The Rugby League Challenge Cup final is still, in a broader, mainstream sense, the sport’s showpiece event in the U.K. Wembley Stadium—in its Empire, old or new incarnations— that has hosted the competition’s finale since 1929, and in the time since has witnessed some of the Rugby League’s greatest ever moments.
However, given this long partnership, there are those who feel Rugby League hasn’t really been honoured as a key sport in forging Wembley’s mystique. Earlier this week, The Guardian reported the latest developments on an issue that has simmered for a while in newspaper postbags and online forums: that Rugby League should be commemorated at Wembley Stadium.
To correct this perceived discrepancy, a motion detailing the erection of a Rugby League themed statue has been championed by Chorley MP Lindsay Hoyle. The motion has already garnered support in the British Parliament, and the New Year may see momentum build for such a representation.
It goes without saying that for most people, association football—whether it be via the FA Cup final or England internationals—is the sport which natively calls Wembley Stadium as its spiritual home. Naturally, soccer is already duly represented by a statue of Bobby Moore. Whereas motor racing, for example, is among sports that are also immortalised, which have as much, or perhaps even less, claim to the history of the iconic ground than rugby football’s largely northern-based code.
Hoyle told The Guardian : "We felt that something was definitely missing. Rugby league has this great history at Wembley...and the lack of a statue is something that we want to put right."
It’s certainly a valiant effort for a just cause. However, who do you actually choose to represent Rugby League at Wembley? "This is a family game, so let the family decide," Hoyle said. Mafia and hillbilly connotations aside, "the family will have problems thrashing out the ideal candidate; there will be arguments."
Unlike football, Rugby League doesn’t have a Bobby Moore figure. He is the ultimate ambassador for English football’s tenure at Wembley: having lifted the World Cup on the very same turf—on the only occasion the Three Lions have reached the zenith of the country’s national game. Moore was the unequivocal choice to represent football at Wembley; it was a no-brainer. Not that Rugby League doesn’t have some prime candidates too, but the options are more subject to conjecture and parochial leanings.
Gus Risman is one person I’d have at the top of the list: a man who was at the very top of his sport for 20 years, and a Rugby League Hall of Famer who led Salford to their only Challenge Cup final win in seven attempts in 1938—collecting the trophy from cricket legend Don Bradman, no less—before returning to Wembley in 1952 as a 41-year-old to play for and manage the fledgling Workington Town in its fairytale cup victory.
Of course, Alex Murphy has very strong claims. Another true Rugby League great and a Challenge Cup winner with three different clubs, his is a reputation that is recognised internationally. Murphy, too, wouldn’t be abashed to claim that he himself should indeed be the man to be immortalised.
Yet one person’s Risman is another person’s Brian Bevan, who is another person’s Lewis Jones. None of whom really have the outright claim to be set in bronze.
The longevity of the pick is also a key factor. Who is to say that in 50 years time, John Kear—the mastermind of two underdog Challenge Cup victories (including the greatest shock of them all, when Sheffield Eagles turned "mighty" Wigan over in 1998)—won’t be the man seen retrospectively as Wembley’s ideal Rugby League icon.
The modern candidates in this regard include men such as Ellery Hanley, Shaun Edwards, Martin Offiah, and Sean Long. All of them are remembered for greatness on the Wembley turf, with the added bonus of having a recognisable public image. The problem is that they aren’t old enough, dying enough, or dead to warrant a statue yet. It’s not the nicest charge to levy on them, but this very issue reared its head a few years ago, also exposing the flaws of a public poll.
When the people of St. Helens voted for Kieron Cunningham to be honoured with a statue—representing the town’s synonymous Rugby League club—there were outcries about whether a current player should have been eligible, and whether he deserved it over the likes of the aforementioned Murphy, Tom Van Vollenhoven, and Vince Karalius. Given these men played largely two generations before this 2007 vote, it was no surprise that the popular choice, Cunningham, was a man most voters recognised.
It doesn’t help that Rugby League’s international game has little impact on Wembley’s history. The two memorable events that spring to my mind involving Great Britain both occurred in the 1990s.
The first event was a victory over Australia in the opening test match of the 1994 Kangaroo tour. This was where Shaun Edwards was sent off for almost decapitating the Green and Golds’ forward Bradley Clyde with a "clothesline". The game was later rescued by the Lions’ Jonathan Davies with his classic try in the corner (gleefully repeated later ad infinitum in BBC Grandstand’s opening titles).
Second was the 1992 World Cup final, the most memorable part of which was Steve Renouf’s late try that secured the trophy for the antipodean visitors.
So that makes a statue of a wild high tackle, or, let’s face it, a player recognised more as a rugby union man, or an Australian whose bronzed head-guard clad features would more resemble Dr. Zaius, conjuring up bizarre imagery of a pseudo post-apocalyptic Planet of the Apes scenario with the roles of Renouf and the Statue of Liberty reversed.
There is, however, one person, one event that could encapsulate Rugby League at the stadium—but for perhaps all the wrong reasons. Arguably the most recognisable Rugby League moment at Wembley, certainly in the mainstream sports fan’s conscious, happened when one player missed an easy goal attempt, in front of the posts, which would have otherwise won his team the spoils.
In the 1968 Challenge Cup final, Wakefield’s Don Fox—the "Man of the Match"—skewed an otherwise certain two-points, handing Leeds the trophy on a plate with an 11-10 victory. Whether it was the immense pressure on the kick or the terrible pitch conditions (the game wasn’t coined "the waterspalsh final" for nothing), the miss prompted BBC commentator Eddie Waring to coin what remains Rugby League’s "they think it’s all over..." moment, when he instinctively sympathised: "...the poor lad."
This moment—a miss, a stain on a great player’s career—can, conversely, sum up Rugby League. In football, penalty misses are largely ridiculed: Chelsea’s John Terry against Manchester United in the 2008 Champions League final, numerous England misses—Stuart Pierce, Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate, David Batty amongst them—and Italy’s Roberto Baggio in the 1994 World Cup final. Here, despite the huge amount of pressure involved and the mere matter of placing the ball past a goalkeeper, the football player should always score.
But you can’t help but feel for Don Fox after his miss, regardless of which club you support. Perhaps this value of empathy is what makes Rugby League supporters a different breed. And, of course, it’s one of Wembley’s greatest scenes.
So should a piece of quite frankly poor play be recognised in the form of a Don Fox statue at Wembley? If an upbeat moment is sought after, then is Martin Offiah’s long range try for Wigan against Leeds in the 1994 Challenge Cup final more deserving? It’s a tough choice. Let’s hope a Rugby League commemorative statue is given the green light at Wembley, because for the debate alone, it’ll be interesting to see which player the public piles its support behind.