Dave Craven: Cummins reflects on when Boxing Day encounters had true meaning

ONE of the downsides of summer rugby league has, unquestionably, been the loss of the traditional Boxing Day contest.

Ellery Hanley.
Ellery Hanley.

Granted, even though Super League has been running for almost 20 years, there was still some action to be taken in this Boxing Day when Leeds Rhinos faced Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and those Heavy Woollen rivals Dewsbury Rams and Batley Bulldogs also met.

However, for all that the expected endeavour was certainly there in both fixtures, plus plenty of big names and no little skill, in essence each game was a friendly.

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Such games offer a great opportunity to get out of the house after too much over-indulging on Christmas Day, a chance often to see new signings get their first run-out, possibly a look at some promising youngsters and, ever more importantly, a decent money-making opportunity for the clubs involved.

Francis Cummins.

Admittedly, fans still attend, often desperate for some sort of fix after maybe three months without seeing their side in action, but there is simply not the over-riding appeal you would garner when knowing it is a competitive fixture.

The last time Leeds played Wakefield in such a Boxing Day league game, for example, was 1993 before the monikers of Rhinos and Wildcats had been dreamed up.

Hosted at Headingley, it attracted a season-high home crowd of 14,455 – Saturday’s attendance was 10,919 which illustrates people do still have the appetite regardless of the competitiveness – and saw Leeds prosper 20-16.

It was unusual in one way for the fact the hosts had a player sin-binned twice in the same game, always a rugby league rarity.

Garry Schofield.

That player was former Great Britain captain Ellery Hanley, the indomitable Leeds loose-forward who enjoyed such a great Indian summer while at Headingley following his move from Wigan.

However, at the other end of the scale, Trinity had a little-known 19-year-old called Henry Paul pulling the strings at No 6 in their ranks.

For Leeds, it was the first experience of Boxing Day rugby for Francis Cummins, the teenager who – at 17 years and 200 days – would become the youngest Challenge Cup finalist at Wembley when facing Wigan there just four months later.

Talking to The Yorkshire Post, he recalled: “I do remember that game as I wasn’t feeling too well on the morning. I must have had some dodgy turkey.

“We’d not trained on Christmas Day. The club had done it the year or two before and found it just didn’t work as they had to bring the kids in as well.

“So, we trained Christmas Eve and had Christmas Day off and had a full Christmas dinner.

“Some of the players nowadays would not be able to do that the day before a game but back then, some senior pros were quite happy as they could enjoy their turkey and then, I think, the game kicked off at 10.30 in the morning so they could be in the Skyrack (pub) by about 1.30!

“As for drinking beforehand, you heard stories about packs on Boxing Day coming together at the first scrum and someone saying ‘Let’s slow it down a bit, I’ve had skinful’.

“I didn’t hear anything like that in that game (’93) but I’m sure people like Schoey (Garry Schofield) would have done – he wouldn’t change for anyone!”

Leeds had gone seven games without a win earlier in the season and were still showing signs of fragility, having also not played in three weeks because of postponements due to bad weather and the fact they had players featuring in the Test series against New Zealand.

Wakefield, in contrast, entered the fray having picked up only their fourth win of the season a few days earlier against visiting Warrington.

They sensed a chance to upset their more illustrious West Yorkshire rivals and, coached by the creative David Topliss, came close to doing so.

In fairness, though, despite the scoreline suggesting otherwise, the Loiners were generally in charge for most of the contest, having scored all four of their tries by half-time.

Schofield, who along with club-mates Alan Tait and Richie Eyres, had featured in Great Britain’s 3-0 whitewash of the touring Kiwis that autumn, returned to the side after a seven-week lay-off and duly shone.

Despite playing stand-off – with some panache – for his country, Schofield operated in his original position of centre against Trinity, given that former All Black Craig Innes was missing.

Ex-Bath RU winger Jim Fallon scored inside two minutes with help from Hanley before Schofield added Leeds’ second try following some clever build-up play from full-back Tait and Cummins.

Nevertheless, with another of Leeds’ teenage talents, Graham Holroyd, off target with both conversion attempts, the visitors went ahead when they charged down a kick and Nigel Bell crossed, Billy Conway adding a conversion to his earlier penalty.

However, it was always likely that a side with as much star quality as Leeds would soon respond and they did via further tries from Cummins and Tait.

Holroyd’s penalty early in the second half stretched his side’s lead to 20-6 but when Wakefield’s Australian second-row David Woods secured a controversial penalty try, Conway’s fourth goal left the contest finely balanced at 20-16.

With Hanley yellow-carded again, Trinity had hope, but they could not find the crucial extra points.

While Leeds went on to flourish that campaign, reaching Wembley for the first time since 1978 before ultimately losing to the eminent Wigan side of the era, Wakefield only just avoided the drop.

They escaped by a solitary point and it was Hull Kingston Rovers who, in the end, endured relegation.

On whether he missed the traditional Boxing Day fixture when the sport switched to summer, Cummins – now Yorkshire Carnegie’s backs coach – had mixed feelings.

“I just remember that Headingley had a different atmosphere on a cold winter’s day or night,” he said.

“I think some of the big matches weren’t quite the same in the summer although I do remember some of the World Club Challenge nights with Rhinos did remind me of what it used to be like.

“I’m starting to experience it again now with Carnegie with them playing in the winter.

“Yet, on the other hand, it was hard socially playing Boxing Day back then as you played New Year’s Day, too, and so, when summer rugby came, and especially for those with families, it was nice to be able to enjoy Christmas as you could let your hair down a bit more.”