Prior to 1929 the Rugby League Challenge Cup
Final had always been played at normal club grounds. The first Cup
Final in 1897 was played at Headingley with other finals being held
at Fallowfield (in Manchester), Athletic Grounds (Rochdale), The
Willows, Wheater's Field (Broughton), Fartown, Thrum Hall,
Watersheddings, Belle Vue and our very own Central Park.
In this season though the sport wanted to move
the cup final to London and members of the Rugby League council
visited two potential venues in the capital.
The new "Empire Stadium" at Wembley had opened
in 1923 with a massive 127,000 terraced capacity. This had become
the home of the football FA Cup Final so was a clear first choice.
The other venue the Rugby League council visited
was at Crystal Palace (which is now an athletics venue). It had
hosted football FA Cup finals between 1895 and 1914 before being
taken over by the military in 1915 for World War 1 efforts.
At an emergency meeting in October that season,
the council opted overwhelmingly for Wembley and the tie was set
for 4th May 1929.
I've used several newspapers researching this
article but just searching "Wigan" around the date of the cup final
brought up a great story of an attempt to rescue a cat after
"mewing" had been heard from inside an old mine shaft. A police constable was lowered into the shaft by rope (no
health and safety crap in those days then?) but couldn't find the
cat down there.
Good news though a day later - "a second and
successful attempt to rescue a cat from a disused pit shaft was
made yesterday by Police Constable Garstang." A pulley was fastened
round two strong planks and he was lowered down 60 feet in search
of the cat. "When Garstang began to poke about the floating refuse
a great stench arose from dead dogs". Nice! "After 50 minutes
search he saw the cat peering at him and he caught it and sent it
to the top in a bag".
Another article that comes up simply headlines
"head severed in crash with car". A motorcyclist had crashed with a
car and the victims head was found "twenty yards" from the body. It
really was a different world in those days wasn't it?
Anyway back to Rugby League and the pre cup
final news was Wigan's "remarkable" failure to secure a top 4
Championship Final Play Off place. "They had looked certain" to
finish well in the top 4 after being St Helens on Good Friday but
lost all of their last five league games, either side of the
Challenge Cup Semi Final, that dropped them from clear first to
fifth. So form going into the final was dire to say the least. The
exit did give Wigan two weeks to prepare for Wembley though instead
In the final the opponents were Dewsbury who
finished the season in mid table having won 17 and lost 17 games
during the campaign, so despite the poor form Wigan were still
On the day of the match, one newspaer
writes that Rugby League authorities were seeking "publicity rather
than monetary gain" from taking the final to London. It notes that
Wigan's team consisted of five Welshmen, three Lancastrians, two
New Zealanders, a Scot, a Yorkshireman and a Cumbrian whilst
Dewsbury were all Yorkshire lads bar one. The contrast was why
Wigan were known as "the league of all nations" by pundits of that
Not only was this the first cup final to be held
at Wembley but it was also the first time the BBC covered a Rugby
League game in full. The BBC's "wireless service" broadcast
"running commentary" on the match from 2:30pm to 4:35pm that
afternoon in the Manchester and London regions.
Some previous cup finals had been covered by BBC
Radio using "Eye Witness Account". This basically was a 20 minute
narrated summary broadcast in the evening after the game. "Running
commentary" was eventually launched after a successful trial
commentary of the university Boat Race in 1927.
The BBC's commentator on that day in 1929 was
the "Reverend Frank H. Chambers", a former player who also went on
to become a predominant referee. In fact he had officiated Wigan's
Cup Final victory over Oldham in 1924. The broadcast began with an
explanation of the difference of rules between Union and League and
in those days they always made clear the the broadcast would
include that all important "community singing".
Today every fan of Rugby League will have heard
of the "Lance Todd Trophy" but why is that man given such an honour
you may ask? Well, for a good as player as he was, it wasn't for
his playing career at Wigan between 1908 and 1913. It wasn't really
for his superb work as team manager at Salford in which he led them
to three league titles, four Lancashire Cups and a Challenge Cup in
No, it was because in 1933 he eventually became
the BBC Radio Commentator for Rugby League. "Mr Lance B. Todd
brings running commentary on....." the rugby league game of the day
was common in the Radio listings during the 1930s. This continued
until his death on November 14th 1942 when, on returning home from
home guard war duty in Oldham, a car he was driving crashed after
reportedly trying to avoid a collision with a tram. Todd is buried
in Wigan Cemetery.
The Manchester Guardian's report on the game by
a "special correspondent" described the game as pretty dull saying
"a hard ground from which dust flew did not assist the players". It
added that Dewsbury adhered "more to the old Rugby Union method of
hard scrummaging and grim tackling" whilst Wigan always tried to
play expansive through the three-quarters but more often than not
they failed to succeed in "realising their desires".
Jim Sullivan kicked an early penalty goal, after
an offside, to give Wigan a 2-0 lead but with the wind advantage it
was Dewsbury who had the better of play in the first half but the
report says they lacked "finishing power" and "method to their
play". Wigan had fewer chances but took one of them in the 14th
minute when Johnny Ring, Len Mason and Frank Stephens combined to
send stand off Syd Abram on a 45 yard charge for a try in the 14th
minute. Sullivan failed to convert so the lead was 5-0 (it was
three points per try). All Dewsbury could show for their efforts
was a drop goal from Jack Davies that narrowed the lead to 5-2
before half time.
Into the second half the game remained tight and
tense until a game breaking try on the hour mark. Wigan went left
and Lou Brown managed to keep hold of "not an easy pass" and
squeezed over in the corner. Sullivan's conversion attempt was
carried wide by the wind, but an 8-2 lead, with 19 minutes to go,
was looking an healthy lead.
Even more so when Dewsbury began to start
suffering with injuries. Forward Joe Malkin was "shaken up" and
Herbert Hirst was carried off the field with what later turned out
to be a fractured rib. No substitutes in those days so Dewsbury had
to plow on with 12 men.
Wigan were looking like the only side who would
score again and they sealed the contest in the 70th minute. Scrum
Half Arthur Binks "dribbled" the ball forward which gave Roy
Kinnear "fortunate possession" and "being far too speedy for all
who wished to stop him" he scored the try that, together with
Sullivan's conversion, sealed the 13-2 victory.
The article sums up that the "sound defence of
Sullivan" and the "untiring aggressiveness" of Binks in attack was
too much for Dewsbury. The official attendance was 41,500 with most
fans having travelled down from the north. The gate receipts of
£5,600 were £2,150 more than any previous Challenge Cup Final, so
the Wembley move was deemed a huge success even though the contest
on the pitch wasn't the best.
An opinion piece on the final, in the same
Manchester Guardian, describes how the final had "speed that amazed
southerners" and "made the average southern (union) club look weak
and watery". Interesting how the articles all had to compare the
game of League to that of Union.
Another article describes how "20,000 welcome
Wigan home" back to Wigan on the Monday after the final. They
arrived back by train and then "boarded a gaily decorated
motor-coach" in which Sullivan and Binks held the trophy aloft.
Back then they wouldn't have had a clue about what an institution
the annual Wembley trip would become and how much history that had
made in winning the first cup final there. They had to enjoy it
while it lasted because Wigan didn't go back to Wembley until 1946.