“I CAN’T really believe it’s been that long.”

As we talk about perhaps the most iconic day in Winnington Park Rugby Club’s long history, the memories come flooding back for Matt Farr.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of when Park hosted the top-flight might of Wasps in the Pilkington Cup – English rugby union’s premier knock-out competition at the time.

It was the crowning glory of what was a golden era at Burrows Hill as a team of local boys faced down a side containing players that had become – or went on to become – household names such as future England great Lawrence Dallaglio.

“I can still recollect most of it – it was a fantastic day for everyone at the club. The memories are there for everyone was involved,” said Farr, who played at inside centre for Park and remains at the club as head coach.

“Most people at the club will always remember it as a reminder of the kind of level we were at once.”

As Farr alludes to, Park were highly successful in the years running up to the time rugby union became a professional sport in the mid-1990s.

While they may compete at regional level today, they were in the upper echelons of the National League back then and won five out of seven Cheshire Cups between 1986 and 1994.

That earned them qualification for the Pilkington Cup and set them on the road to their meeting with Wasps, who had been the competition’s beaten finalists the season before.

However, they very nearly fell at the first hurdle – needing extra time to see off Nuneaton in the first round – before away wins at Netherall and Bridlington and a home victory over Lydney.

So what was the secret behind this consistent string of success?

Farr credits head coach Doug Hill, who discovered many a Park player as games master at Sir John Deane’s Grammar School.

“Doug had a lot to do with it by bringing everyone together and treating everyone the same,” he said.

“There were a lot of local lads involved but a few who had come from the likes of Macclesfield and Crewe.

“They had come because of people they knew that were already there. It meant it could kind of gel naturally.

“We all became good friends and we still are today.

“Nuneaton was a funny one, to be honest. We had already played them in the league, which we got deducted points from that as the RFU said I hadn’t been registered properly after coming back from Orrell.

“They were a good side, it was a tough game – Dave Allcock (the club’s current director of rugby) needed a few stitches after it – but we came through the other side.

“The home game against Lydney, that was a bit of a dull day but we came through that.

“We played quite well but the thing I remember most about that game was that we were never going to lose it. We scored a couple of tries right at the end to seal it.”

Northwich Guardian: Matt Farr - the club's current head coach - played for Winnington Park against Wasps. Picture by John PickeringMatt Farr - the club's current head coach - played for Winnington Park against Wasps. Picture by John Pickering

Finally, their endeavours were rewarded when the draw paired them with a Wasps side that were dining at English rugby union’s top table.

And so the process of getting Burrows Hill ready for its big day began. Temporary stands and PA systems were brought in and new hospitality areas sprang up.

There was a last-minute spanner in the works, however, as the winter weather covered the country in snow and ice.

More than 200 members battled the elements for days to protect the playing surface, with local firms chipping in equipment to help out

Paul Dean is now the club’s chairman but as a recently-retired Park veteran, he was part of the herculean effort to get the game on.

He tells of how Dewi Morris – the former British and Irish Lions player who was helping coach Park having played there earlier in his career – helped sway things on the day.

“It was the only team sport game to take place in England that day. The weather was unbelievable,” he said.

“The referee didn’t really want to play the game, Dewi pulled Lawrence Dallaglio to one side and basically said “if we don’t play, the club is going to go bankrupt.”

“We had paid a fortune for temporary stands and other things to get it on.

“Dallaglio then said to the ref Wasps were happy to play and it was game on.

“All through the night, people were putting straw on the pitch to make sure it didn’t freeze.

“It really was a massive, massive commitment from our club. There was a real Dunkirk spirit about the place in the build-up.”

Farr continued: “The whole community got together to make sure the game was played because of the weather. They let us players off that!

“We met up early to have a bit of a lunch together and make sure we all arrived as a group.

“Usually for a league game, you would travel by yourself or in small groups but for this game, they wanted everybody together.”

The effort put in by the community had paid off and it was game on. Winnington Park had its moment in the sun as some 3,000 spectators packed into the ground.

From a scoreline point of view at least, that was when the experience started to get a little chastening – Wasps showed no mercy and ran in nine tries to win 57-0.

However, this was a day where the final score was irrelevant.

“It was a hard game as you would expect,” said Farr, who had played against Wasps at the top level the previous season during a spell with Orrell.

“They took their chances and we didn’t. That was just the level they were playing at.

“I don’t think the scoreline reflects the game as such.

“We created chances and actually defended really well, but they had a higher fitness level than what we had.

“They were more match-hardened than we were and used to a different pace of game, and that told in the end.”

“To get a top division club was incredible. I had played against them the year before for Orrell, so I kind of knew what we were going to get.

“It was good for the club to have it at home rather than away – it was an added bonus.”

The club had hoped to hold an event to mark the anniversary of this special day and regather the team that took the field as well as some of their opponents.

Like many things, however, the Covid-19 pandemic has put paid to that and has left club officials to think along the lines of much of the country – “maybe next year.”

“We’ve got a good network of communication with former players. We’re always in touch with old players who have maybe moved out of the area,” said Dean.

“We are still in touch with Lawrence Dallaglio via Dewi so we’re hoping we can get him to come up for it.”

Farr continued: “I know a lot of the lads were up for meeting up again and there’s a lot still at the club.

“Dave Allcock and I are still coaching and directing the rugby, Dewi Morris who helped us out that day still comes down and does bits of coaching.

“I’m sure we’ll mark the 26th anniversary!”

The teams on the day were:

Winnington Park: Robert Oliver, Adrian Bird, Simon Ogdon, Matt Farr, Jes Owens, Gareth Lloyd, John Farr, Iain Taylor (captain), Ian Davies, Paul Rees, Dave Nicholls, Mike Bebbington, Nick Yardley, Richard Sproston. Replacements: Paul Gibson, Steve Bebbington, Nigel Blekinsop, Mark David.

Wasps: John Ufton, Phil Hopley, Damian Hopley, Aaron James, Shane Roiser, Gary Gregory, Steve Bates, Darren Molloy, Kevin Dunn, Ian Dunston, Matt Greenwood, Richard Kinsey, Michael White, Chris Wilkins, Lawrence Dallaglio (captain). Replacements: Michael Skinner, Dugald Macer, Tim Maguire, Lawrence Scarce.