How Wigan boxed clever to beat Leeds in first Grand Final

Hunslet boy Jason Robinson who took the man of the match award for Wigan against Leeds at Old Trafford
Hunslet boy Jason Robinson who took the man of the match award for Wigan against Leeds at Old Trafford
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ONE of the most famous boxing matches in history arguably laid the platform for the first-ever Super League Grand Final success.

It was 1998 when the landscape changed forever and the domestic competition here adopted the Australian model of play-offs rather than ‘first past the post’ to decide its champions.

When all that jostling was done, of course, the inaugural event was then largely remembered for Jason Robinson’s trademark dart, weave and score to settle an absorbing if low-scoring Grand Final in Wigan Warriors’ favour against his hometown club Leeds Rhinos at Old Trafford.

However, as much as that moment of brilliance proved the difference on the pitch in the 10-4 result, the embryo of it all was a moment of inspirational quality from Wigan coach John Monie that instilled their belief to prosper. Lee Gilmour, the Wakefield Trinity assistant coach and former Great Britain international who was a rookie 20-year-old second-row for Wigan that night, takes up the story.

“We did things a bit differently and actually met at someone’s house before the final,” he told The Yorkshire Post.

“It might have been Gary Connolly’s or Andy Farrell’s. All the forwards met and had a little chat and then we went to the ground on the team coach.

“But there John Monie had set up a room to watch a couple of videos before we got ready.

“One of the ones we watched was the first round of (Marvin) Hagler v (Thomas) Hearns,” he said.

“He turned around to us afterwards and said that’s what we’d have to go through to get the job done in that final.”

That classic 1985 middleweight fight earned notoriety for the sheer brutality of the opening exchanges when a total of 165 punches were thrown by the fierce American rivals during a hellish three minutes regarded as arguably the most memorable round in boxing’s history.

It did the trick for Wigan who, including the likes of Henry Paul, Kris Radlinski and Terry O’Connor, too, duly slugged it out with Leeds and marginally came out of the other side.

Wigan had finished first, four points above second-placed Leeds, but the West Yorkshire club had Iestyn Harris in career-best form, the devastating 22-year-old full-back winning Man of Steel that campaign.

Francis Cummins, who played on the wing for Rhinos that night, remembered: “Iestyn had been the biggest signing Leeds had made and he really helped kick us on.

“We’d been building the year before and really fancied ourselves to win at Old Trafford.

“There was Daryl Powell and Darren Fleary who’d come in from Keighley and we had Anthony Farrell as well plus Andy Hay and Moz (Adrian Morley).

“It was a really good team and we were really sparked up that year. We knew we were on the verge of winning something.

“We didn’t manage it that night but we did the year after in the Challenge Cup.

“Wigan were coming off the back of being the real dominant team in the game but were changing as a club.

“We were confident of beating them that night and we’d had the upper hand over them that year.

“I think we’d beaten them twice including over at Central Park

“We started well and Richie Blackmore scored the first try but it became a really close game.

“Jason Robinson came up with that try; he was just that sort of player – able to produce something out of nothing.

“He just skirted his way back infield from the touchline and cut through. Andy Farrell kicked a couple of penalties and it was enough to beat us.

“We just couldn’t do it on the night and it was down to that last 80 minutes. Some people didn’t think it was the right way of doing things but we knew it was what they did in Australia and it would be here to stay.

“The atmosphere was amazing considering Old Trafford was nowhere near full back then.

“But it’s sold-out this Saturday and it should be a great final.”

Cummins, who turns 39 on Monday and, like Gilmour, hails from Dewsbury, was still in the Leeds squad when they eventually won the Grand Final in 2004 but not in the side that defeated Bradford.

He retired the following year, joining the coaching staff that went onto inspire yet more glory.

Kallum Watkins (Picture: David Neilson/SWpix.com/PhotosportNZ)

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