This weekend, for the first time in a quarter of a century, there will be no talk in the shops of St Helens and Wigan about the one game that matters more to their supporters than any other. The world is an eerie, unfamiliar place, and for rugby league fans it will never be more obvious than on Good Friday when the traditional derby between two of the sport’s most famous sides is absent.
Separated by only eight miles across Billinge Hill, these two north-west towns where rugby league is akin to a religion can often guarantee entertainment when they collide. Never was that more evident than 16 years ago.
“I think if you were going to draw up all the ingredients for a perfect derby, Good Friday 2004 was the one,” says the former St Helens full-back Paul Wellens, who played that day at the Saints’ Knowsley Road stadium in the unforgettable 21-21 draw.
His opposite number has equally fond memories. Kris Radlinski was celebrating his 28th birthday in front of a capacity crowd, the majority of whom were in no mood to pass on good wishes. “Playing at Knowsley Road was brilliant but at the same time, absolutely awful,” he says. “They once painted the changing rooms a funny colour because psychologically it was supposed to send you out on to the field tired. It was a strange place.”
St Helens were unbeaten and preserved that run with a last-gasp drop goal from Sean Long that cancelled out an earlier effort from Andy Farrell. That was anything but the full story, though. “It was an unbelievable game, such a high intensity throughout … and obviously a bit of controversy,” says Wellens.
That controversy is what makes the 2004 derby perhaps the most indelible in living memory. With the score 20-20 heading into the final quarter, and tensions starting to brew amid driving rain – traditional north-west Easter weather, some might say – the moment many had perhaps quietly expected from a game of this magnitude materialised.
There had been flare-ups throughout the opening hour but then St Helens’ Jon Wilkin and Wigan’s Terry Newton exchanged blows at the ruck. What followed was what many remember as a 26-man brawl, though one saw it slightly differently.
“I stayed well away … not a chance was I getting involved,” Radlinski says. The iconic image is of Farrell and Paul Sculthorpe, two of British rugby league’s greatest captains, hurling punches at each other as almost every player fought alongside them, and had it not been for Radlinski’s opposite number it may have been even worse.
Wellens was the man who managed to cool down the two Great Britain captains, though it was not a universally popular move. “I don’t know what I was thinking trying to break those two up – and I got some stick for it,” he says. “A few of my mates were in the pub afterwards and when I went in to meet them, I got booed. I asked what they were booing me for and they said they were annoyed I stopped the scrap because it was about to get properly tasty!”
Wilkin and Newton, the instigators of the brawl, were sent to the sin-bin; incredibly, no further action was taken against anyone else. Farrell and Long’s respective drop goals ensured the points were split and with no live Super League at the weekend Saints and Wigan will replay the classic in full on their social media channels on Friday afternoon.
It will serve as a reminder to many of how during testing times sport can provide an invaluable escape. Those in St Helens and Wigan will appreciate that pick-me-up especially. “You’re told when you’re filling your car up or going into the shops how beating Wigan is all people from St Helens really care about,” says Wellens, who grew up a stone’s thrown from Knowsley Road. Even when you play amateur games against that lot over the hill it’s drummed into you how you’ve got to beat Wigan.”
Radlinski, now Wigan’s executive director, agrees. “The overseas lads that come in are reminded early on what this derby means to people in this town. Help us win one and you’ll be remembered forever. I think with what’s going on at the minute, we’ll never take the enjoyment from that for granted ever again.”