Fifty Years Since the Watersplash Final

- - 11 May marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Challenge Cup Final between Leeds and Wakefield Trinity. As the record books show, Leeds won 11-10 but the final is best remembered for Don Fox's missed conversion that would have won the cup for Trinity. On Saturday 12 May Huddersfield University's Heritage Quay and Rugby League Cares, will be hosting a special anniversary event to celebrate the match.

It will feature talks from some of the players from the 1968 final,  the premier of a new BBC documentary about the 1968 Challenge Cup final, and a special performance of They Walked on Water, a play written by Peter Hirst based on the book by former Wakefield MP David Hinchliffe. For more details about the day, click here

Sadly I won't be able to make it but here are my thoughts on a seminal moment in rugby league.

The 1968 Challenge Cup Final will go down in history not only as the Watersplash Final - in many ways it represented the watershed final for our game.

 The great Don Fox and 'that kick'

The great Don Fox and 'that kick'

For Trinity fans this is obvious. The 1960s were the greatest era in the history of the club. Four Wembley appearances in nine years brought the club three challenge cup victories. And another four Championship Finals brought the league championship trophy back to Belle Vue twice. Not to mention three Yorkshire Cup triumphs.Since then, the club has made one further Wembley appearance and won the Yorkshire Cup just once, in the competition’s final year of 1992.

It was also the era of the Golden Generation of Trinity players. Eight Wakefield players went on Great Britain tours in the 1960s, and their names ring down the ages: Fox, Brooke, Turner, Cooper, Poynton, Haigh, Wilkinson and Jones. Trinity - and the game - has seen nothing like them since.

But it was also a Watershed Year for the game as a whole. In the 1967-68 season, attendances increased slightly to a total of 2.1 million people going to league matches. It was the last time for years that crowds rose. After 1968 they fell off a cliff. Six years later they had almost halved to just 1.1. million. 

People feared for the future of the game. Hull KR official Ron Chester was quoted in 1971 as saying that ‘rugby league is not dying, it’s dead’. He was neither the first nor the last to say this, and like all those before and after him, he was would be proved wrong. 

And, of course, during the 1960s the game had become a fixture of the BBC’s Saturday afternoon Grandstand. The Cup Final became part of the BBC’s annual routine of major sports events. And Eddie Waring became a household name throughout Britain because of it.

1968 was to prove the most memorable TV season for the game because of one match - the Challenge Cup Final - for reasons that we all know. It provided perhaps the one memory of the game that non-rugby league sports fans (and even non-sporting members of the public) could recall.

For a long time I personally hated that moment, because I thought the BBC used it to promote a patronising - and even a pitying - attitude to our game. But as I’ve got older, I’ve come to see what I think is the bigger picture. Don missing the conversion was about much more than rugby league, more than even sport itself. 

It was about life. 

Because triumph and tragedy are never far apart. The difference between success and failure is always small. Even the mightiest - and Don was indeed a mighty player - can be laid low by the tiniest error or miscalculation. And who knows what fate will bring us in the next moment?

Nothing captures that better than the last seconds of the 1968 Cup Final. In that one moment, Don was the modern equivalent of a mythical hero of ancient Greece, who had victory snatched away from him by a simple twist of fate. 

And that’s why the 1968 Challenge Cup Final will go down as one the greatest moments of all time, not just in rugby league, but in the whole of world sport.