How time flies!
It is now 20 years since the birth of summer rugby but I can still vividly remember travelling north along the M6 on a sunny afternoon to watch Saints’ history-making first match in deepest Cumbria.
The date was Sunday, March 31, 1996, and the opposition Workington Town - an occasion which I can recall as if it had happened only yesterday.
I can also call to mind heading home with a broad smile on my face after Shaun McRae’s super Saints had crushed hopelessly outclassed Town 62-0 and tuning-in to my car radio to listen to the second half of the Liverpool-Aston Villa FA Cup semi-final which the Reds won 3-0.
Having been an Anfield season ticket holder at the time, it completed a perfect day so far as I was concerned.
Winger Danny Arnold led St Helens’ 11-try demolition, scoring four times with other touch downs coming from Paul Newlove 3, Steve Prescott, Karle Hammond, Apollo Pereline, and Phil Veivers. while skipper Bobbie Goulding also helped himself to nine goals.
There were many more memorable performances in that inaugural and never-to-be-forgotten year which led to a 40-32 Challenge Cup victory over Bradford Bulls at Wembley and the first Super League crown eventually heading to Knowsley Road following a crushing 66-14 home victory over Warrington Wolves in front of 18,098 sun-kissed fans on the August Bank Holiday Monday.
But, on reflection, the club’s early success in the summer era was hardly surprising when you look at the players Aussie McRae assembled under his wings.
The chosen 17 players who started the season looked simply awesome and read like an Who’s Who of rugby league - Steve Prescott, Danny Arnold, Scott Gibbs, Paul Newlove, Anthony Sullivan, Karle Hammond, Bobbie Goulding, Apollo Pereline, Keiron Cunningham, Andy Leathem, Chris Joynt, Simon Booth, Andy Northey, Phil Veivers, Vila Matautia, Ian Pickavance and Derek McVey.
Joey Hayes, Tommy Martyn, Alan Hunte, Chris Morley, Andy Haigh and Adam Fogerty were among others who forced their way into the first team reckoning and helped play their part in a season still revered by those lucky to be around today.
Goulding also topped the league points scoring table with 257 (117 goals, three drop goals and five tries) while centre Newlove headed the try scoring charts with 28 touch downs - four more than Wigan flier Jason Robinson.
Saints wingers Arnold (19) ,and Sullivan (16) also made their mark but arguably the most crucial try in that double-winning campaign came at the Valley - then the home of the London Broncos - on Saturday, July 27, when the race for the championship had reached boiling point.
The table-toppers needed to win to keep arch-rivals Wigan in their slipstream but the points seemed to be slipping away with London holding on to a precarious 28-26 lead - until ‘divine intervention’ took over.
Samoan Apollo Perelini spotted a gap in the Broncos’ defence and successfully crashed over the whitewash, or did he?
The sight of the prop forward - a deeply religious man in every day life - silently praying as the video referee was charged with the decision of awarding the try or turning it down is now part of rugby league folklore, but after what seemed an eternity the verdict went Saints’ way, much to the joy and relief of more than 2,000 fans who had travelled to the capital to cheer on their heroes.
Looking back now, I often wonder what the value of that squad would be in today’s inflated market. Almost priceless, I would suggest . Or am I allowing nostalgia to cloud my judgement when comparing the boys of 1996 with the so-called super stars of 2016 who are, able to use space age technology and every imaginable pieces of muscle-building equipment to enhance their fitness and playing potential.?..
It would be interested to know your views on the matter.