Real men cry and that was the case at Wembley Stadium on 29 August 2009.
As the final hooter rang around London’s iconic venue to give Warrington a 25-16 win over Huddersfield, the most striking image that still remains with me from that day was not something which occurred on the pitch but of a grown man stood in front of me in floods of tears being consoled by his wife.
“Why’s he crying?” my naive 16-year-old self wondered. “We did it… we won!”
But it’s only now on reflection do I understand the significance of that Wembley win – the club’s first in 35 years.
Flash-forward to the present day and Warrington, now a leading force in Super League, are currently chasing an elusive treble, with this Saturday’s Challenge Cup final the first piece of the jigsaw.
But it wasn’t always this way. When I first began supporting the club in 2002 the side were at the foot of the Super League table battling relegation. It was only a penultimate day of the season win over Castleford which meant the Wolves narrowly avoided the drop that year. That of course came just a couple of years after the very real prospect of the club folding and ceasing to exist due to financial troubles.
When I used to watch other teams battling it out in the Challenge Cup Final and Grand Final growing up I used to sit back and think of how incredible it would be to one day see my team competing in those finals. But it always felt like an impossible dream.
To put it bluntly, Simon Moran’s investment in the club has helped turn that dream into a reality. The transformation didn’t happen overnight but the way the club has progressed and grown over the last decade from being Super League strugglers to now potentially being two months away from writing their name in the history books is extraordinary.
Head coach Tony Smith will lead Warrington out for the fourth time at Wembley on Saturday and shortly after his appointment in March 2009 made winning the competition his top priority.
The route to the final was not easy that year. A golden-point drop-goal from Lee Briers saw the Wire edge past Hull KR in the quarter-finals before the side overcame a tough test against local rivals Wigan 39-26 in a tense semi-final.
But they were there and for the first time in 19 years Warrington had a chance at lifting silverware.
Most of the pre-match talk from fans was that the result was irrelevant and simply making the final was an achievement in itself. That notion quickly changed once Richie Mathers crossed inside the opening two minutes to give the Wolves an early lead.
The game was a dogged, nail-biting affair but as Briers slotted over a drop-goal to give Warrington a nine point lead with a couple minutes remaining it began to dawn that Warrington’s name was on the trophy.
As Briers joined captain Adrian Morley to lift the cup, the 30,000 Wire fans inside Wembley soaked up the success they had been starved of for so long.
The joke at the time was that supporters should enjoy the moment because it would be another 35 years before we would win the trophy again. The players instantly proved that wrong a year later by comprehensively beating Leeds 30-6. By 2012, it was almost habitual as Warrington again eased past the Rhinos on the Wembley turf.
Ahead of Warrington’s fourth Wembley appearance in eight seasons on Saturday it’s important to reflect on how far the club has come in a short space of time.
“It’s always your year!” Well, personally, in 2009 it was.
While the whole of Europe will have their eyes focused on France and the start of Euro 2016 on Friday night, Super League has its own headline act at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
Warrington versus Hull FC may have represented a dead rubber fixture in recent seasons with little to write home about but now, after 17 rounds in 2016, it’s a mouth-watering top of the table clash with Hull able to go four points ahead of the Wolves at the summit with a win.
Since the advent of Super League in 1996 only four teams have lifted the trophy in the Grand Final at Old Trafford – Bradford, Leeds, St Helens and Wigan.
Bradford have been relegated. Leeds have fallen. St Helens have faltered. And although Wigan sit fourth with the same number of points as Warrington they are yet to reach the heights from previous campaigns and have scored the second fewest points in the league.
There is a very real chance that the trend is about to be broken this year and there is a possibility that Friday’s game could be a Grand Final rehearsal.
Both sides have been there before. The Airlie Birds made their solitary Old Trafford appearance back in 2006 but were beaten 26-4 by St Helens.
Warrington have made the trip twice but came off second best on both occasions – most notably surrendering a 16-6 half-time lead against Wigan in 2013 to lose 30-16.
For Super League’s two biggest underachievers, is this the year one of them finally takes the title?
‘It’s always your year’ is the chant opposition fans have for years mocked Warrington supporters with but could 2016 actually be the year the Wolves taste success?
After a poor 2015 saw Tony Smith’s side finish 6th, change was needed and a host of new additions have bolstered the side.
The experienced Kurt Gidley has been a revelation and his half-back partnership with Chris Sandow has helped the Wolves become the league’s highest points scorers.
Warrington lost four out of six league games in Sandow’s recent absence with a hamstring injury but have put together two comprehensive wins over Leeds and St Helens since his return.
The Wolves’ other defeat this season came at the hands of Hull on Easter Monday who edged a thrilling contest 26-24 at the KC Stadium.
Super League’s sleeping giants have awoken in 2016 and rightfully sit top of the table having won 11 of their last 12 league games.
They are unbeaten in their last seven and head into Friday’s game full of confidence that they can stretch their lead at the top to four points.
After an 8th place finish in 2015 the side were determined to work on their faults in pre-season and are reaping the rewards.
The majority of the team are in the form of their careers with Marc Sneyd and Jamie Shaul stand out performers so far this campaign.
Lee Radford has also praised the medical staff for keeping his team relatively injury-free but even when they have missed the likes of Frank Pritchard and Leon Pryce their strength in depth has ensured their performances don’t drop.
Perhaps it’s too soon to get carried away but either way both sides will be looking to show they can play like champions and not just contenders on Friday night.
“We didn’t even learn French in school!” Richie Myler chuckles when asked how his French lessons are going.
The former Warrington and Salford scrum-half left behind the north-west of England at the end of 2015 for a new chapter in his career living and playing in the south of France with the Catalans Dragons.
The 25-year-old scored 80 tries in 142 appearances during his six seasons with the Wolves and most notably lifted the Challenge Cup in 2012 following a 35-18 win over Leeds at Wembley.
Warrington just missed out on attaining the double that season as Leeds avenged their defeat when the sides met in the Grand Final at Old Trafford; an occasion in which Myler grabbed the first try to give Wire supporters hope of winning their first league title in 57 years.
The half-back was again on the losing side at Old Trafford 12 months later as Wigan beat the Wolves 30-16, but the experiences of playing in the grandeur occasions are what Myler says he cherishes most about his time in the Primrose and Blue.
“I had an amazing time at Warrington,” he reflected.
“I had six great years there. I’ve been fortunate to play in a Challenge Cup final and Grand Finals. We got beat in those two Grand Finals but it was still a great experience.
“I made a lot of good friends there and the club was very good to me. It will be interesting when I go back- hopefully I’ll get a good reception.
“I left on good terms and the club seems to be heading in the right direction as well which is always a good thing.”
After playing an integral role in Salford being promoted to Super League in 2009, the then 19-year-old became the most expensive teenage signing in rugby league history when Warrington parted with £200,000 for his services.
Myler spent his first five years at the Wolves playing alongside Catalans assistant coach Michael Monaghan and he claims the opportunity to work with the Australian again was one of the factors which influenced his decision to move to the south of France.
“I’m good friends with Michael away from rugby,” he explained.
“When the option to come to Catalans came up there was the draw of Monas being here and he told me good stuff. It wasn’t the deciding factor but to work with him again was definitely a reason why I’ve joined here.
“The way the club is heading was a big draw and I’m excited for my time here.”
For someone who has played in England for his whole career, Myler could easily be forgiven for speaking tentatively about the challenges which face him and his family in adapting to an unfamiliar culture.
However, even through a scrambled phone connection you can hear the excitement brimming in his voice when talking about the new chapter of his career.
When it became clear he wouldn’t be playing at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in 2016, Myler and his wife, former Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, began to assess their next move.
The half-back became a father to his son Ernie back in June last year and despite rumoured interest from NRL side Manly he says the family needed a fresh start that wasn’t a million miles from home.
“There were a couple of other options but for myself and my family Catalans was the right choice,” he said.
“We’ve just had the baby and it would probably have been too far to have gone to Australia so across the channel was the right way to go.
“We’ve settled in well. It hasn’t really been much of a culture shock just a change to the way of life. For example on Sundays everything is closed, it’s a family day which is good. Nothing opens at all- if you want to go the supermarket you go on a Saturday.
“It’s a nice place to live and is quite relaxing.”
Myler’s new club Catalans are Super League’s Jekyll and Hyde team. The side have consistently made the top-eight in the past few seasons but dismal displays on their travels have prevented Laurent Frayssinous’ men from challenging for silverware.
The Dragons won just twice away from home last season- a 40-4 drubbing away to bottom of the league Wakefield and a 28-24 dead rubber against Hull FC in the Super 8s.
On the other hand, their home form is immaculate with only Leeds and Huddersfield leaving the Stade Gilbert Brutus with the two points in 2015.
After training in 20 degree heat for the past couple of weeks, Catalans were understandably perturbed by their visit to a freezing, rain-soaked DW Stadium last Friday in their opening game of the season.
Laurent Frayssinous’ side made 12 handling errors in the opening 40 minutes as they slowly adapted to conditions but put in a stronger second-half performance to narrowly lose 12-6 to a Wigan side who remain favourites with bookmakers to lift the Super League title in October.
Whether it is preparation, mentality or failure to adapt to conditions Myler insists the side are determined to overcome their away struggles this year.
“As an away team one of the factors you have to overcome is the travel and that’s always a tough ask,” he said.
“It’s an obvious fall and one we’ve spoken about putting right this year. But on the other hand you have to look at how good the home form was last year. We’re a really consistent team at home and hopefully we can continue that.
“If we can pick up a few more away wins this season then we shouldn’t be too far off the top.”
Myler is one of seven new faces at the Dragons this year and has the difficult task of replacing Scott Dureau following the Australian’s retirement at the end of 2015.
The nucleus of every successful rugby league side is a dynamic and audacious partnership in the halves and Catalans’ supporters will be hoping that Myler and Todd Carney will link-up and be the Dragons’ creative force this season.
Carney too is looking to kick-start his career in the south of France this season after injuries restricted him to making just 12 appearances last campaign and Myler is relishing the opportunity to play alongside the former Cronulla stand-off.
“He’s a very smart player and it’s good to be able to work alongside a player like that.
“Hopefully it brings my game on. He’s a talented player and hopefully we can get the best out of each other this year and be successful.
“There’s a good feeling amongst the team and a good spirit. There is that language barrier and it could have easily been a case of the English-speaking blokes sitting in one corner and the French in another but that’s not the case. You mix, get to know each other and I think that’s helped the team bond.
“We’re aiming for the top 8 and if we’re successful in the top 8 then we’re going to be happy with how we’ve done.”
Myler has lined up on the away side six times at the Stade Gilbert Brutus during his career but will walk out in Catalonian colours for the first time in front of the home fans on Saturday when the Dragons face Hull FC.
The half-back praised the fans for the electric atmosphere they generate and is excited to make his home debut in front of them at the weekend.
“We train at the stadium everyday and some fans come down and watch us train,” he said.
“It’ll be nice to play in front of a big crowd hopefully and to play here with the crowd cheering in my favour for the first time.
“As an away player it’s not always a good experience playing here. The fans can be very vocal but now they’ll be on my side.”
2016 is an exciting year for rugby league in France due to the reintroduction of Toulouse Olympique into the English competition and Challenge Cup.
The side will join League 1 with the intention of promotion to the Championship for next year and the long-term aim of joining Catalans in Super League.
Renewed interest, support and investment in the sport has led to Toulouse’s progress and Myler agrees that passion for rugby league among the locals is evident.
“There’s a massive draw for rugby league in this part of the world,” he says.
“When you meet the fans and you meet the locals in Perpignan you see their passion for the sport and Catalans. People come from far and wide to watch the team.
“If there ends up being another French team in the competition one day it’ll only make the fan base here even stronger.”
Warrington’s home-tie against Leigh in the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup next month certainly raises a few questions.
Can Leigh add another Super League scalp to their impressive cup run? Will the Centurions make the semi-finals for the first time since 1971? And which side will Micky Higham line-up for?
Following persistent rumours in recent weeks of an audacious bid by Leigh to sign the veteran hooker from the Wolves with immediate effect, Warrington released a statement last week confirming that although a bid was made the club had rejected the move.
The 34 year-old is still a big part of head coach Tony Smith’s plans and is currently in his seventh season at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
In a Wolves side full of emerging young talent, Higham’s experience is key.
With fellow hooker and reigning man-of-steel Daryl Clark sidelined at the moment with a knee injury, Higham is required to step-up during the England international’s absence and dictate the play from dummy-half.
Youngster Brad Dwyer has been recalled from his loan at London Broncos, and although he impressed in the Wolves’ 52-10 Challenge Cup victory over Dewsbury, asking the 22-year old to bridge the gap left by Higham and Clark could prove to be too much responsibility.
Despite Warrington rejecting the bid last week, the saga rumbles on and Higham’s absence from the team on Friday night only adds to the speculation that a move could still happen.
Warrington first-team coach Richard Agar confirmed after Friday’s match that Higham was not in the right frame of mind to play and the player will sit down for talks with Tony Smith this week.
Agar told the press following the win away at Dewsbury: “Was Micky rested? You could say that.
“We’ve had a difficult week. I think it’s been well documented some of the stuff that’s gone on and we just didn’t feel that Micky was in the right place to play.”
It has also become apparent that Leigh approached Higham first rather than the club in the hope of persuading the former England international to return to the club which he started his career at.
Higham isn’t the first experienced Super League player the Centurions have chased this season after landing forward Gareth Hock from Salford earlier in the campaign.
The Championship leaders have also activated the option to extend 35 year-old Fuifui Moimoi’s stay at the club for a further year, with head coach Paul Rowley understanding the need for experience in order for his side to reach the Super League and then maintain their stay in the elite division.
Higham is also sought after as cover for vice-captain Sean Penkywicz who has been out of the side since the start of April through injury.
Leigh have won 25 consecutive matches; a run which dates back to last July. Their wins in the Challenge Cup over Wakefield and Salford indicate that they could succeed in the Qualifiers later this year and earn a Super League spot in 2016.
Whether Higham joins the Leigh side that challenges for a place in Super League next season or stays at Warrington to have one last attempt at Grand Final success this year remains to be seen.
When the Wolves and the Centurions line-up at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in five weeks time, Higham could well have switched allegiance and be looking to inflict misery on his current side.
The Challenge Cup semi-finals are finally here! Leeds take on Warrington in a mouth-watering clash on Saturday, followed by an eagerly anticipated match on Sunday between two of the league’s surprise packages this season- Castleford and Widnes. Many people are hoping the outcome from this weekend’s matches will produce either a Yorkshire or Cheshire derby at Wembley in the final later this month, but any combination between two of the Super League’s top 8 sides should make for an entertaining final.
However, whilst attention this weekend turns to the semi-finals, you could easily be forgiven for forgetting how the 4 teams got there. The quarter-finals were held just over 2 months ago, and 8 rounds of Super League have been played since. The gap between the quarters and the semis should be long enough to whet the fans appetite, but 2 months is arguably too long. Whilst all 4 sets of fans will find their voice this weekend, you can’t help but feel that some of the intensity, interest and excitement of this year’s competition has been waned by the poor scheduling.
The 14 Super League sides joined this year’s competition in the 4th round after 7 Super League games had passed. Three rounds later, the Cup returned and then the quarter finals were contested 4 weeks after that. If momentum and intensity in the Cup had been building, the 9 weeks since has dissipated that feeling.
Even more bizarrely, the final is only 2 weeks away, giving fans limited time to purchase tickets, arrange transport and travel plans. With the final being played on a bank holiday weekend, some fans will opt to stay over for a couple of nights in the capital and aren’t given a lot of time to make plans due to the scheduling.
On the other hand, you could argue the Super League Grand Final is similar, and offers fans just one week to buy tickets and make plans. However, in a primarily northern sport, making travel arrangements for Old Trafford in Manchester is a lot easier for the majority of fans compared to London.
The competition’s scheduling also upset St Helens head coach Nathan Brown earlier this year who, after his side’s 32-12 5th round defeat to Leeds, was unhappy with having to play a cup match on the back of the Easter weekend double header.
Brown said at the time: “It is the worst possible time to play the next round of the Cup, the week after Easter. It is too much pressure. The RFL have done a lot of good stuff but the pumpkins are on when it comes to the scheduling. Either the Easter Monday game is not an important game or the Challenge Cup isn’t important.”
It hasn’t always been like this. Up until 2005, the Challenge Cup was a competition held in the early stages of the season, and it wasn’t uncommon for the first 2 games of each season to be Challenge Cup ties. The final was held between the end of April and the middle of May, and gave teams something to play for in the early part of the season.
The RFL changed the scheduling in 2005, with the first August Challenge Cup final being won by Hull FC in a dramatic 25-24 win over Leeds. The move was seen to help give the competition a more season-long approach, with the final corresponding with the climax of Super League.
It’s been confirmed by the RFL that the 2015 final will be played on the 29th of August, although it hasn’t yet been revealed when each round of the cup will be played.
The proposed expansion of the World Club Challenge means it’s best the Challenge Cup doesn’t revert back to the old, early season structure, but a change to the schedule is definitely needed. A round every 3 or 4 weeks would be a good solution, and hopefully maintain the interest, competitiveness and excitement that surrounds Rugby League’s most prestigious cup competition.
“I feel privileged to have played for so long. Unfortunately it has come to an end but it was going to one day and the doctor took that out of my hands.”
Those were the sad words from Rugby League icon Lee Briers on Friday evening, having been forced to retire due to ongoing difficulties with a neck injury picked up earlier on in the Wolves’ latest Super League campaign. The Warrington Stand-off had recently signed a new one year contract extension, but the injury brings an end to the Welshman’s illustrious career.
Having joined Warrington from St Helens in 1997, Briers enjoyed 17 seasons with the Wolves, becoming their record points scorer with 2,586 points in 425 appearances. He won 3 Challenge Cups (Including Lance Todd trophy winner in 2010), the League Leaders Shield in 2011, made 2 Super League Grand Final appearances as well as making 23 caps for Wales. Perhaps his only disappointment looking back will be a solitary Great Britain appearance to his name after the ‘Briers for Britain’ campaign never really took off.
No matter which team you follow, Briers will be missed by the Rugby League community. His skill, creativity and passion for his club were what made him stand out. When Lee Briers was on top form, he was like a magician. His kicking game, his passing game, always thinking 2 or 3 plays ahead. Throughout his time at Warrington when Lee didn’t play, it was evident. Even in his last season he was sorely missed when absent, with that spark or flair of creativity being lost without him. When the team news was announced he was always the first name I checked for because his importance to the Warrington team was huge. His personality will be missed also, constantly driving the team whilst having a tongue-in-cheek character that would wind the opposition and referees up (Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir).
Whilst looking back on his career there are many highlights. The 18-17 victory of Leeds Rhinos in 2006 to earn Warrington their first ever play-off win comes to mind. Briers ran the show that night, and cancelled out Kevin Sinfield’s drop goal with one of his own on the 70th minute to take the scores to 17-17. Then in the 79th minute, Briers landed another drop goal 40 metres out to secure the victory for the Wolves.
Briers’s drop goal record was the most prolific of any kicker in the modern era, although it was mainly in the early part of his career in which he was kicking them for fun. He holds the record for the most drop goals in a game (5) against Halifax in 2002. Right till the end of his career the drop goal king was rescuing the Wolves, with a last gasp drop goal again Wigan in February 2013 securing a 17-17 score.
Lee also played an instrumental role in guiding Warrington to their first Challenge Cup in 35 years, with a 25-16 victory of Huddersfield Giants at Wembley in 2009. Further Challenge Cup successes followed in 2010 and 2012, with Briers being awarded the Lance Todd trophy in the 30-6 Final win over Leeds Rhinos for an outstanding Man of the Match performance.
A victory in a Grand Final would have topped off a sensational career for Lee, but unfortunately for him the Wolves couldn’t conjure up a victory in the 2012 or 2013 finals. Briers will continue to be around the Warrington Wolves, working in a coaching role alongside Tony Smith. The biggest challenge now for Warrington will be filling the void left by an irreplaceable talent, as their quest for that first Grand Final victory just became a lot more difficult. Will Stefan Ratchford be asked to step up? Or will Smith look to strengthen from elsewhere? Either way… There’s only one Lee Briers.
– Lee’s Autobiography ‘Off the Cuff’ is available now.
– It will be interesting to see how the club recognises Lee’s time and contribution at the club. Whatever happens, he will be sorely missed and not forgotten.