Published in Rugby League World, 2010
The 1985 Challenge Cup Final
Wigan v Hull FC
“I truly believe that if Brett Kenny hadn’t played that day, we would have won by 10 or 15 points.” – Peter Sterling
Wigan v Hull, Kenny v Sterling
There must have been something in the water. Two sports in the space of a week witnessed their greatest and most famous-ever finals 25 years ago.
At the end of April 1985, the Irish outsider Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis to the world snooker title by sinking the final black in the 35th and last frame of their epic final. Midnight had long passed. He came from 8-0 down to knock over the seemingly impregnable champion. Just days later, it was the turn of our game to enjoy the limelight for an momentous clash that will never be forgotten. So what made the much talked about Challenge Cup Final of 1985 so special?
It was the 50th time that Wembley had been used for the Rugby League Cup Final and, fittingly, the 30 players served up a sensational game with ten tries shared equally. Two of the loudest, most passionate sets of fans crammed into Wembley desperate for success – Wigan had lost to Widnes just 12 months earlier while the Airlie Birds had been stunned by Featherstone in 1983. Nobody wanted to experience that sort of pain again.
But above all else, Wembley 1985 is remembered for the sensational midfield duel between Australian legends Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling. They were like brothers, they’d emerged at Parramatta Eels together – a club absolutely starved of success; one that had only ever tasted defeat on Sydney’s biggest stage – but with this new, young halfback pair conducting the orchestra, the Eels stormed to Premiership success not just in 1981, but in 1982 and 1983 as well. Sterling and Kenny even kept Steve Mortimer and, unthinkably, the great Wally Lewis out of the 1982 Kangaroos starting line-up as Australia rode roughshod over Great Britain. The two were that good and their partnership is possibly the greatest-ever halfback pairing in the history of the game.
Sterling had first played at Hull the season before, 1983-84, making his debut in the same match that Lewis debuted for Wakefield Trinity. He scored one try in eight games and laid on many a try for a precocious 18-year-old tryscoring sensation in the Hull centres called Garry Schofield. He enjoyed his time on Humberside so much that he was only happy to come back for a much longer stint in 1984-85.
Kenny, on the other hand, had never played club football in England before and agreed to join Wigan in August 1984. He helped his new side to a third-placed finish in the Slalom Lager Championship while Sterling’s Hull finished sixth but also made the finals of the Yorkshire Cup, where they beat Hull KR and the John Player Special Trophy where they lost to the same opposition.
Wigan held the upper hand going into the Wembley final, having twice thrashed the black and whites in the fortnight prior to the game. They beat them 40-4 in the league, with Kenny scoring twice, and 46-12 in the first round of the Premiership Trophy. But with men like Sterling, Lee Crooks, Steve ‘Knocker’ Norton and that wonderful quartet of Kiwis – Gary Kemble, James Leuluai, Dane O’Hara and Fred Ah Kuoi – in their backline, no-one was writing off Hull FC.
The game was preceeded by a parade of star guests with one player from each of the previous 49 finals dating back to 1929 (war-time finals weren’t played at Wembley), and in front of men like Gus Risman, Trevor Foster, Brian Bevan, Lewis Jones, Ike Southward, Eric Ashton, Neil Fox, Vince Karalius, Billy Boston and Roger Millward, Kenny attracted fierce criticism as he trundled onto the field in an apparently disrespectful way, with his hands in his pockets. But one man, above all, knew how to read that sort of body language.
“He did get criticism for being a bit too laid back about the whole occasion,” remembered Sterling, “but that’s just him all over. I was more worried seeing him that relaxed before the game thinking, ‘Shit, we’re in trouble here’.” Sterling was spot on. After Hull took an early 6-0 lead through a Kevin James try in which Sterling played no small part, Kenny produced a first-half performance which as good as sealed him the Lance Todd trophy as man of the match, playing a major role in all of Wigan’s three first-half tries. On the last tackle he kept the ball alive for Ian Potter to send another famous Australian, John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson, over and then scored a spectacular long-range try himself, beating Kemble to the corner with a beautiful, precise, curving run. And then a minute before half-time, his long pass to David Stephenson saw the centre free Henderson Gill for a superb 75-metre try.
He was at it again at the start of the second half coming up with a run-around move that opened up the Hull defence, allowing him to send a jubilant Shaun Edwards – then a fullback – to the line. But just two minutes later, Sterling produced some great play of his own, breaking through 30 metres out and offloading out of the tackle on the tryline to the supporting Steve Evans. Finally Wigan scored a try without Kenny’s assistance when Hull lost the ball on the halfway line and Gill swooped to run in the try. At 28-12, surely the game was up for Hull?
They needed three converted tries to win and with Sterling and Leuluai in great form, they scored those three tries. Crucially, however, they converted none of them and, on the scoreboard, that proved to be the difference in the end. According to Sterling, there were two other reasons his side came up just short: “Arthur Bunting, who I had great respect for as a coach and who is a very, very close friend, would probably look back and say he made the wrong choice because he left Garry Schofield on the bench, which probably wasn’t the best thing he’s ever done.”
And the other reason? His mate, of course. “I truly believe that if Brett Kenny hadn’t played that day, we would have won by 10 or 15 points. I guess that softened the blow of losing; the fact it was Brett who proved the real difference. I coped with the loss a lot better because I just had incredible admiration for him. And if you’re going to get beat, you might as well get beat by one of the champions of the game.”