Playing at Smales pace sank champions

John Ledger talks to the Dewsbury coach who plotted Leeds's downfall in their previous title defence. IT remains the finest hour in the history of Dewsbury rugby league club; for the followers of Leeds, the events of May 19, 1973 are remembered for an altogether different reason.

Today, at Old Trafford, Leeds will attempt to achieve where they failed on the last occasion they defended the championship.

Unlike this evening, when there is nothing to separate the Rhinos and their Engage Super League grand final opponents Bradford Bulls, Leeds went into the 1973 Championship final at Odsal as clear favourites.

They had finished third in the league going into the top-16 play-offs while Dewsbury were eighth. Leeds had also beaten Dewsbury in the Yorkshire Cup final earlier that season and after overcoming Bramley, Castleford and St Helens in the play-offs went into the final with a historic second title looking elementary.

But that did not take into account the strengths of opponents who, just as Hull did in the Challenge Cup this season, timed their quest for glory to perfection.

Superbly led by Mick Stephenson, Dewsbury opened up a 12-4 lead by the interval with tries by the hooker and Allan Agar and two goals and a drop-goal from the boot of centre Nigel Stephenson.

A second try from Mick Stephenson on 44 minutes extended Dewsbury's lead and though Leeds hit back with tries by Graham Eccles, Phil Cookson and Les Dyl, it was not to be with Nigel Stephenson converting his own try to complete a resounding 22-13 success.

Leading journalist Jack Winstanley wrote at the time: "Dewsbury's win sprung from a superb team effort that paid ample tribute to the coaching and inspiration of (coach) Tommy Smales. They bewildered a jaded Leeds outfit with a series of scissors moves and dummy passes that might have looked grossly over-elaborate had they not worked to such perfection."

Looking back on his greatest achievement in a career which spanned spells as a loose forward at Wigan, Barrow and Featherstone before coaching stints at Dewsbury, Featherstone, Batley and Bramley, Smales has fond memories of the 1973 final.

Now 66 and enjoying a comfortable retirement at his home in Featherstone, the avuncular Smales recalled: "No one gave us much of a chance, but we liked it that way. I know a lot was made about our tactics in the final, but the key to it all was the team spirit at Dewsbury.

"We got straight up in their face from the kick-off and played at our peak from start to finish. Leeds didn't know what had hit them.

"Of course losing Alan Hardisty, who was sent off for a stiff-arm tackle on John Bates, didn't help, but even if he'd stayed on I don't think the result would have been any different."

Smales had joined Dewsbury as A-team coach four years earlier and after losing his first eight matches found himself summoned before the club's committee.

"I thought I was for the chop, but when I went in they told me that the first team coach Dave Cox had decided to emigrate and was I interested in taking over," he recalled. "Of course I jumped at the chance."

Dewsbury's pivotal player was Mick 'Stevo' Stephenson, whose calling of the intricate moves Smales introduced after a long struggle in training helped propel the club to the first title success in their 98-year history.

His Harry Sunderland Trophy-winning performance also led to him seeking fame and fortune in Australia with top Sydney club Penrith Panthers and accelerated Smales's exit from Crown Flatt.

"I think we got something like 13,000 from Penrith for 'Stevo', which was a lot of money at the time," adds Smales. "I put it to the committee that we ought to draw up a rolling five-year plan and use the money to secure the club's long-term success.

"They said 'no'. They had already decided they wanted to put the money in the Halifax Building Society and use the interest to keep the team we already had going.

"It was only then that I realised they hadn't a clue and that I was banging my head against a brick wall."

Smales left in frustration at the end of the following season and his only regret from his time at Dewsbury is that he never received a Championship final winners' medal.

"The Rugby League said there was one for me, but though people like the chairman and the club secretary got one, I never saw mine," he said. "I'm not too bothered now. I know exactly what I did and that's enough for me."

The history books also record just what Tommy Smales and Dewsbury achieved in 1973. Whether Bradford Bulls and Brian Noble do the same this evening remains to be seen.