It is one of my great regrets, and yes, there have been a few, that I never had the chance to attend a Wigan v St Helens derby match in the English Rugby League.
I have seen both clubs play against other clubs, or international opposition, but not against each other.
My eldest son, Damien, had that honour, in March, 2008, just after the announcement that Eric Ashton, MBE, had died. Born and raised in St Helens, Ashton played for Wigan, and later coached St Helens.
Damien is a Wigan fan, but he attended the match with Steve Lingard from St Helens, and sat in the middle of Saints’ fans, so he had to keep his emotions in check. He certainly wasn’t cheering, as Saints romped home 46-10.
And what an emotional night it was, as the packed house (crowd 17,000) beautifully observed a minute’s silence for Ashton, who I had met just the once, when he was coach of Great Britain, in Australia in 1979. It was also the last derby played at Knowlsey Road, as St Helens were to move into a new stadium.
Ashton was coach of St Helens when my wife, Marie and I made our first visit to England, in 1977-78. Marie and I were based at Widnes, in Cheshire, in the Christmas/New Year period, staying at the home of Paddy and May Hart, parents of my friend back in Australia, Paddy Hart Jnr.
Marie and I saw Widnes play at home to Wigan, on a night when Welsh prop, Jim Mills was sent off for decking Wigan’s Bill Ashurst.
The first St Helens – Wigan derby of that season, was the Boxing Day clash at Central Park, Wigan with St Helens winning 24-13, and Widnes referee, Mick Naughton in charge.
Wigan won the return match at Knowsley Road, on March 24, when Marie and I were driving around the south of England in our Kombi Van.
We headed over to the Continent after that, but got back to the UK in time to see St Helens play Leeds in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley, with Leeds winning 14-12. Eric Ashton was Saints’ coach, while another former Test centre, Syd Hynes was in charge of Leeds.
The 1968 Boxing Day Derby match between Saints and Wigan, at Knowsley Road, was abandoned at halftime, when the referee, Mr Jack Elliott from Barrow, said the icy playing surface was too hard. There were over 20,000 spectators in the ground, and they were not impressed.
The match was replayed on January 13, 1969, and was tagged the ‘Battle of Knowsley Road’, such was the ferocity of the exchanges. Wigan second rower, Brian Hogan, a former Saints’ player, was sent off by referee, Elliott in the 20th minute.
Elliott had warned opposing skippers, Ashton (Wigan) and Tommy Bishop (St Helens) several times during the torrid opening exchanges.
Writing for ‘The Lancashire Evening Post’, Eric Thompson had this to say:
“Wanted – A rugby league referee, who also holds a licence under the British Boxing Board of Control. His main requirements will be to officiate at St Helens v Wigan ‘battles’. Had such a man been appointed, he might have told both teams, at the end of last night’s hostilities: ‘Go to your corners and come out fighting for the final round on Good Friday – but this time, break cleanly from the clinches, stop the ‘under-cover work’ during the infighting and no more head butting, and kicking at a fallen opponent.”
Footnote: The same day as our son, Damien was attending the St Helens – Wigan match, I was covering a Broncos – Roosters match in Sydney, meeting up with former Wigan and Roosters’ star, Adrian Lam, who recalled a night out with Damien in Wigan.
1 St Helens’ stars of the 1977-78 season, Englishman, George Nicholls (left) and Welshman, Kel Coslett
2 Kel Coslett holds the championship trophy aloft after St Helens beat Wigan in the 1971 final
3 Steve Ricketts (left) with Mary Connaughton; May and Paddy Hart at Warrington Bank Quay Railway Station in 1977, after arriving in the north of England for the first time.