Malcolm Norman Meninga by Dave Dooley: On June 23rd 1984, Britain failed in their bid to capture the ashes after defeat in the Second Test at Lang Park, Brisbane. St.Helens supporters, however, received a most welcome consolation present after the game, when Mal Meninga, the giant Australian centre threequarter became a Saint for the 1984/85 campaign.
St.Helens had paid around `£30,000 for the privilege and with Meninga and his Brisbane Souths club-mate Phil Veivers in their ranks, the Saints embarked upon an unbeaten run which took them to the Lancashire Cup Final against deadly rivals Wigan at Central Park. The 26,000 spectators who packed the terraces on that murky October afternoon witnessed a devastating first-half performance of awesome power and ball-handling skills as Meninga ruthlessly exposed the defensive frailties of Wigan's right flank.
The sixteen stone giant took less than seven minutes to make his presence felt. Taking Graham Liptrot?s pass about fifteen yards from the line, he sold a brilliant dummy to John Ferguson before bulldozing his way over for Saints' opening try.
St.Helens continued to dominate and skipper Harry Pinner began another fine move with a superb pass for Andy Platt to pierce the Riversiders' defence. He handed on to fellow second-rower Paul Round, who was hauled down inches from the line by a last-ditch Ferguson tackle. Meninga, at acting half-back, almost casually fed the eager Roy Haggerty, who charged in to score from close range. The conversion put St.Helens 12-2 ahead and in the 35th minute, the ball was swept, inevitably, over to the left once again after Graeme West had lost possession. Neil Holding fed Meninga on the burst and although three Wigan defenders tried to contain him, the Big Man still managed to pop up the perfect ball for his winger Sean Day to score in the corner. A minute from half time, the strong-running Round looped over a one-handed pass to Mighty Mal in full cry. He handed off fellow Aussie Mark Cannon with contemptuous ease, leaving young full-back Shaun Edwards with the hopeless task of preventing yet more Meninga Mayhem!
Despite the shock of a seemingly unassailable 24-2 deficit, Wigan took the game to St.Helens after the interval and produced a splendid fight-back. Just when the game seemed delicately poised, however, Meninga was inexplicably singled out for some 'special attention' from two Wigan forwards as he ran the ball up to the home twenty five yard line - a fit of pique doubtless borne out of sheer frustration. Sean Day's penalty goal eased the visitors' jangling nerves and clinched a 26-16 victory for the Saints - their first major trophy success for seven years.
Back in the dressing rooms, Man-of-the-Match Meninga was clearly elated with his performance: "Before I came over, I had a bit of a flat spell and I came to England to pick up my confidence. Today I have gained some valuable experience and done my confidence a power of good. Let's hope I can continue to play well and win a few more games for St.Helens!"
Needless to say, Big Mal was as good as his word. The Saints went on to become First Division Runner's up and went to Elland Road to take on League Champions Hull KR in the Premiership Final. Once again it was Big Mal who took the plaudits, showing his tremendous power and pace to score two long-distance interception tries in the Saints' 36-16 triumph. Clearly, Meninga's presence transformed the Saints into a trophy-winning outfit for the first time since the late 1970s. Although the club were unable to match this success in the 1985/86 campaign, leading to the exit of Coach Billy Benyon. Mal never managed a second spell at Knowsley Road, for a variety of reasons, not least a succession of injuries, that also punctuated his career for Canberra Raiders and Australia. Yet he remains a legendary figure in international Rugby League, forever remembered for his awesome power, pace and handling ability. He could kick goals too - I remember that superb effort from the touchline at Thrum Hall in 1985, not that he attempted many goal-kicks for the Saints, mind you!
Indeed, the Wizard of Aus is always assured of a fantastic reception every time he returns to the Old Dart - but let us not forget his fellow countrymen like Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Martin Bella and Paul Langmack who helped to make the 1984/85 season such a memorable one for British Rugby League fans - especially those from Knowsley Road!