Remembering a festive showdown between St Helens and Wigan

Saints and Wigan fans, who were weaned on Christmas time derbies, thought they were going to miss out once the sport switched to the summer era in 1996.

Sunday, 26th December 2021, 10:02 am
Updated Sunday, 26th December 2021, 10:04 am
Wigan RL's Simon Houghton, left, and Saints' Tommy Martyn get ready for the Norweb Christmas Cracker

No more packed terraces at Knowsley Road or Central Park on a freezing winter afternoon and supporters of both clubs kicking their heels in frustration at the absence of a yuletide battle of the auld foes which started, if my records are correct, with the Riversiders winning 12-6 at home in a South Lancashire League encounter on Christmas Day 1903.

But the two clubs and the Cherry and Whites sponsors decided to answer the fans' hopes by staging what turned out to be a one-off two-legged Norweb Challenge showdown between the neighbours (at Wigan on Boxing Day 1996 and at St Helens on January 12, 1997) with the latter, which had been originally scheduled for New Year's Day, being called off due to a frosty pitch.

The Cherry and Whites won the first encounter 32-22 but a 10 point lead was insufficient to take to Knowsley Road and inspired by the return of Bobbie Goulding, Saints toppled their skipper's old club 44-12 to win the trophy by an aggregate score of 66-44.

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Whether the double header was arranged in the hope of boosting the finances of the clubs at a time of the year when revenue will have been at its lowest level is anyone's guess, but more than 25,000 fans swelled the terraces, making it a worthwhile exercise.

Both had quite a few players in their ranks who had already made a massive impact on the sport, or were destined for greater times in the 13-a-side code.

A young Keiron Cunningham found a slot in the second clash wearing a Saints' shirt while Sean Long, later to join St Helens via Widnes, featured in both ties for the Cherry and Whites.

First leg - Wigan: Doc Murray (1T), Danny Ellison (1T), Kris Radlinski (3T), Andy Johnson, Daryl Cardiss, Sean Long, Craig Murdock, Neil Cowie, Martin Hall, Ian Sherratt, Steve Barrow, Stephen Holgate, Andy Farrell (4G). Subs: Gael Tallec (1T), Lee Gilmour, Neil Baynes, Hatton

Saints: Steve Prescott (2G), Danny Arnold, Andy Northey, Paul Newlove, Anthony Sullivan, Alan Hunte (1T) , Lee Briers (1T and 1G), Apollo Pereline, Alan Cross, Julian O'Neill, Derek McVey (2T), Ian Pickavance, Chris Morley. Subs: Paul Anderson, Vila Matautia,Simon Booth, Dean Busby.

Second leg - Saints: Prescott, Arnold, Hunte (1T), Newlove, Sullivan (1T), Tommy Martyn, Goulding (1T and 6G), Pereline (2T), Cunningham, O'Neill, Subs: Anderson, Matautia (1T), Northey, Morley.

Wigan: Murray, Ellison (1T), Radlinski, Andy Johnson, Cardiss, Long (2G),, Murdock, Cowie, Hall, Sherratt, Holgate, Tallec, Paul Johnson (1T) Johnson. Subs: Baynes, Matthew Knowles, Nigel Wright.

Saints' Tommy Martyn said later: ''It's nice to beat Wigan even if it's a game of dominoes.''