Legends reminisce Good Friday Derby

With no Good Friday Derby this weekend due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rugby League greats Kris Radlinski, Andy Farrell and Paul Wellens reminisce about the stand-out day in the calendar year.

Wigan full-back legend and now Executive Director Radlinski played in many Good Friday Derby games during his time at his hometown club from 1993 and 2006 and he says the magnitude of the fixture is taught upon players at an early age.

He said: “Even at amateur club level – forget Wigan versus Saints for a moment – it was always bred into you how important it was. St Pats versus Blackbrook, town teams playing each other.. it was there with you long before you got to the first-team.

“When someone from another town or an overseas player comes in they always ask about the derby. They’ve heard about it all across the world, and I think it’s a real jewel in the crown of British sport. These games never disappoint and we should be proud of the rivalry. There are other rugby league derbies who can claim to be just as big but I can’t imagine that there are other sporting derbies that every club chooses to tune in and watch.

“I’ve heard so many examples of players being told to beat St Helens above everything else, and I’ve seen it happen myself. The Good Friday fixtures are reversed every year and people put in the diaries before very fixture.. it’s a gladiatorial contest. I’ve seen footage of the clashes of the past and they’ve been absolute bangers. Some of them go down in sporting folklore.”

The former Harry Sunderland and Lance Todd Trophy winner, who scored 183 tries in 322 games for Wigan, reflected on the 2004 classic Good Friday Derby, which saw St Helens and Wigan play out a dramatic 21-21 draw.

He said: “It’s brought back a lot of memories watching the 2004 game. Everything was put on the line, it had drama and passion, it had skill.. it had absolutely everything. Over the last 20 or 30 years of being involved there’s only been a couple of blowouts, every one has been a contest, and that’s one of the most memorable.”

Speaking about the famous 26-man brawl in the second half in that game at Knowsley Road, he said: “I was on the field but when stuff like that happened I stayed well away! I watched it back at the time I was involved and I didn’t think too much of it back then. The power of social media means that’s one of the clips that’s shown most in Rugby League throughout the year. It’s unforgettable.

“Playing at Knowsley Road was awful, but brilliant. Under one of their coaches – I forget who – they painted the away team’s changing rooms a funny colour, because the psychology attached to that colour meant you would go out onto the field tired! New modern stadia doesn’t afford you the luxury of an uncomfortable environment.

“The home team changing room was luxurious at Central Park but the away one was tiny and I know assistant coaches who’ve gone round the back off the sheds and listened in to the half time talk the opposition were doing.

“The derby resonates with so many people locally. Liam Farrell infamously scored a try in the last minute of a derby, and he’ll live on that for 20 or 30 years. People still talk about that. That’s what it does to you as a Wiganer.”

Radlinski celebrating a try with Terry Newton against St Helens in the Good Friday Derby in 2005.

After signing from Orrell St James ARLFC, Wiganer Farrell went on to become a club great. Between 1991 and 2004, he made 370 appearances, scoring 111 tries and kicking 1336 goals (plus 19 drop-goals), accumulating to 3135 points.

On the Good Friday Derby, the former club captain, said: “I am a Wigan supporter (and) what matters is (that) Friday – a special time in the calendar, people have time off work and it’s a great day out for everyone involved. The expectation and the bragging rights last quite a long time.”

Farrell won just about everything he could as a Wigan legend, including six league crowns and three Challenge Cups.

But the game that stands out above all others in his career in Cherry and White is a derby with Saints back in 1999 – the final game the Warriors played at their old home of Central Park.

“The derbies would be the first games that you would look for, I couldn’t give it any more credit than saying that they were just as important as any game you were going to have over the season. I hold the Wigan v St Helens derby match in such high esteem.

Farrell playing against St Helens in the Good Friday Derby – the final game at Central Park in 1999.

“When Wigan were leaving Central Park, our last game there was against Saints, there couldn’t have been any more pressure on us to win that game. Imagine leaving the home of rugby – I think of it as that anyway – having lost that last game to your rivals at the time – it would have been very painful. You look at Test matches, or Wigan v Broncos in 1994 but we were underdogs there with nothing to lose, we had everything to lose at Central Park.

“In 1999 we as Wiganers in our squad were trying to pass on to any of our teammates that weren’t from here, just what it meant to the town. It was an emotional week and that coincided with an unbelievable performance but one that was good enough to get the win on the day and the relief afterwards.

“There are other rivalries, Warrington v St Helens, Wigan and Warrington etc, but for me the derby between Wigan and St Helens is the one that runs deep with people from the towns. And the clubs have always been successful throughout decades of the game, it all adds to the rivalry.”

St Helens legend, Wellens, who played 499 games for his hometown club between 1998 and 2015, spoke about the respect that lies underneath the tension and rivalry on the pitch.

He said: “Now I’ve retired from playing I’ve created some great friendships out of great rivalries. Kris Radlinski is someone I respect so much and I class him as a good friend. Terry Newton and Keiron Cunningham were the same, Faz and Scully.. it’s great to see.

Wellens in action in the Good Friday Derby against Wigan in 2011.

“There’s something special about Good Friday. It’s that traditional slot and it probably stands the test of time in Super League. It’ll be sad this year for it not to be there, but it carries that extra importance for the town and the club whenever we play. Rugby league is everything around here.

“Other than your finals, the derbies are the pinnacle and the number one priority for people in the town.”