When Eagles dared: Sheffield's Challenge Cup win against Wigan

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Challenge Cup heroes - Sheffield Eagles

Challenge Cup: Sheffield Eagles v Halifax

Venue:
Don Valley Stadium
Date:
Friday, 10 May
Kick-off:
20:00 BST
Coverage:
Updates on BBC Radio Leeds and BBC Sport website.

Few finals in the Challenge Cup's 116-year history have been as dramatic, sensational and unexpected as Sheffield Eagles' victory against Wigan in 1998.

It was a classic 'David and Goliath' tale; Wigan the dominant force of the late 80s and early 90s against an Eagles side in only their third season in the top flight.

Yet John Kear's group brought glory to South Yorkshire on a sunny May afternoon at Wembley, toppling the eventual Super League champions 17-8 to lift the trophy for the first time.

One of the key figures that afternoon was Lance Todd Trophy winner Mark Aston, who is now charged with repeating that success as Eagles head coach.

"It's was a massive achievement that still fetches a smile to my face, you get a glint in your eye knowing we achieved something against massive odds," Aston told BBC Sport.

"It's something nobody can ever take away from us, you have dreams of playing professional rugby league, playing for your country and you want to play at Wembley, and that group of 1998 certainly did that."

The road to Wembley saw Sheffield overcome Leigh, Egremont, Castleford and Salford, fuelled by Kear's optimism at the start of the campaign.

Not even a Wigan side containing Andy Farrell, Henry Paul and Jason Robinson among its star-studded line-up held any fear.

"No-one ever gave us a chance, we thought John was mad when he came into our first pre-season training camp and said 'we're going to Wembley and we'll win it'," Aston added.

"No-one was going to beat us on that day without a fight. We were outstanding. I remember standing in the tunnel with Johnny Lawless, the hooker from Siddal, in the background shouting '1998, the year of the Eagles' and you looked at the Wigan players glancing at us thinking 'are they kidding themselves?'.

"That was the journey we had, John planted the seed and said we can achieve it, let's just believe it and we then did. The rounds went by, but I remember the semi-final vividly as we were 18-0 down [against Salford] after 20 minutes, and we thought 'this wasn't in the script', but we never stopped believing.

"Dale Laughton scored the try to win the game 22-18, it showed we would do whatever we needed to do to win, be it the final, the semi-final or the rounds before.

"People would have needed to shoot us down dead to beat us that day, and Wigan threw everything at us, but we were just resilient, we had the desire and the commitment, togetherness to make sure we did whatever it would take.

"And that was something of a bond that players, the group and the coaching staff all bought into in the early days leading up to the final. It was a mental strength that we had built over that period."

Aston's hopes of replicating his success as a player with the current incarnation of the Eagles rest on Friday's fifth round tie against Halifax.

His opposite number Karl Harrison has a similar emotional attachment to his club, having spent nine years at the old Thrum Hall ground before returning to coach Fax in 2012.

Coincidentally the former Great Britain prop was there to witness his former international team-mate Aston's finest hour under the twin towers.

"I was there in 1998, we had a big overseas contingent at Halifax and we all went down on the train to watch the game," Harrison told BBC Radio Leeds.

"We went to see people like Michael Jackson who had just left Halifax to join the Eagles and what a good day out it was.

"It was a red hot day and what a great achievement that is for the Sheffield club and put them on the map."

While Harrison set foot on the Wembley turf as an international, and at Old Trafford in the Premiership final, the Challenge Cup has always proved elusive.

"I've never ever been past the quarter-finals, as a player or a coach," he added.

"To get there would be a great achievement, I've played in good teams and coached good teams.

"When I was at Halifax, we lost 19-18 to Wigan at Thrum Hall with a 75-yard drop goal into the snow in a blizzard and Joe Lydon was the only one who was going to do that.

"We were the best team that day, and we were one of the only teams that could have stopped Wigan's consecutive runs when they had a great team."

With the carrot of a place in the last eight at stake, Friday's tie promises to be a showcase for the Championship division.

"We're a couple of the best teams in the Championship and two of the most successful - they won the Northern Rail Cup and Aston continued.

"It's one of those games that people will want to watch I would imagine, the Championship competition is of a high standard, and we're all striving and challenging ourselves to be the best.

"One day ultimately one of these two teams will be putting their hands up and hopefully being in Super League. It's a mouth-watering tie, a tough tie and one we're really looking forward to."

Karl Harrison was speaking to BBC Radio Leeds's James Deighton.