|Challenge Cup Classics|
|Date: Sunday, 10 May Time: 14:05 BST Coverage: Watch on BBC One, catch up on BBC iPlayer|
Sheffield Eagles’ 1998 Challenge Cup final victory over the mighty Wigan is one of sport’s great fairytales.
The biggest outsiders in the competition’s history, a club that had only been born 14 years earlier, took on and humbled one of the game’s greatest names and Wembley maestros.
It’s a match that is written into rugby league legend.
With odds of 14-1 against them, it was a win almost no-one predicted – apart from the man who masterminded the incredible outcome.
The 1998 final is one of five finals from five decades that will feature in a special programme on BBC One on Sunday at 14:05 BST.
But before the re-showing of Sheffield’s exploits on that day in May, 22 years ago, the coach who guided them to success, John Kear, told this week’s 5 Live Rugby League podcast that he had predicted his club’s day in the sun several months earlier.
Wigan had won eight cup finals in a row between 1988 and 1995. And although their power was beginning to wane by 1998, they were still a side packed with superstars.
Andy Farrell, Denis Betts, Jason Robinson, Gary Connolly and Henry Paul were among those to walk out in the Cherry and White that day.
“They had just dominated the competition and they were undefeated in the league in the season up to then,” said Kear.
“They had John Monie as coach and a stellar playing roster. But we played better than them on the day. It was a day dreams were made of.”
Kear targeted Challenge Cup
Kear had begun to dream several months earlier when he, and possibly he alone, started to believe that creating a Wembley miracle was within Sheffield’s capabilities.
“It began in 1997,” he said. “We lost to Wigan in the Premiership semi-final at the old Central Park and we gave them a scare that day.
“When we reviewed the season I thought ‘we haven’t got a bad team here’.”
Kear and his coaching staff came up with a plan for a focused pre-season to target success in the cup. In those days the Challenge Cup rounds and final were played relatively early in the campaign.
“We planned pre-season to the nth degree. But we had to sell it to the players,” he added.
“I told them I thought we could get to Wembley and do something special and they looked at me as though I’d been in the pub all afternoon.
“They didn’t believe me. But as the campaign went on, and after such a great pre-season, the belief grew and grew.”
Sheffield’s road to Wembley
Early round victories over Leigh and amateur Cumbrian club Egremont took the Eagles into a quarter-final tie away to Castleford.
Cas had already beaten powerhouses Leeds and Bradford and were heavy favourites to win again – but Sheffield triumphed 32-22.
“They were fully expected to give us a good beating, but we upset the odds,” said Kear. “It was a high quality game. Belief grew once again. I sensed after that game the players really believed we could get to Wembley.”
A semi-final victory over Salford was less than pretty. Andy Gregory’s Red Devils looked Wembley-bound with an eight-point lead with 12 minutes left, but somehow the Eagles crossed for two late tries to seal their trip to the capital.
Meetings that inspired the Eagles
Wigan, who had beaten London in their semi-final, were arguably the hottest favourites ever to lift the cup against the upstarts from South Yorkshire.
But an inspirational setting and an emotional night of meetings on the eve of the final left Kear certain that his team would prevail.
“We stayed in Runnymede, at the Runnymede Hotel, where the Magna Carta was signed. And we said we were going to make our own history,” said Kear.
He and captain Mark Aston arranged for two meetings to take place, one for the backs and one for the forwards, to set the agenda for the following day.
“We asked them ‘what does this game mean to you?’ I wanted them to quantify something and relate it to their own experience. They spoke about family relationships and made a commitment to each other.
“I tell you, the hairs on the back of the neck stood up and you’d be crying because it was so emotional.
“It was a matter of the following day making sure they recalled that emotion but also controlled that emotion, to inspire them to a great performance.
“We wanted them to reach to their depths. They would have to reach to the depths in the game when they’d be tired and getting walloped and be hurt.
“At some stage they were going to be uncomfortable and they needed something to draw on to inspire them and get them through that. Their commitment to each other was first class.”
Mind games in the tunnel
But that was not the only psychological edge they took into the final. A war cry in the tunnel moments before walking out onto the pitch helped focus Sheffield minds and unsettle their glamorous opponents.
“In the tunnel it was really dark and there was a chill, and the two teams were lined up and we’ve got people like Johnny Lawless and Rocky Turner who were absolutely bellowing: ’98! It’s the year of the Eagles!’,” explained Kear.
“All these stellar superstars at the side of them were just looking at them as if they were crazed. They thought they were as mad as March hares. They were shouting that to unsettle them. That’s how wound up they were.
“My worry was were they too wound up, but as the game started the quality of rugby league they played was first class. We didn’t make an error until minute 32.”
Sheffield sizzled and Wigan wilted as the Eagles, with tries from Nick Pinkney, Matt Crowther and Rocky Turner, and two goals and a drop-goal from captain Aston, ran out 17-8 winners.
And after months of planning, scheming and dreaming, Kear finally got his chance to soak in an incredible achievement.
“Near the end, Wigan were trying to play real quick and put us under pressure,” he added. “There was a great tackle made. They played the ball and Henry Paul tried to pick it up one handed to try and continue the speed of the game that they were trying to generate, and he knocked on.
“At that point I thought ‘it is our day’. I sat back in my chair and looked round because I wanted to drink in all the colour and all the sound, and everything that was going around because I knew it was a very special day and the time left on the clock meant they hadn’t got enough time to come back.”
Eagles’ win met with muted response
Kear was back in a Challenge Cup final seven years later, guiding Hull FC to another against-the-odds win against Leeds at Cardiff in 2005 – another game that will feature in Sunday’s programme.
He says both successes cannot be separated in terms of how special they are to him and his reputation as a coaching cup specialist. But there was one big difference – the effect that each victory had on the two cities that were represented.
Sheffield Council had to be talked into hosting a celebration dinner for the Eagles after the 1998 final. And the homecoming, with the team carrying the famous trophy, barely created a flicker in the Steel City.
“I don’t think Sheffield really understood the enormity of what those players achieved,” said Kear.
But at Hull in 2005, the contrast could not have been greater.
“Whilst we were a little disappointed when we went back to Sheffield for the open top bus tour, we weren’t disappointed when we went back to Hull. That was unbelievable,” he said.
“We went to the Town Hall and did the civic reception and you couldn’t see any ground. All the foreground was black and white, all the streets were black and white. They were there to salute their heroes. They made it so, so special for all us who were lucky enough to be involved.”