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
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.
emergency meeting in October that season, the council opted overwhelmingly
for Wembley and the tie was set for 4th May 1929.
Wigan's route to the final started off simply enough with them seeing off
Batley 25-0 and Hunslet 12-0 in Rounds 1 & 2 at Central Park.
The Quarter Final draw saw Wigan travel to St Helens away and they have to
earn a replay in a tryless 2-2 draw. Four days later at
Central Park, Wigan progressed the semis with a 25-5 win.
In those days St Helens hosted two professional Rugby League teams, as did
Wigan for that fact, and the semi final saw us meet St Helens Recreation.
They today are known as the amateur team Pilkington Recs.
The match was played at Station Road, Swinton and Wigan looked doomed when
Recs had built up a 7-0 lead in front of 24,728 spectators. But a
converted try from Lou Brown got Wigan back into the game at 7-5 before a
Jim Sullivan penalty goal secured a draw.
So a replay
was needed again, this time being played at Leigh's old Mather Lane
ground. This time it was Wigan who, thanks to tries from Arthur Binks and
Johnny Ring, had built up a good 8-0 lead. A try from Roy Kinnear early in
the second half, which made it 13-0, looked to have secured the win but a
red card for Wigan's Len Mason turned the contest.
7 minutes to go Recs had closed that lead down to just 13-12 and Wigan
suffered an anxious last few minutes hanging on, daring not to concede a
penalty that could have lost them the game. Thankfully they did survive in
front of a 21,940 crowd.
I'm using the archives of the
Manchester Guardian in researching this article and 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.
Certain ironies when you see the current attempts of rescuing those poor
blokes stuck 100 metres under in Chile. 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 of one.
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 clear favourites.
On the day of the
match the Manchester Guardian 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 era.
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
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
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 the
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.
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
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.