Wigan v Cronulla: Russell turns back clock to when Wigan ruled the world

WORLD-BEATERS: Wigan's Brian Case, Joe Lydon, Richard Russell, Steve Hampson and Andy Goodway after 1987 World Club Challenge win over Manly. (Picture: Frank Orrell)
WORLD-BEATERS: Wigan's Brian Case, Joe Lydon, Richard Russell, Steve Hampson and Andy Goodway after 1987 World Club Challenge win over Manly. (Picture: Frank Orrell)
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CASTLEFORD TIGERS fans will remember Richard Russell as the robust and creative hooker who played more than 100 games for them in the 1990s.

However, earlier and in stark contrast, he was a teenage winger for Wigan on the night they stunned Australian stars Manly to win, essentially, the first World Club Challenge in 1987.

It is 30 years since that famous evening at a throbbing Central Park – almost 37,000 fans packed into Wigan’s old stadium as they edged a pulsating game 8-2.

Admittedly, the hosts boasted Great Britain stars like Ellery Hanley, Joe Lydon and Andy Goodway but their revered Sydney opponents were overwhelming favourites with Kangaroos like Michael O’Connor and Paul Vautin plus stand-off Cliff Lyons.

Captain Vautin later admitted, though, casual Manly under-estimated the British club, who once more bid for the crown when they face NRL premiers Cronulla Sharks at their modern-day DW Stadium tomorrow.

However, never mind that, was Russell – who won a cap as an England hooker when at Castleford in 1995 – really once a winger?

“I actually signed for Wigan as a centre yet ended up playing every position for them apart from prop,” he recalled to The Yorkshire Post. “I was very versatile. I was on the wing against Manly, though.

“It was Tony Barrow, at my next club Oldham, who was the man behind switching me to nine.

“He just came up to me one day and said he was thinking about playing me at hooker. I was willing to give anything a go and the rest is history. I enjoyed the switch as it meant I was more involved.”

His memories of the ’87 game, which saw Manly firebrand second-row Ronnie ‘Rambo’ Gibbs – once of Castleford – sent-off for elbowing Lydon early in the second period, remain vivid.

Oldham-born Russell said: “It was an historic game and such a memorable night. I was only 19.

“The atmosphere was just fantastic. Central Park was packed. I remember nobody told us there would be fireworks so, when they were going off, we were like: ‘Jesus Christ, what’s that!?’

“There was a load of smoke everywhere and that took a while to go. Then, when they came out, I just couldn’t believe how big they were. Ian Gately was enormous.

“It was just one of those nights. Our defence was fantastic, our forwards phenomenal… Shaun Wane, Brian Case, all of them. We definitely believed we could win and, as a young kid, I was just pinching myself that I was playing in a team like that. Hanley, Shaun Edwards, Andy Gregory... seeing those alongside me just made me and other young lads Ian Gildart and Ian Lucas more comfortable.”

Prop Wane, now in charge at Wigan, was at his industrious best as they held off some relentless pressure when desperate Manly tried to recover once going down to the first three of David Stephenson’s four penalty goals.

In charge was Graham Lowe, the Kiwi coach who, of course, now part-owns Bradford Bulls.

Russell, 49, remembered: “We had a great build-up in training.

“He was very good at getting through to you, a real motivator.

“He was an emotional man and you could see how much it meant to him. He made me feel it all, too.”

Russell later went on to play his part in another famous underdogs triumph – helping Castleford beat star-studded Wigan in the 1994 Regal Trophy final.

“It was great to be part of a Cas team like that,” he said.

“Even though it’s a small town it had such a brilliant side – Tawera Nikau, Tony Kemp, Richie Blackmore, Mike Ford, Lee Crooks...

“That Regal Trophy win was a fantastic game and, in many ways, like Wigan versus Manly.

“That week we just believed we’d win; there were no doubts from any, we were that confident.

“Even though they were almost a decade apart they were both such special, remarkable ties.

“Cas are my favourite team to watch now and for the last few years. They are great entertainers but (coach) Daryl (Powell) was a very entertaining player; he could do anything with a ball.”