Leeds Rhinos Flashback: Breathtaking Cup quarter-final lit up by Atkinson’s try artistry

John Atkinson.
John Atkinson.
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ONE OF the finest Challenge Cup ties Headingley has seen was played 37 years ago this week.

Leeds were aiming to retain the trophy they had won the previous year by beating Widnes 16-7 in an emotional final played just weeks after the death of stand-off Chris Sanderson in a league game against Salford at the Willows.

The Loiners’ defence of the Cup began in February with a routine 25-5 home win over Halifax in a BBC-televised game memorable only for the dog who invaded the pitch early on and refused to leave. On March 13 Leeds travelled to Belle Vue and beat Wakefield Trinity 28-6 with their best performance of the season so far, to earn a home quarter-final against Bradford Northern.

A crowd of 18,600 turned up at Headingley on March 19, 1978 to witness a breathtaking Cup tie, won by two glorious touchdowns from Leeds winger John Atkinson.

The first half ended scoreless and Leeds’ prospects looked bleak when the visitors went 5-0 ahead soon after the break through Dean Raistrick’s try, improved by Keith Mumby.

Leeds spent the early part of the second half pinned near their own line, but they lifted the siege in thrilling fashion.

The home team won the ball from a scrum on their own 25, outstanding No 7 Sammy Sanderson made a dart on the blindside to draw defender David Barends and then slipped the ball to Atkinson and he weaved away on a magnificent sprint to the line. Willie Oulton’s conversion – the first of his three goals – levelled the scores and John Holmes kicked the Loiners ahead with a drop goal before Atkinson scored a second brilliant touchdown, created by Phil Cookson and Les Dyl. Bradford finished second in the table in 1978, beating Leeds home and away and in a Premiership first-round tie at Odsal.

They dominated possession in the Cup clash, but Leeds’ forwards – with Mick Crane having his best game for the club and Steve Pitchford and Mick Harrison producing towering displays in the front-row – stood up to the challenge and the hosts’ backs proved they had superior pace.

Referee Mick Naughton awarded a penalty try to Leeds’ Neil Hague and the holders had secured their place in the semi-finals before Northern rounded off the scoring with a late consolation try through Jack Austin.

Leeds went on to beat Featherstone 14-9 in a hard-fought semi at Odsal before retaining the Cup with a 14-12 Wembley win over St Helens, hitting back from 10-0 down early on with Atkinson again scoring a classic try.

Match stats

Leeds 16

(Tries Atkinson 2, Hague. Goals Oulton 3. Drop goal Holmes)

Bradford Northern 8
(Tries Raistrick, Austin. Goal Mumby)

Challenge Cup third round 
March 19, 1978

Leeds: Oulton, D Smith, Holmes, Dyl, Atkinson, Hague, Sanderson, Harrison, Ward, Pitchford, Fearnley, Cookson, Crane. Subs: Fletcher, Dickinson.

Bradford: Mumby, Barends, Greenwood, Evans, Austin, Wolford, Redfearn, Thompson, Raistrick, Forsyth, Jarvis, Joyce, Haigh. Subs: Slater, Van Bellen.

Referee: Mick Naughton (Widnes).

Attendance: 18,600.