For many years, it was the ‘done thing’ for Australian rugby league fans to stay up late, to watch the BBC’s live telecast of the English Challenge Cup final from London’s Wembley Empire Stadium.
The first Wembley Final I saw, on our black and white television set at Bray Park, Murwillumbah, was the 1967 match between Barrow and Featherstone Rovers, which Featherstone won 17-12.
I dreamed of one day walking up to Wembley’s famous twin towers, and it finally happened in May, 1978, when my wife, Marie and I attended the Leeds v St Helens match.
But, as things transpired, my sister, Kerri-Anne had beaten me to the punch, rocking up at Wembley for the 1976 final between Widnes and St Helens.
I had a little bit to do with it, because I had put Kerri in touch with people at Widnes, who I knew through my former captain-coach at Murwillumbah Brothers, Brian Atherton, a former Widnes’ player.
Kerri and her friend, Caroline Collis had embarked on a working holiday trip to Britain and Europe, nearly two years before my wife, Marie and I did the same thing. Kerri happened to be in Widnes when the city was in full Wembley mode, with local club, the Chemics, coached by Frank Myler, having qualified, via wins over Batley, Wigan, Warrington and then Featherstone, in the knock-out competition.
St Helens got there courtesy of wins over Hull, Salford, Oldham and Huddersfield.
Kerri ventured south from Cheshire, with tens of thousands of Widnesians, for a match which drew a crowd of 89,892, on a day when the temperature soared to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Kerri was in the company of Brian Atherton’s older brother, Billy and some of his mates, who played amateur rugby league in Widnes, or for nearby Huyton.
Widnes, captained by local boy, halfback, Reg Bowden, were favorites, especially on such a hot day, when St Helens’ veteran side, was expected to wilt under the pressure. The combined age of the Saints’ front row – Welshmen, John Mantle and Kel Coslett; and Englishman, Tony Karalius – was 99, and both halves, Billy Benyon and Jeff Heaton, were in their 30s.
Skipper, Coslett described it as the hardest match of his life, as he celebrated the 20-5 victory, following the Cup presentation by Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher. St Helens’ fullback, Geoff Pimblett, a former rugby union player, won the Lance Todd Trophy as player of the match.
I saw the Saints’ team in action several weeks later, on their tour of Australia and New Zealand, when they played Queensland at Lang Park.
They led for 70 minutes, but then those ageing legs, and a bit of jet lag, got them, and Queensland stormed home for a gutsy win
By then Kerri was travelling through Europe on a coach tour, which would see her strike up a life time friendship with fellow tourist, Maggie Heyburn (later to be Maggie Dobson) from Dover, in Kent.
Kerri’s post cards made me envious, and keener than ever for overseas travel. But her stories of the Amalfi Coast, Cannes and Paris faded in comparison to her report of her day out at Wembley.
What a day she had – the bands of the Coldstream, Irish and Welsh Guards proceeding the match, along with community singing, led by Bernard Manning. I had to be content with watching it all on TV, at my flat at Windsor, in Brisbane. And the television was still black and white.
1 Kerri-Anne Ricketts
2 St Helens
4 Billy Atherton (right) with his parents, Lil and Bill, and Steve Ricketts in 1977
5 St Helens’ hooker, Tony Karalius sets up play at Wembley in 1976
6 The BBC’s David Coleman interviews Featherstone Rovers’ players in 1967.