Ernest Ward may have won the Lance Todd Trophy in the 1949 Wembley final but few will forget the immense impact of veteran prop Frank Whitcombe.
The legendary Ward had been Bradford Northern’s captain in three successive trips to the Twin Towers, lifting the Challenge Cup after defeating Leeds in 1946 and 1947 before losing out to Wigan the following season.
Inevitably, he played a crucial role in this final as well, producing the delicate kick that generated Batten’s opening try and then successfully adding the conversion.
Ward also improved Trevor Foster’s second-half try and kicked a penalty but it was not the stylish centre who proved the real key to success here.
He won the Lance Todd Trophy by a landslide, bagging more than twice as many votes from members of the press as any other player, but it was his visionary coach who had the biggest impact on the outcome.
Dai Rees pulled off a masterstroke by including the formidable Whitcombe in a major selection shock.
The giant forward, one of the club’s most revered players in its long history, had not played in any of the earlier rounds but was recalled for Wembley and delivered a masterclass.
His imposing frame – Whitcombe weighed 18-and-a-half stone – was a weapon in its own right and Rees knew, though he may not be as mobile as others, his fearsome scrummaging strength could be vital.
So it proved with the legendary Welshman, a world record signing for a front-row when he arrived from Broughton Rangers for £850 in 1938, helped them dominate winning 39 scrums to Halifax’s paltry 18. Rees knew if Whitcombe could simply secure the ball it mattered little what else he did and, given he was approaching his 35th birthday and became the oldest player to feature in the Challenge Cup final, the coach realised he may have scant energy for much more involvement anyway.
With such a wealth of possession, Bradford were always set to make up for their disappointment 12 months earlier and spirited Halifax tired as they struggled to deal with Whitcombe’s sheer power.
Against Wigan in 1948, he had become the first losing player to win the Lance Todd Trophy and retired just days after this match having played more than 300 games for the West Yorkshire club.
Whitcombe had also won praise from the Australians three years earlier. He was genuinely feared by them when Great Britain memorably won the Ashes on the Indomitables Tour and so, alongside the brilliant Foster, he helped rule Wembley.
Against Halifax, international loose forward Ken Traill was another outstanding performer as Bradford’s greater experience of the big occasion and energy saw them eke out victory.
Their opponents had chances and did not lack effort but were constantly denied by an iron-like defence while Ward, the Great Britain captain and princely centre, guided his side with his customary grace and efficiency. The game was watched by a crowd of 95,000, the biggest ever for a Challenge Cup final, and so it was no surprise it also produced the biggest gate receipts with £22,000 taken.
On Sunday, the two sides meet again in rugby league’s most famous knockout competition with both clubs in vastly differing positions to that day more than half-a-century ago.
Wembley is far from Halifax’s thoughts. Since 1939, they have won the cup just once – in 1986 – and, simply hope to impress the rugby league public and watching television audience that they are worthy of a place back in Super League while Bradford, currently struggling in the top flight, may fancy a run to Wembley.