5 May 2020

Hemmings Way: Cross Coders

Greetings again everyone, let’s hope that before too long we get some news that the lockdown measures are about to be eased and that we take a step closer to getting our sport back on the rails again in some form. It might be behind closed doors with matches televised live… whatever it can’t come soon enough.

For the time being then we are left to reflect on events in Rugby League of the past and this week I wonder do you remember the cross-code challenge between Wigan and Bath in 1996?

The two games – one under Rugby League rules, the other under Rugby Union laws - were staged in May 1996 and they were enthusiastically received by supporters of both codes. It looked like we’d be seeing many more similar matches in the years that followed – but only St Helens and Sale have taken up the Challenge since.

Salford - and Sale again - wanted to staged a third challenge in August 2014 to raise money for various charities, but the game was never played because of difficulties with the two clubs’ respective schedules. So the Challenge died and it’s never been attempted since.

It’s sad really because the Wigan-Bath meetings were memorable events – two matches played under the laws of both sports.  The league game took place at Maine Road – the old home of Manchester City – and the return at Twickenham two weeks later.

You’ll be able to relive both games later this week on the Super League’s website so I won’t spoil it for you if you’ve never seen them before - but watch out for a try disallowed for Wigan in the Twickenham game because of a forward pass! Stevo said at the time it was the first try chalked off at RU’s HQ because of a forward pass in his life time!!

Anyway, it got me thinking about some of the great players who have graced both codes… and when I delved into the record books the list is endless and there are some fantastic names in there as well.

Here’s just a smattering – Mike Nicholas MBE, Jason Robinson, Chris Ashton, Kyle Eastmond, Stephen Myler, Shontayne Hape, Martin Offiah, Andy Farrell, Henry Paul, Scott Gibbs, Jonathan Davies, John Devereux, Paul Moriarty, Sam Burgess, Barrie-Jon Mather and of course Sonny Bill Williams. I could go on and on… and all the names will all have their own stories to tell.

And who is the greatest Rugby Union star to ‘head north’? Well I unashamedly nominate the one and only David Watkins who left South Wales on October 19th 1967. I must confess I have a deep friendship that stretches back over 40 years now with David, his wife Jane and their lovely family but let’s remember the facts.

At the time David was the captain and fly half of both Wales and the British Lions. He was Rugby Union’s equivalent of Georgie Best. The world was at his feet but he became disillusioned with the Welsh selectors and was tempted by the challenge – and the money it has to be said – so he signed for Salford.

Remember back in those days anyone who even breathed the words Rugby League in the Valleys faced being ostracised for life - but David quickly proved all the doubters wrong. At one stage he played 92 consecutive games, and in one season kicked a record 221 goals.

Later, when his glittering playing career was over, he turned to broadcasting… he was excellent at it too… first alongside Eddie Waring for BBC TV and later for Yorkshire TV’s Scrum Down programme operating alongside John Helm.   

Then he became my first side kick in the commentary box for BBC Radio in the mid-eighties. In 1985 we commentated on the whole of the Wigan-Hull Challenge Cup Final for Sport on Two (the predecessor of Five Live) He was my original Stevo equivalent!!

David helped to enthuse me about the game – he’s also a lovely guy and a great friend… and so for me Dai Watkins MBE (as he is still known back home in Newport) remains the greatest and bravest man ever to head north.

 I’m sure you all have your heroes too – I would be interested to hear about them. 

Again, stay safe everyone – and keep your fingers crossed that it won’t be too long before we return to some semblance of normality in our lives.