Leeds Rhinos Nostalgia: Dean Bell's men limp into a brave new world

TWENTY FOUR years ago today Leeds limped into a new era as rugby league made its biggest leap in more than a century of history.
TOUGH START: Leeds head coach Dean Bell. Picture: Steve Riding.TOUGH START: Leeds head coach Dean Bell. Picture: Steve Riding.
TOUGH START: Leeds head coach Dean Bell. Picture: Steve Riding.

Leeds, still a season away from becoming Rhinos, suffered a home defeat by Warrington in their first Super League game on March 31, 1996.

Having finished second in the final winter Championship, which was completed in January, Leeds were beaten by Bradford in a Challenge Cup semi-final the week before the new summer season began.

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Even so, coach Dean Bell’s men were third-favourites to win the inaugural Super League title, behind Wigan and St Helens, but the club was in mounting financial trouble and - in front of a 10,036 crowd, they went down 22-18, despite a spirited fightback.

TRY SCORER: Kevin Iro. Picture: Steve Riding.TRY SCORER: Kevin Iro. Picture: Steve Riding.
TRY SCORER: Kevin Iro. Picture: Steve Riding.

Iestyn Harris, who signed for Leeds the following year, ran the show as Warrington went 22-6 ahead. Nick Fozzard, Kevin Iro and George Mann were Leeds’ try scorers and Graham Holroyd kicked three goals.

On the same afternoon, Castleford Tigers travelled to Bradford and were beaten 30-18 in front of 10,027 fans. Coach John Joyner’s men led 18-10 at the break through a brace of tries by Tony Smith and one from Lee Crooks. Frano Botica kicked three goals.

Elsewhere that first weekend, the Super League curtain went up in Paris where Sheffield Eagles were the first visitors to face the new St Germain club. “Some reporters came for a funeral and had to write about a party,” Rugby Football League [RFL] chief executive Maurice Lindsay said after Paris’ shock 30-24 win over an Eagles team including future Rhinos legend Keith Senior.

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A crowd of more than 17,000 created a carnival atmosphere for the Sky-televised game in which the video referee was used for the first time. Senior scored Eagles’ final touchdown. The honour of grabbing the first-ever Super League try went to former Wakefield player Freddy Banquet.

SLOW START: Castleford coach John Joyner. Picture: Mike Cowling.SLOW START: Castleford coach John Joyner. Picture: Mike Cowling.
SLOW START: Castleford coach John Joyner. Picture: Mike Cowling.

Of the 12 clubs who took part in the inaugural Super League, seven are no longer in the competition - including Paris who lasted only two seasons before being wound up. Bulls are now in the Championship, alongside London Broncos, Halifax, Sheffield and Oldham, while Workington are a League One club.

Halifax Blue Sox lost 24-22 to London at Thrum Hall in their opening match, Darren Shaw sealing victory for the visitors with a late penalty goal.

Memorably, half-time entertainment in the new age of razzmatazz, was a pillow fight between two supporters chosen from the crowd. Workington’s squad for their only Super League campaign included Tony Smith, who went on to coach Leeds to two Grand Final wins and is now in charge of Hull KR.

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Their season began with a 62-0 home loss to St Helens. Oldham Bears, as they were called, took on Wigan at Boundary Park and lost 56-16.

Of the grounds which hosted matches on Super League’s opening weekend, rugby league is no longer played at Paris’ Stade Charlety, Thrum Hall, Boundary Park and Bradford’s Odsal.

Warrington, Sheffield, London, Wigan and St Helens have also moved to new pastures, leaving Headingley, the Jungle and Workington’s Derwent Park as the only original Super League venues still in rugby league use.

Coached by Mitch Brennan, Wakefield began the summer era in the second tier and were walloped 52-2 at Hull, Jamie Corcoran kicking their lone goal. In the same division, all on March 31, Batley Bulldogs beat visitors Whitehaven 20-13 through tries by Darren Moxon, Darren Child, David Turpin and John Stainbury, who also kicked two goals.

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Barry Eaton booted Dewsbury’s points in a 54-2 drubbing at Keighley Cougars, but Featherstone Rovers won 33-24 at home to Rochdale Hornets, thanks to two tries by Eddie Rombo and touchdowns from Neil Roebuck, Simon Tuffs and Tony Miller, plus six Martin Pearson goals and a drop by Deryck Fox.

Kenny Hill and Gordon Long crossed and Dean Creasser kicked four goals as Bramley pipped visitors Leigh 16-14 in Division Two.

Also on March 31, Hunslet came away from Prescot with a 36-10 success. Jason Viller and David Plange both bagged a brace, Neil Battye, David Close and Des Maea also touched down and Simon Wilson and Close shared the four goals.