TWENTY YEARS ago today Leeds Rhinos rewrote the Wembley record books and ended more than a decade of failure.
On May 1, 1999, Rhinos hammered London Broncos 52-16 in the last Challenge Cup final staged at the old national stadium.
It was Leeds’ first trophy since a Yorkshire Cup win over Castleford 11 years earlier and set records for the most points scored and biggest margin of victory in a Challenge Cup decider.
Not only that, but winger Leroy Rivett became the first player to score four tries in a Challenge Cup final and skipper Iestyn Harris equalled the previous best tally for points (20) and goals (eight).
Coach Graham Murray, who died in 2013, spent only two years at Leeds, but will always be remembered for pulling a diverse group together into a tight-knit unit who combined flair and toughness.
The latter was exemplified by prop Barrie McDermott.
He went on five years later to become one of a select band of players to have won a Challenge Cup and Championship for Leeds, but recalls 1999 as a career highlight.
Looking back, McDermott, now a Sky television pundit, said: “To think it’s 20 years ago is crazy.
“We had a really, really good bunch of blokes. I wouldn’t say we were all cut from the same cloth because some of us were from different backgrounds, but Iestyn and Graham and everybody involved all bought into the same goal.
“We wanted to drop the tag of nearly-men and bridesmaids and be in those big occasions, turn up and win.
“We managed to do that with a squad that included some real toilers and grafters.
“I loved playing in a pack that had [Anthony] Farrell, [Darren] Fleary, [Marc] Glanville, Moz [Adrian Morley] and Terry Newton because we had that edge to us.
“We could play it either way, we could pass the ball about and play the game the nice way or we could roll our sleeves up and get our hands dirty.
“It was a great thing to be involved with.”
McDermott got his hands dirty in Leeds’ opening tie, being sent-off against Wigan Warriors – who had beaten Leeds in the sides’ previous meeting, the 1998 Grand Final – for a high tackle on Simon Houghton.
Twelve-man Rhinos pulled through against the odds and then beat St Helens, Widnes – when a young Kevin Sinfield scored two tries – and Bradford Bulls in the semi-final to reach Wembley.
Before the season began, Leeds’ players had agreed a financial bonus if they won the Cup, with nothing if they failed to collect the trophy.
The big game began badly when Martin Offiah and Robbie Simpson crossed and Rob Smyth tagged on a conversion to give London a shock 10-0 lead, but McDermott insisted: “I don’t think I ever thought we wouldn’t win.
“After their second try we were under the sticks and collectively we said ‘come on, stop messing about now, let’s get back to what we do best’.”
Converted tries by Rivett and Brad Godden edged Leeds 12-10 ahead at the break and though London led again, 16-12, after Greg Fleming’s converted try at the start of the second half, McDermott crashed over from a tap penalty to regain the advantage.
That was the game-breaker. Rivett added three more touchdowns – including a long-range interception – to win the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match.
And Marcus St Hilaire, Harris and Francis Cummins all crossed to complete an emphatic win.
Of his own touchdown, McDermott recalled: ”It wasn’t the reason we won, but it was an influential part of the game.
“Like every kid I had dreamed of scoring a try in a big game so it was a special moment, to do it on the big stage.
“We were expected to win, but to do that – with all the history of semi-final and final defeats – was amazing. I was blessed, I had a lot of highlights and special times, but I would rate that as right up there.”
For Cummins, it was third-time lucky after Wembley defeats in 1994 and 1995. The winger remembers the run to the final as much as the game itself. He said: “It was a funny time because my wife was due around that time, we had just had our baby girl Gabby about a week before.
“We had a big run, knocked some big scalps out along the way.
“Baz [McDermott] got sent off against Wigan and, despite what he did, we got to the final with some great performances along the way.
“We knocked out all the main players. We had been hammered in the previous two semi-finals by Bradford so it was good to beat them. Ryan Sheridan was brilliant in that game and he was great in the final as well.”
Everyone associated with the club was well aware Leeds had not won the Cup since beating St Helens 21 years earlier.
“We had a call of ’78,” Cummins said. “We wanted to be the next group to etch our name in history and put a few of the ghosts to bed that had been hanging around Headingley for a long time.
“That’s what drove us on; it was our chance to do well for ourselves, the fans and everyone else.
“We did the hard work getting there, we knew London were still a good team, but it was a strange one because we were hot favourites to win.
“We didn’t start off too well and the scoreline looks as though it was really easy, but it wasn’t.”
Recalling his try, Cummins said: “It was towards the back end and I don’t remember too much about it really.
“I think Goddo [Godden] passed me the ball and put me down the touchline.
“We were out of sight then so it was nice to get over.”
Members of the Cup-winning squad will get together in July at a reunion dinner at Emerald Headingley which will also celebrate Leeds’ 1969 Championship-winning team, the Premiership victory 10 years later and the 2009 Grand Final triumph.
Leeds Rhinos: Harris, Rivett, Blackmore, Godden, Cummins, Powell, Sheridan, McDermott, Newton, Fleary, Morley, Farrell, Glanville. Subs St Hilaire, Jackson, Hay, Mathiou.
London Broncos: Tollett, Smyth, Fleming, Timu, Offiah, Hammond, Edwards, Retchless, Beazley, Salter, Millard, Simpson, Gill. Subs Toshack, Callaway, Ryan, Air.
Referee: Russell Smith.