Super League: Alan Hunte and Tommy Martyn on the story behind St Helens' first title
Former St Helens stars Hunte and Martyn joined the Golden Point Podcast to recall the inside story behind how the club became the first-ever Super League champions back in 1996
By Marc Bazeley
Last Updated: 04/04/21 7:36am
Anthony Sullivan and Bobbie Goulding celebrate as St Helens clinch the first Super League title with a win over Warrington
The date of Monday, August 26, 1996 is a day that will be forever remembered by anyone associated with St Helens. Because that late-summer Bank Holiday was the day when, in front of over 18,000 supporters who had packed into Knowsley Road, Saints were crowned the inaugural champions of Super League with a 66-14 win over Warrington. It left no-one in doubt the switch to summer and the formation of Super League marked a new era for rugby league in the UK.
Not only had St Helens snapped a run of 22 years without a league title, but they had once and for all ended bitter rivals Wigan’s seven-season dominance of the top flight. For centre Alan Hunte, who led the way with a hat-trick of tries that memorable afternoon, it was also the culmination of what he had seen building during the final seasons of winter rugby, having joined St Helens in 1989 after only a handful of appearances for hometown club Wakefield Trinity. “It was a little bit of a rollercoaster for the first five or six years I was at St Helens,” Hunte told Sky Sports. “We’d come so close in 1992/93, a couple of seasons where we’d finished second or third and we’d really pushed Wigan.
“You look at their roll of honour and they had some amazing players, but I never started a season thinking we couldn’t beat them. “You knew there was something building in that team so when you walk out on that last day of the season, I didn’t think there was ever going to anything to take that away from us.”
Alan Hunte scored a hat-trick in St Helens’ title-clinching win
‘It was schoolboy stuff’
The switch to summer rugby and the influx of money into the sport which came about at the same time allowed all 12 teams in the newly-formed Super League to go full-time, instantly narrowing the gap between Wigan’s all-star team of full-time players and the rest. Being able to dedicate themselves exclusively to rugby league allowed players to hone their skills and fitness levels, while the switch to summer and playing in more clement weather conditions allowed for a better stage to showcase those skills.
For players like St Helens half-back Tommy Martyn, it meant the end of having to balance long days at work with their playing ambitions too. “It was massive because I’d been asking for about two or three years to go full-time and they weren’t prepared to do it,” Martyn, who had joined Saints from Oldham in 1992, told Sky Sports.
I was a truck driver, driving down to Nottingham and Leicester every morning at 4.30am and then going to training two or three times a week, and playing on a Saturday or Sunday.
Tommy Martyn “I was a truck driver, driving down to Nottingham and Leicester every morning at 4.30am and then going to training two or three times a week, and playing on a Saturday or Sunday.
“Then when they said we were going to become Super League, they turned around and said ‘You’re going to be given a minimum wage of at least GBP25,000 a year, we’re going full-time and you can jack you job it’. It was schoolboy stuff – that’s what you dream of.” Martyn formed a dynamic partnership in the halves with Saints’ maverick skipper Bobbie Goulding, with Karle Hammond being accommodated at loose forward to provide a third pivot on the field.
They fed a three-quarter line including Hunte, that year’s leading try-scorer Paul Newlove – with 26 – plus prolific wingers Danny Arnold and Anthony Sullivan, and Welsh sensation Scott Gibbs prior to his return to rugby union in July.
Paul Newlove was Super League’s leading try-scorer in 1996
Up front, there were leaders like Apollo Perlini and Chris Joynt, not to mention an up-and-coming hooker by the name of Keiron Cunningham. But two other men who made a difference were incoming head coach Shaun McRae and his assistant, recently-retired former Warrington and Great Britain loose forward Mike Gregory. Australian McRae, who would later coach Gateshead Thunder, Hull FC and Salford in Super League, brought with him a different approach and expertise from working with some of the best club and international coaches and players Down Under, while Gregory’s on-field traits shone through off the field too.
“We’d been used to the rallying calls in the changing rooms and the air turning blue more often than not when things hadn’t been going your way – and here was a guy who actually wanted to talk about rugby,” Hunte said. “You’re a product of your environment, and Shaun had spent a lot of time around Tim Sheens and Canberra Raiders, Bob Fulton and the Kangaroos – basically, the best players in the world.
You’re a product of your environment, and Shaun had spent a lot of time around Tim Sheens and Canberra Raiders, Bob Fulton and the Kangaroos – basically, the best players in the world.
Alan Hunte on Shaun McRae “I thought a massive part of that backroom staff was Mike Gregory.
He’d not long retired, he still had that common touch with the players and he’s a guy everybody should aspire to be.”
‘Everything just seemed to be going for us’
Hunte and Martyn both missed the start of the first Super League season due to recovering from knee reconstructions, although the former was there for the first-ever game of the summer era as Sky Sports‘ guest pundit when Paris Saint-Germain shocked Sheffield Eagles at Stade Charlety. That first weekend saw Saints set their stall out early on with a 62-0 win over Workington Town up in West Cumbria and a 41-26 win at home to Wigan in the Good Friday Derby in Round 2 underlined that. Lifting the Challenge Cup for the first time since 1976 after coming from 14 points down to beat Bradford Bulls – another emerging force in the game – 40-32 at Wembley in May further cemented St Helens’ status as contenders.
St Helens lifted the Challenge Cup in 1996 before going on to claim the first Super League title
One game which proved pivotal in the title race was the clash away to London Broncos in July though, when the nascent video referee controversially awarded a late try from Perelini which sealed a 32-28 win for the visitors.
“Everything just seemed to be going for us, we seemed to be getting all of the close calls and none more so than when Apollo didn’t know when he was beaten,” Martyn said. “He was convinced he’d scored so in our eyes it wasn’t worth going to the video ref, but it was probably one of the most crucial calls in Super League at that time. “It added to the tension of the game because the league was more or less riding on it.”
The St Helens team celebrate their Super League title triumph
The win over Warrington on the final day of the season ensured St Helens won the title by one point in the old first-past-the-post system, and in the years since they have gone on to be crowned champions a further seven times and established themselves as play-off regulars.
The current generation of St Helens players entered the 2021 season aiming to win the Grand Final for the third time in a row, and Martyn sees a side which continues to live up to the idiom he credits former team-mate Joynt as coining: You never write off the Saints.
“It’s like that unwritten DNA which is in the players,” Martyn said. “You look at a young 19-year-old like Jack Welsby – who in their right mind would follow up a drop goal in the last minute of a Grand Final apart from a 19-year-old full-back in his first full season?
“I don’t know how it gets tapped into them, but it just seems to be you just never ever give up – and young Jack Welsby summed it up perfectly.”
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