The Road to Wembley
How the Sheffield Eagles Reached the Challenge Cup Final
In an article in the Sheffield Star before the fourth round game journalist Simon Meeks said “A decent cup run, maybe the final four, is a realistic target and attainable with reasonable luck in the draw.” It proved to be more than that.
1998 - Year of the Eagles
The Eagles had finished the 1997 season in 8th position, with John Kear having taken over as coach part way through that season. The last game of 1997 was a loss against Wigan in the Premiership Semi-Final. Through those 19 games in charge that season, John Kear saw the potential that the squad of players had. Not just as individuals but their ability to play together as a team and for each other. Before the start of the 1998 season John Kear approached the board of The Club and set out his idea of winning the Challenge Cup in 1998.
Once he had convinced the board it was then a case of convincing the players.
The fourth round game was the Eagles first competitive game of the 1998 season. They played Leigh away, who they had knocked out of the Challenge Cup five times in the previous nine seasons. They went on to beat Leigh 66-11, with Matt Crowther scoring four tries, a career best for a game for him at that point.
The fifth round saw the Eagles drawn against the amateur team Egremont Rangers, this time at home. The Eagles won comfortably 84-6, with Nick Pinkney this time scoring four tries, meaning the Club were in the Challenge Cup quarter finals for the first time in their history.
This first ever quarter final appearance was against Castleford, live on Grandstand – another first for the Eagles. This was a much tougher challenge for the Eagles, with a strong Castleford team who has beaten both Leeds and Bradford in previous rounds. The Eagles scored first through Paul Carr with them leading 16 – 8 at half time, before winning the game 32-22 with a man of the match performance from Waisale Sovatabua.The Yorkshire Post described the Eagles performance as an “exciting, clinical and high speed approach in scoring six tries against the competition’s in form team.” After the game John Kear said “I think everyone’s got to take us seriously now.’
The semi-final against Salford was played at Headingley. The Eagles scored first through Whetu Taewa, before Salford levelled the scores then pulled ahead. A converted try by Michael Jackson meant the scores were 10-10 at half time. Despite being 18-10 down with 14 minutes to go the Eagles managed to pull it back with tries from Mark Aston and man of the match Dale Laughton, with two conversions from Aston. The players started celebrating as the hooter went but Salford had played the ball just before it was sounded. The Eagles players had quickly switch focus chase down Steve Blakely who made a break down the pitch. The victory was marred by a Salford supporter running onto the pitch after the final hooter to attack the referee Stuart Cummings, with the Eagles players quickly on hand to rescue the referee.
The Cup Run
Going into the final the odds of the Sheffield Eagles beating Wigan were 14-1 against. With the Super League season starting after the semi-final the Eagles weren’t in the best of form – losing three out of the four games before the Challenge Cup final. Wigan had won the Challenge Cup eight times between 1988 and that point. No one outside The Club was predicting a victory for the Eagles, in fact many fans doubted it themselves. For them it was a day out and a chance to experience the atmosphere at Wembley, as it may never happen again. The coaches and players had a different idea.