After last week’s stunning Challenge Cup semis set up an unlikely Wembley final between Hull KR and Leigh Leopards on August 12, Flashback Friday celebrates the history of Cantabrians featuring in British rugby league’s greatest occasion.

1929: Len Mason was selected for New Zealand from Canterbury and played three Tests on the Kiwis’ infamous 1926-27 tour of Britain, before being signed by Wigan. The second-rower became the first Cantabrian to play in – and win – a Challenge Cup final when Wigan defeated Dewsbury in 1929, the inaugural Wembley decider. Mason, pictured with the victorious Wigan side (below in headgear, far right), played 362 games in the cherry-and-white jumper from 1927-36.

1938: Ex-Sydenham rugby union player Freddie French was lured to the professional code by Warrington in 1935, but the fullback/centre joined Barrow the following season and spent a decade with the club – including a 7-4 loss to Salford in the 1938 Challenge Cup final at Wembley.

1954, 1956: South Canterbury rugby union star Tommy Lynch linked with Halifax in 1952, scoring 112 tries in 188 games for the club. He featured in the 4-all draw with Warrington at Wembley in the 1954 Challenge Cup final and the famous 8-4 loss in the replay in front of a then-world record crowd of 102,569 at Bradford’s Odsal Stadium. Lynch’s Cup final pain continued in 1956 when Halifax was overwhelmed 13-2 by St Helens.

1988-90: Kiwi Test prop Adrian Shelford, who represented Canterbury in 1984-85 from the Hornby club, joined the Graham Lowe-coached Wigan in 1987. Becoming the first Cantabrian to feature in a Challenge Cup final in over three decades – and the first since Mason to win one – Shelford (below, second from left in front row) played in three straight Wembley decider triumphs from 1988-90 at the start of Wigan’s streak of eight consecutive Cup wins.

Wigan defeated Halifax 32-12 in 1988, St Helens 27-0 in ’89 and Warrington 36-14 in ’90. Shelford also had stints with Newcastle, Manly and Wakefield Trinity, but tragically passed away in England in 2003, aged just 39. He is pictured with the 1989 winning Wigan team, second from left in the front-row with his arm around Great Britain Test prop Andy Platt.

1993, 1995: A Canterbury rep from Addington and Sydenham, robust forward Esene Faimalo tasted bitter Wembley defeat with two clubs at the hands of Wigan, enduring a 20-14 loss as part the Widnes side in 1993 and a 30-10 thrashing with Leeds two years later. A five-Test Kiwi from 1988-91, Faimalo had a subsequent Super League stint with Salford.

1998: West Coast product Whetu Taewa represented Canterbury from 1989-93 from Halswell, and toured Britain and France with the 1989 and ’93 Kiwis, before playing in the Auckland Warriors’ inaugural premiership match in 1995 and spending the following season with North Queensland. The powerful three-quarter linked with Sheffield Eagles in 1997 and featured in arguably the biggest Challenge Cup final upset of all time, a 17-8 boilover against heavyweights Wigan in the ’98 Wembley decider. Taewa finished his career in 2002 after three seasons with Hull KR.

2000-01, 2003: Powerhouse winger Tevita Vaikona headed to Hull with young Canterbury teammates Shane Endacott and Maea David in 1994 and eventually became one of the great Kiwi imports, scoring over a century of tries for Bradford from 1998-2004.

Along with winning two Super League grand finals from four appearances with the Bulls, Vaikona played in three Challenge Cup finals during the Wembley redevelopment. He featured in Bradford’s 24-18 win over Leeds at Murrayfield in Edinburgh in 2000, the 13-6 loss to St Helens at Twickenham in 2001 and the 22-20 eclipse of Leeds at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff in 2003.

2004: Former West Coast and Canterbury enforcer Quentin Pongia, who won a grand final with Canberra in 1994 during a 137-game Australian premiership career that included stints with the Warriors, Roosters and Dragons, finished a decorated career at Wigan in 2004. During his farewell season, the 35-Test Kiwi played in Wigan’s 32-16 Challenge Cup final loss to St Helens at Millennium Stadium.


Sources: The Hard Yards – Rugby League in Canterbury 1912-2012 by John Coffey

Rugby League Project

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