‘He’s going for the line!’ – Ray French’s rugby league commentary farewell

It is an unenviable task to compose a list of the best Ray French commentary moments. Everyone will have their own favourite.

Whether you recall running around the playground pretending to be Ellery Hanley or “cheeky, chunky chappie” Andy Gregory with a commentary line in your head, or sitting around the TV with the family watching the Challenge Cup final – Ray provided the soundtrack to some of the all-time great rugby league moments.

‘Frenchy’, who wore the colours of Great Britain, Widnes and St Helens before retiring from playing, has finally brought an end to a commentary career which started at Radio Merseyside in the 1970s, saw him become the voice of rugby league, and continued right up to the 2018 season.

This list is not so much a definitive guide to the top moments from Ray’s wonderful career behind the microphone, more a starting point to generate and stimulate further memories.

Let us know your favourites by using the comments section below.

1: Jonathan Davies topples Australia

1994 – Great Britain 8-4 Australia

Wembley, the grandest stage of them all. Where better then for Jonathan Davies to light the blue touch paper for the 1994 Test series against Bob Fulton’s Kangaroos, than the old Empire Stadium?

The ageing amphitheatre was still a special place, and its crumbling foundations were rocked by 50,000-odd people bouncing after an electrifying score from Wales league convert Davies.

Taking a pass from Denis Betts, the then-Warrington star skipped through a dog-leg defence, past a static Bradley Clyde and finally zipped beyond the leggy Brett Mullins to score.

Ray’s commentary was just as explosive. “He’s got some space… he’s going for the corner, he’s got his head back…”

The tone keeps rising, the volume soars. “The Welshman is in for a magnificent try, that’s the speciality of Jonathan Davies!”

It was the speciality of Ray French too. Sheer, unadulterated excitement.

2. The greatest Challenge Cup final ever?

1985 – Wigan 28-24 Hull FC

Wigan beat Hull in 1985 Cup final thriller

A heavyweight contest would be an appropriate way to describe the 1985 Challenge Cup final. So many plotlines, so many superstars and so many points.

Brett Kenny, Shaun Edwards, Henderson Gill, John ‘Chicka’ Ferguson – “He can step on a threepenny bit this lad” – and skipper Graeme West were in the Wigan side that roared into a seemingly unassailable lead.

Hull bravely fought back, with stars of their own such as Peter Sterling and Kiwis Gary Kemble, Dane O’Hara, Fred Ah Kuoi and double-try-scorer James Leuluai conjuring up magic, prompting French to roar: “We wondered whether Hull could do it, and here they are showing us!”

“That was a cracker of a game, no question,” French told the 5Live rugby league podcast. “It wasn’t just the scoreline, it was the tries that were scored, there were some real beauties.”

3. Martin Offiah – ‘Chariots’ hits top speed

1994 – Wigan 26-16 Leeds

When it comes to great Challenge Cup final moments, few can match Martin Offiah’s try against Leeds in the 1994 epic. It was so good, it was immortalised in the Wembley Challenge Cup statue.

On a punishingly hot day in the capital, on a pitch so lush and green it looked like a carpet, Offiah set off like a fighter jet on afterburners, racing past Alan Tait on the outside to open the scoring.

It brought us the iconic image of Offiah on his knees, seemingly overcome by the act of scoring such a fantastic try, and French delivered the pay-off: “That must rank among the finest ever seen on this ground. This man, the world’s most lethal try-scorer.”

It set the Cherry and Whites on course for a seventh straight Challenge Cup success, and again highlighted Ray’s ability to rise to the big occasion.

“I was absolutely flabbergasted when he got there, but he was some wingman, there’s no question,” French recalled.

“Whenever he got the ball in his hands you moved up (in your seat), and you could feel the crowd rising up wondering what was going to happen.

“What was classic about it was Martin always had the pace to beat people on the outside, and a wingman who can beat a man with a change of pace on the outside is always going to be world-class.”

4. Goulding’s masterclass and a Hunter-Paul hat-trick

1996 – St Helens 40-32 Bradford

Bobbie’s brilliance blows away Bulls

There are few games that stir the memories of Ray’s commentary more than this cup final from 1996, when St Helens and Bradford delivered a modern classic (well, sort of modern anyway) under the old Twin Towers.

Sunshine, a massive crowd and two top-class sides pitted against each other.

Great commentators seem to rise with the occasion, retaining control while allowing the excitement to shine through.

This game was a classic example. It had it all, ebb and flow; a first Challenge Cup hat-trick for losing finalist Robbie Hunter-Paul and a one-man kicking master-class from Bobbie Goulding.

Don’t take my word for it. Watch it now. Awesome.

5. Ellery Hanley shines at Headingley

1983 – Bradford 6-11 Featherstone

Ellery try in vain

Ellery Hanley showed why he would become one of the greatest rugby league players in the world the day he danced down the Headingley touchline in Bradford Northern’s 1983 Challenge Cup semi-final defeat by Featherstone.

Hanley’s try had all the ingredients; acceleration, deception and pace as he raced away from the Rovers cover.

Ray’s commentary complemented it brilliantly, allowing the pictures to breathe and describing just what everyone was thinking.

“He’s still going… and he’s still going! Goodness, gracious me! This could be one of the tries of the season! What a try for Ellery Hanley.”

Great try, great commentary.

Ray’s description of Featherstone’s final success against Hull FC was equally emotional – “The little mining village has beaten the might of Humberside” – as Allan Agar’s side celebrated a major Wembley upset.

6. When Eagles dared

1998 – Sheffield 17-8 Wigan

Challenge Cup heroes – Sheffield Eagles

Ray was famously recorded as saying Sheffield Eagles had no chance of winning in 1998 against a hotly-tipped Wigan side of 1998 that would win the inaugural Super League Grand Final later that year.

How wrong he was, as Lance Todd winner Mark Aston, Paul Broadbent, Nick Pinkney and Jonny Lawless guided the unfancied South Yorkshire club – coached by the cup master John Kear – to a major triumph.

Wigan’s side included Andy Farrell, Jason Robinson, Denis Betts, Henry Paul… the list goes on, but despite that, they were beaten.

Ray’s voice almost broke up in the excitement as Pinkney, Matt Crowther and Darren Turner scored the tries to vanquish the Warriors. “They have created history,” he roared at full time.

Looking back on that game, he said: “Even up to three or four minutes before time, I could not envisage Wigan losing. And then I thought – ‘Ray, this isn’t going to happen, Sheffield are going to win this match’.

“The outcome was quite staggering, and what a victory for those players.”

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