Last Word on Rugby is taking a look at some of the most memorable seasons in the Super League era, picking out one team each time. First up is the inaugural campaign in 1996, focusing on the entertaining St Helens side.
St Helens 1996 Season
The St Helens side in the 1996 Super League could be considered as one of the best never to win the title. Falling at the final hurdle after their record-breaking league campaign.
Yet it drew together a group of players and a coach who wanted nothing more, than to ‘light up’ the game. With only two losses, unfortunately, that did not translate into a championship yet, it will always be fondly remembered by fans in England, as one of the stellar sides to run out onto the Merseyside field.
Background to a ‘stellar’ Saints 1996 season
The Saints had endured a disappointing season in 1995 finishing fourth with 24 points from their 20 matches, seeing rivals Wigan top the table 12 points ahead.
However, they had shown their attacking prowess which would be evident in 1996 as they scored 732 points, the second-highest in the league and they were involved in entertaining games as they leaked 508, the most of the top four sides.
Patchy away form had been their downfall, just four wins coupled with six defeats including successive losses on the road to the two teams directly below them, Sheffield Eagles and Castleford Tigers hampering their title aspirations.
They did reach the Regal Trophy final but fell to Wigan 25-16, the last of three derby losses in 1995. In fact, a late-season victory over Halifax would be the Saints’ sole over the teams above them.
Hugely impressive ’96 league campaign
Early confidence was evident as the Super League campaign began with a 62-0 thrashing of Workington Town, the previous season’s Wooden Spoon winners.
If this was to be expected then Saints made the rest of the league take notice by thrashing Wigan at home 41-26 and Leeds at Headingley 46-24. Considering their fortunes the year before against the league’s top two, this was a sudden turnaround and a sign that Saints could seriously challenge at the top.
In a curtain-raiser for the Wembley showpiece, they got the better of Bradford and narrowly beat Halifax in another high-scoring affair.
They returned to league action in style, making it 100 points in two games by battering Oldham before victories over London and Warrington, winning by just three points cumulatively.
Four further thrashings occurred before McRae saw his side lose for the first time, unsurprisingly against their biggest rivals Wigan; a heavy 35-19 reverse. This ended their outstanding start of 12 successive league victories in abrupt fashion but they had ‘lit up’ the season to date, scoring 537 points and conceding 244.
After rebounding with a convincing win against Leeds, they suffered a second defeat in three games when they were resoundingly beaten 50-22 at Bradford.
They bounced back with a convincing win over Halifax, part of a seven-match winning streak to finish the season including a comfortable win over Warrington ensuring a flawless record at Knowsley Road.
Premiership Final disappointment
Despite their outstanding quality, they only finished ahead of Wigan by one point. This resulted in them playing fourth-placed London in the Premiership Trophy semi-final. An inspired Bobbie Goulding performance with a haul of 13 points, saw them seal a 25-14 win and a final against Wigan.
Wigan had been dominant in recent years with four Premiership Trophies in the past five years; including two wins over Saints although, one of their two 1996 season losses also came against their rivals.
The final was an anti-climax for the Saints faithful as they trailed 18-8 at the break. By full-time, St Helens had been duly thrashed 44-14.
Saints showcased their attacking talents with centre Paul Newlove finishing as the league’s top try-scorer, crossing 28 times.
Bobbie Goulding scored the most goals (117) and points (257) in the 1996 campaign. Fullback Steve Prescott also showed his considerable talent, along with 19-year-old Kieron Cunningham impressing as hooker.
Saints had a young team in 1996 with only two players over the age of 27 but, veteran forward Derek McVey and fullback Phil Veivers made important contributions, providing invaluable experience.
Challenge Cup Final triumph
Coached by Shaun McRae, Saints started off their campaign by competing in the first Challenge Cup of the summer era with matches until the final played on consecutive weekends prior to the league season starting.
The first two rounds saw 58 points scored by the Knowsley Road outfit before a third successive away game saw them triumph at Salford.
This led to a semi-final against Widnes which they edged 24-14 to set up a final with Bradford at Wembley.
A theme of their season, a points-fest played out in the final with doubles each for Danny Arnold and Steve Prescott confirming a 40-32 win and a first cup triumph in 20 years.
Conclusion on the St Helens 1996 side
This St Helens side will be remembered as one of the most entertaining in the pre-Super League, with an array of talent and threats all over the park.
They ‘lit up’ the game and for many, St Helens and Wigan were equal on the table but, the Saints were the most entertaining rugby league team in Great britain.
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