‘Seasons past’ – 40 years ago
The 1979/80 season was, of course, memorable because of its’ final game – ‘that Wembley final’. So much has been written about that game that I do not propose to cover it all again here. I would like to concentrate instead on the rest of the season.
Rovers went into that season as the reigning rugby league champions, but, rightly or wrongly, I got a sense that it was the Challenge Cup that was at the top of their agenda for 1979/80 – certainly it had been a career-long ambition of captain/coach Roger Millward.
The season began inauspiciously with a first round Yorkshire Cup first round defeat at Wakefield. All the players who had won the first division title were still with the club, but for that first game, Mike Smith, Clive Sullivan, Steve Hartley, Roger Millward, John Millington, David Watkinson, Phil Lowe, Paul Rose and Phil Hogan were all missing. Smith, Sullivan, Millington and Hogan all returned for the first league game a fortnight later, when Rovers got their league campaign off to a disappointing start with a 14-13 defeat at Workington. It never really recovered from there, and by the turn of the year the Robins had lost five league games – the same number they had lost at the time when they were crowned champions after 28 games of the previous season.
There was a cup run to the last-ever BBC2 Floodlit Trophy final – played against Hull FC at then Boulevard, when Rovers, again missing several key players, were well beaten 13-3. What little hope there was of winning the title at the end of December was extinguished by four defeats in the four games in January. One of these was at home to Wigan, against whom Rovers had been drawn at Central Park in the first round of the Challenge Cup. By this point, the Challenge Cup was the best hope of silverware, and to boost their chances and revive the season, the Robins paid Bradford Northern a then world record £38,000 to bring Len Casey back to Craven Park – just over a year since he had left. But Casey returned an even better player, and in his first match back, was named man-of-the-match in Rovers 18-13 Challenge Cup win at Wigan. That was the start of eight wins in ten games for Rovers, that took them quite comfortably past Castleford, Warrington and Halifax in the cup, and set up Rovers first Wembley appearance since 1964.
This was achieved despite sustaining above average injuries, that resulted in an unsettled side. Five players were tried at full-back – starting with Steve Leighton and ending with David Hall; Steve Hubbard, Smith, Bernard Watson and Sullivan were fairly settled as the three-quarter line; Roger Millward started only ten games, so David Hall and Steve Hartley shared most of the off-half duties between them, whilst Allan Agar missed only six games at scrum-half. In the forwards, Roy Holdstock and Brian Lockwood each started over 30 games at prop, but hooker Watkinson started only six games, and David Heslop deputised early in the season before being displaced by the signing of Graham Tyreman, who himself was displaced by the signing of Ray Price; Lowe played 28 games in the second row and had six different partners; whilst Hall, Hogan and Casey shared the loose-forward duties.
Hubbard, who made the most appearances, missing only three of the 42 games, kicked 138 goals and scored 30 tries, thereby setting a new club point-scoring record for a season with 366.
By the end of the season, Bernard Watson, Geoff Clarkson, John Moore, Clive Sullivan, Allan Agar, Roger Millward and Brian Lockwood had played their last games for the club. It was a huge amount of ability and experience for any club to lose over a few weeks, and resulted in a rather different looking side when Rovers kicked off a new season just over three months later.
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