We look today at the semi-finals of the 1983 Challenge Cup competition. After beating St. Helens on their own patch in an epic quarter-final, now only Bradford Northern stood between Rovers and Wembley. Despite some pretty mediocre league form, the town was now gripped by Cup fever. The win at Saints had given the players the belief that they could beat anyone and confidence was high.
The week following the Saints game, which was the week before the Bradford match, Rovers played and lost a vital league game at home to Hull KR. First Division survival would have to wait then, as on Saturday 26th March 1983 screened by the BBC on Grandstand, Rovers faced Bradford in front of 10,784 fans at Headingley. Allan Agar selected exactly the same fifteen who had beaten Saints (and why not?) so Gary Siddall stayed in the team, with Alan Banks and Tex Hudson at half-back. Neil Pickerill and Keith Bell were on the bench. There was no place for Dickie Marsh or Tim Slatter.
Northern were formidable opponents and went into the tie as favourites. They had Mumby at full-back, a tough pack (what else could you expect with Peter Fox as coach?) led by Grayshon, Van Bellen and Rathbone, and a talented young lad by the name of Ellery Hanley lurking in the centres. Just like in the quarter-final Rovers struck first, in the form of John Marsden, squeezing over in the corner. Van Bellen crossed for Bradford and the game was locked at 3-all as the forwards of both sides stood up to be counted. As half-time approached Rovers suffered a hammer blow. They fumbled the ball in the Bradford 25, who recovered and whipped the ball to Hanley. He handed off John Gilbert, arced out to the touchline and promptly sprinted the length of the field for a truly brilliant try. It won Hanley the try of the season award and was talked about for years after. In truth, Rovers could have had him but Gilbert crashed into Kenny Kellett as he attempted a tackle, Nigel Barker went uncharacteristically high and was fended off, and with Hanley in the clear Steve Quinn didn’t have the legs to catch him.
Lesser sides would have folded but these boys knew what they were doing. Hanley’s run was the last scoring that Bradford would do. Rovers re-grouped in the dressing rooms, came out and executed Allan Agar’s gameplan perfectly. Quick hands in possession saw Gilbert step through and the tie was level again. Terrier like defence kept Bradford out, and the match winning try, though lacking Hanley’s individual brilliance, deserved to take us to Wembley. Steve Hankins spun a pass out to Barker, who sent Quinn clear, and he fed Marsden, who was held, but popped the ball up on the outside for skipper Terry Hudson to romp over. Quinn’s conversion was the only goal of the entire game, and some spirited tackling in the last ten minutes sent the Blue & Whites to Wembley.
The team was: Nigel Barker, John Marsden (try), Steve Quinn (1 goal), John Gilbert (try), Ken Kellett, Alan Banks, Terry Hudson (try), Gary Siddall, Ray Handscombe, Mick Gibbins, David Hobbs, Steve Hankins, Peter Smith. Subs: Neil Pickerill, Keith Bell.
In the other semi-final Hull FC accounted for Castleford, so Rovers would face the star-studded Cup holders and league leaders at Wembley.