Bolton's rugby league memories


By Marc Bazeley

Last Updated: 25/07/19 11:47pm

Catalans Dragons have good memories of last year's Challenge Cup semi-final in Bolton

Catalans Dragons have good memories of last year’s Challenge Cup semi-final in Bolton

Ahead of the Challenge Cup semi-finals, we take a look at club and international games which have been played in Bolton.

The Wigan years

Although sporting scene in the town has long been dominated by the round ball rather than the oval one, Bolton Wanderers’ old Burnden Park home became a regular venue for both the John Player Special Trophy final and Challenge Cup semi-finals in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Given they were emerging as the dominant force in British rugby league at the time, it is no surprise all of those matches featured Wigan, with stars like Shaun Edwards, Ellery Hanley and Martin Offiah shining in this football stronghold.

Burnden Park hosted the Challenge Cup semi-finals and John Player Special Trophy final Burnden Park hosted the Challenge Cup semi-finals and John Player Special Trophy final

Burnden Park hosted the Challenge Cup semi-finals and John Player Special Trophy final

The Cherry and Whites’ first visit to Burnden Park came as they claimed rugby league’s secondary trophy in January 1987 with a 18-4 victory over Warrington in front of over 22,000 fans, returning the following year to defeat Salford 34-4 in the Challenge Cup semi-finals.

Wigan were back again in 1989 for the John Player Special Trophy final again, this time scoring a 12-6 win over Widnes. Then, two years later, they overcame Oldham 30-16 at the venue to reach yet another Challenge Cup final.

The last of the team’s visits to Bolton during this era was perhaps the most memorable as Bradford Northern were thrashed 71-10 in a 1992 Cup semi-final which saw flying winger Offiah run in five tries.

Martin Offiah ran in five tries against Bradford in 1992 Martin Offiah ran in five tries against Bradford in 1992

Martin Offiah ran in five tries against Bradford in 1992

International rugby at the Reebok

It was not until Wanderers’ new all-seater ground, then called the Reebok Stadium, opened in the late 1990s that rugby league returned to Bolton.

Great Britain came to town for the second match of their three-Test series with New Zealand in November 1998, needing a win to draw level after losing the first game in Huddersfield.

Great Britain suffered a defeat to New Zealand in Bolton in 1998 Great Britain suffered a defeat to New Zealand in Bolton in 1998

Great Britain suffered a defeat to New Zealand in Bolton in 1998

However, it was the tourists who were celebrating at full time as two tries from Richie Barnett helped them to a 36-16 victory over the Lions in front of a near-capacity crowd of over 27,000.

It was a similar story in 2000 when England faced the Kiwis in the Rugby League World Cup semi-finals, going down to a humiliating 49-6 defeat. Great Britain fared little better in the Ashes series the following year either, being beaten 40-12 by Australia.

But while the venue has not been a happy hunting ground from the nation team, it is the opposite for St Helens in the World Club Challenge matches they have played in Bolton.

Ade Gardner scored the winning try for St Helens against Brisbane Broncos in 2007 Ade Gardner scored the winning try for St Helens against Brisbane Broncos in 2007

Ade Gardner scored the winning try for St Helens against Brisbane Broncos in 2007

Chris Joynt, Sean Long and Paul Sculthorpe all ran in tries as Super League Grand Final winners Saints overcame NRL champions Brisbane Broncos 20-18 in January 2001.

They were beaten 38-0 by Sydney Roosters on the same ground two years later, but a rematch with the Broncos in 2007 once again saw St Helens crowned World Club champions as a converted score from two-try hero Ade Gardner sealed an 18-14 triumph.

The Challenge Cup returns

Top-level rugby league came back to Bolton last year, when the RFL changed the format of the Challenge Cup semi-finals to a double-header at a single venue rather than the two ties being played at separate grounds.

Warrington beat Leeds in one of last year's Challenge Cup semi-finals in Bolton Warrington beat Leeds in one of last year's Challenge Cup semi-finals in Bolton

Warrington beat Leeds in one of last year’s Challenge Cup semi-finals in Bolton

It marked 30 years since the first Cup semi-final was played in Bolton, with 26,086 fans turning up to watch Catalans Dragons take on St Helens and Warrington Wolves face off with Leeds Rhinos.

Catalans, who would go on to become the first French side to lift the famous trophy, served up a thrilling display against Saints as they triumphed 35-16, with Warrington joining them at Wembley after overcoming Leeds 48-12.

This year sees both St Helens and the Wolves back in Bolton for Saturday’s semi-finals, with an expanded programme for the day seeing the Women’s Challenge Cup final between Leeds and Castleford Tigers kicking off proceedings.

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