Ray French is a rugby league legend. We’ve tried, but there is no other way of putting it.
A dual code international more than 30 years before the likes of Jason Robinson and Henry Paul, he won the Challenge Cup in 1966 before moving into radio and, more famously, television. He was the BBC’s commentator on every Challenge Cup Final between 1982 and 2008.
Asking Ray French about the magic of the Challenge Cup is like opening a box of chocolates: it can be difficult to know where to start.
For nearly 30 years, French’s unique voice broadcast the competition’s climax to the nation’s armchair viewers – but his personal love affair with rugby league’s oldest trophy is now well into its sixth decade.
“I was a member of St Helens’ Challenge Cup win back in 1966,” he recalls. “There was a massive crowd – something like 92,000 – and we gave Wigan a bit of a thumping.
“It finished 21-2 in the end, but we had a team full of great stars; names like Murphy, Bishop, Watson and Van Vollenhoven. That year we won four trophies. We did the league and cup double, as well as getting the Lancashire League and the Western Trophy.
“Mind you, Wigan had some fine players too. Eric Ashton, Brian McTigue, Billy Boston. They were all there. The rivalry was intense, but a lot of the players were the best of friends with each other and remain so to this day. Two of my best friends are Billy Boston and Eric Ashton. It was a great contest between those sides, there’s no doubt about that.”
He adds: “I went out of the Challenge Cup at various rounds with St Helens and then Widnes, but knockout rugby is so special. It’s a one-off chance. It’s 80 minutes, and you’re either in the draw on Monday, or you’re not.
“You can have lapses and injuries in the league, but you can cope because you’ve got 20-odd fixtures. With the play-offs you’re like racing cars jostling for position on the starting grid.
“But with the Challenge Cup, you simply cannot slip up. Some of the greatest players go through their careers and never play in a final. As a player you certainly have an extra edge when it’s Challenge Cup time.”
It is that extra edge that makes upsets so regular in rugby league’s most romantic competition. Barrow’s win at Castleford was a prime example in 2010, but each year is littered with them. Remember Huddersfield beating Leeds in the 2006 semi final? Catalans getting the better of Wigan 12 months later? And most famously of all, Sheffield’s heroic 1998 triumph at Wembley?
“The 1966 semi final against Dewsbury was the most dramatic I’ve played in,” says French. “They were a very lowly side, but they’d done well with some older characters. We were still out and out favourites to win, though. It was something daft like 1/100 odds.
“But 15 minutes from time, we were losing 7-2. We couldn’t get in the game. We couldn’t do anything because we couldn’t get the ball. Dewsbury were playing out of their skins, but then we got an interception try and then scored again. We ended up winning it in a five-minute spell near the end. It was one of the most amazing games I’ve ever played in.”
Having retired in 1972, French’s career took an unexpected turn towards local radio. Before long, BBC television came calling. “I just got contacted out of the blue,” he says. “They wanted to know whether I’d like to do a test to take over from Eddie Waring.”
Waring, of course, was one of the most famous names in rugby league. And after appearing on shows such as ‘Morecambe and Wise’, his fame had gone well beyond the sport. What was it like taking over from such an institution?
“Like carrying coal on your back for 10 years, there’s no doubt about that,” says French. “But to their credit, the first thing the BBC said was, ‘Ray, we don’t want another Eddie’. It wasn’t that they were denigrating Eddie. His era had been great and it had fulfilled everything they wanted it to be, but they now wanted a different style and a different era. They just said, ‘Ray, be yourself’.
“You were thrown in at the deep end and you sank or you swam. That was good, actually, because today there are too many commentators that are just clones of each other. If you’re sitting down to listen on radio or watch on TV, you want to be entertained. You need to develop a rapport with the audience, and you only do that by being yourself. You’ve got to be you.”
With all those years of experience, his choice as one of his favourite Wembley finals is perhaps a bit surprising. The 1985 Wigan v Hull, Kenny v Sterling battle, perhaps? “Memorable,” he says. But not his favourite.
“The one that gave me the most satisfaction was St Helens v Catalans in 2007. To see a French team at Wembley was beyond my wildest dreams. French rugby league has been battered over the years, but it’s still triumphed. Seeing a French team in the Challenge Cup final was one of my biggest ambitions. I’m so glad it’s happened.”
That game was also the first Challenge Cup final at the ‘new’ Wembley. What does he make of it? “I miss the Twin Towers, but I realise they could not have fitted into the modern architecture,” he says.
“It’s now a wonderful stadium and the view is tremendous, but the other thing I miss is the lack of a tunnel. One of the great things about playing at the old Wembley was that it was almost gladitorial.
“The players came up from that long slope below the ground, then emerged from the darkness in the tunnel into a huge roar and bright sunshine. There was then that long walk to the centre. Some players enjoyed it, others were nervous. That walk, and coming up the tunnel, they gave a real sense of occasion and ceremony to the final. It was so dramatic.”
Regardless, there’s still no keener viewer of each year’s final. “The thing about the Challenge Cup final is that it’s a worldwide event,” he says. “It’s also got history. For that alone, I think it’s our most prestigious competition.
“Old Trafford is marvellous in its own right. It’s a Saturday night spectacular, and it’s a fitting finale to the end of the season. But Wembley is more lasting.”