: Halifax: Graham Eadie, Scott Wilson, Colin Whitfield, Grant Rix, Wilf George, Chris Anderson, Gary Stephens, Ben Beevers, Sean McCallion, Keith Neller, Paul Dixon, Mick Scott and John Pendlebury; substitutes, Brian Juliff and Neil James. Tries: George, McCallion, Eadie; goals: Whitfield (3), Pendlebury.
St Helens: Veivers, Ledger, Loughlin, Elia, McCormack, Clark, Holding, Burke, Liptrot, Fieldhouse, Platt, Haggerty, Arkwright; substitutes: Round, Forber (did not play). Man of the Match: Graham Eadie. Referee: John Holdsworth. Attendance: 91,267.
The Wembley triumph, following the championship in 1986, was not quite the end of Fax’s glory run. The following season a declining Halifax team managed to get to Wembley again, following a run that included two low-scoring battles with Hull FC, a goalless draw at Headingley followed by a nerve-jangling 4-3 replay win at Elland Road, Leeds.
In the final, against Wigan, Halifax were never really in the hunt, especially after loose forward Les Holliday went off injured. Wigan trounced Halifax 32-12; it was the first of Wigan’s run of eight Challenge Cup wins on the trot.