THIRTY years ago today Warrington and Wigan made history by becoming the first two British professional rugby league teams to play each other on USA soil.

The Great American Challenge took place at County Stadium Milwaukee in Wisconsin on June 10, 1989, when Wigan won 12-5.

Former NFL gridiron player Mike Mayer was a driving force behind the exhibition match, as he believed the American people could fall in love with rugby league in the same way that he had.

More than 17,000 turned up to watch the bitter rivals go into battle, with the contest proving once again there is no such thing as a ‘friendly’ between The Wire and Wigan.

Warrington Guardian:

Les Boyd, fifth from right, with Wire supporters in Milwaukee

Fierce prop Les Boyd flew from Australia to play what was his last game in primrose and blue and within two minutes he and Wigan captain Ellery Hanley were sat back in the stands having been sin-binned for fighting.

Referee John Holdsworth’s attempts to pull them apart plus Boyd and Hanley giving each other verbals as they left the field in ripped shirts are iconic moments of the event and available to see on YouTube.

Looking back now, the game – coming more than a month after the winter season had finished - also proved to be a trailblazer for Super League’s arrival in 1996 in a number of ways, such as the advent of summer rugby, squad numbers and names on the back of shirts as well as the match being shown on a big screen in the stadium.

For some fans of The Wire, who took up the invite to play after Leeds withdrew for financial reasons, it was a trip they could not miss and joined thousands of locals in the crowd at what was the home of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team until the stadium’s closure in 2000.

“It was just a great American adventure really, watching Warrington play in a country that they’d never played in before,” said Stan Lewandowski, 61, who is now in his 50th season supporting The Wire.

Warrington Guardian:

Stan Lewandowski at Saturday's Wire match against Catalans, wearing his original 1989 Milwaukee shirt while holding aloft the programme and corner flags that were given to him after the Great American Challenge match. Picture: Mike Boden

“There was quite a party of us on an organised trip and some of us went on to Florida after that.

“Up north in Milwaukee, the people were very friendly. We had some great times.

“I remember seeing a cavalcade of the players in open-top cars through the wide streets of Milwaukee to announce the game was taking place.

“They were waving to passers by and then they all met outside the county hall for speeches and stuff.

Warrington Guardian:

Speeches following the parade through the streets of Milwaukee to promote the game. Can you spot Wire players Mark Forster, Paul Cullen, Billy McGinty and Mark Thomas?

Warrington Guardian:

Warrington Wolves captain Mike Gregory talks to the Milwaukee people, with coach Brian Johnson and kit man Roy 'Ockher' Aspinall among those watching on

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Great rivals on the field, but friends off it - Wigan's Ellery Hanley, left, with Wire's Des Drummond and Paul Cullen after the Milwaukee parade

Warrington Guardian:

International Wire rugby league legends Kevin Tamati, left, and Les Boyd in Milwaukee 30 years ago

“We did a pub crawl one evening with players and supporters, which was sort of entitled ‘The Brits are coming’.

“That was taken in good spirit locally, a promotional event for people in the city to be aware of the game.”

Warrington Guardian:

Enjoying a promotional pub crawl in Milwaukee with Stan Lewandowski, centre front, and fellow Wire fans are Wigan's ex-Wire scrum-half Andy Gregory, fourth from left, and full-back Steve Hampson, second from left

Warrington Guardian:

The Milwaukee pub crawl looks like it's starting to get messy

Stan, a member of Warrington Wolves Supporters’ Trust who is also treasurer of the Warrington Players Association, shared his memories of the match experience.

“There seemed to be quite a lot of Americans that attended. There was a crowd of over 17,000,” said Stan, who contributed a report of the game to the Milwaukee Journal.

“The ground, Milwaukee County Stadium, can hold 55,000 but we were seated in what was called the bleachers which was an open-air stand right next to the pitch.

Warrington Guardian:

The scene at kick-off

Warrington Guardian:

Future Sky Sports rugby league commentator Eddie Hemmings was reporting on the occasion for the BBC

“If we’d been in the vast concourse of the stadium we’d have been miles away from seeing the game.

“There were Americans in there with us too.

“With the pitch being narrow, it was quite a dour game which was a pity really.

“They literally cut the pitch to go over the diamond, as it’s primarily a baseball stadium. Green Bay Packers played American Football there too a couple of times a year.

“I just remember it being a very tight game, finishing 12-5 in the end."

Warrington Guardian:

The match commentary team, from left, Keith Macklin, David Howes (RFL public affairs executive) and Art Eckman, one of the most recognisable personalities in 'motorcycle event broadcasting' in 1990s USA

Andy Goodway crossed for the only try after exploding on to an inside pass from Andy Gregory, though Des Drummond controversially had a try ruled out after seemingly beating a defender to the touch as he chased his own kick ahead.

Holdsworth called time on the feisty game two minutes early according to the stadium clock.

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Les Boyd chases back to collar try scorer Andy Goodway at County Stadium. Picture: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Wire skipper Mike Gregory looks to ship the ball beyond his good pal and one-time flatmate Joe Lydon during the 1989 match in Milwaukee

Warrington Guardian:

Mike Gregory's Milwaukee shirt

“Wire captain Mike Gregory was voted the man of the match by the American and British sport writers covering the event," added Stan.

“I wrote in my report for the Milwaukee Journal that Boyd and Hanley were both sin-binned only 87 seconds into the match after a brief fight.

Warrington Guardian:

The fight which led to the sin-binning of Boyd and Hanley. Referee John Holdsworth has his arm around Boyd's neck as he tries to break up the incident

Warrington Guardian:

The moment Boyd and Hanley are shown the yellow card

“Boyd obviously did his job well because Hanley was never seen to get his game going after that altercation. That was job done in Boyd’s last game for The Wire.”

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Les Boyd's last Wire shirt from Milwaukee, now framed and in the hands of 46-year-old Thelwall central heating engineer Stephen Rutter who says he has worn it, still ripped and with Hanley's blood stain, for cup finals at Wembley

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Stan was interested in how the American public responded to the action on the field.

“The locals were pretty fascinated in some of the action of the game, and how they were playing without any pads or protection as in American Football.

“It was a cracking adventure to be a part of.

“Both teams had the ‘v’ kit, which was a nice one to have.

Warrington Guardian:

The current Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors teams played in kits that were a copy of the 1989 Milwaukee ones when they clashed in the recent Magic Weekend match at Anfield. Picture: Warrington Wolves


“It was the first time they had squad names on the back of the shirts, and I think it was the first time 17 players were used – four substitutes, if I remember rightly.

“It was great to see the squad names for identifying the players. American Football do it, so it was a chance for them to do the same.

“On the big screen that was there, they would show the action replays and the commentary would be telling the American fans what was happening - as well as advertisements going on the big screen on a regular basis too.

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“I think it was ahead of its time, in the squad numbers and names.

“Fans had a big tail-gate party on the car park before the game and that gets all the crowd involved.

“Everyone was chatting to each other, going around offering food and drink. That was something we hadn’t seen before.

“You could see summer rugby over here coming on from that.

“It was nice to see Mike Mayer with his American dream. I liked his comment. He said: “It is the first spike into the trans-Atlantic railway that will bring rugby league to the US. It’s not the golden spike in the railroad, but it’s a start.”

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Stan added: “I thought that the following season they should have had two to four teams go back down there and give it a bit of continuity, but I don’t know how much money was lost on the event but it probably deterred other clubs from taking part.

“The American fans obviously liked that the players were playing without the added protection. You could see them enjoying the big hits.

“It’s a shame there wasn’t a wider pitch for the teams to show their full range of skills.

“Wigan were just coming to their peak then. Andy Goodway scored the only try.

“I was quite surprised any try was scored because the pitch was that narrow.”

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Warrington Guardian:

On the Warrington Wolves-Warrington Guardian Facebook page today Paul Lee says his dad went to the game and brought back this item for him, with biro and beer stains intact

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On a personal level, Stan expressed some surprise at the experience.

“I never thought I’d like to go to America, but when I went there I couldn’t get enough of it, I really enjoyed it,” he said.

“The local people took to asking where you came from, and were very interested in British culture.

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“And they were very passionate people about the match. That’s why I was a bit saddened it wasn’t taken up further.

“It would have been good to have a tournament going over there. You never know in the future we might play a Magic Weekend up there.”


Warrington: Dave Lyon; Des Drummond, Paul Cullen, Ronnie Duane, Mark Forster; John Woods, Rocky Turner; Les Boyd, Mark Roskell, Steve Molloy, Mark Roberts, Billy McGinty, Mike Gregory. Subs: Tony Thorniley, Basil Richards, Tony Humphries, Mark Thomas.

Wigan: Steve Hampson; Tony Iro, Joe Lydon, Dean Bell, Mark Preston; Shaun Edwards, Andy Gregory; Ian Lucas, Nicky Kiss, Adrian Shelford, Dennis Betts, Andy Goodway, Ellery Hanley. Subs: Ged Byrne, Martin Dermott, Ian Gildart.


McGinty is held down, Woods penalty goal, 2-0

Wire ruled offside at a scrum, Lydon penalty goal, 2-2

Turner drop goal, 3-2

Turner high tackle on Lydon, Lydon penalty goal, 3-4

Goodway avoids Boyd's last-ditch tackle to touch down, 3-8

Edwards gives Boyd facial treatment, Woods misses the penalty


Wire dissent, Lydon's penalty goal attempt goes wide

High tackle on Mike Gregory, Woods penalty goal, 5-8

Off-the-ball incident while Wire in possession, Lydon kicks penalty goal, 5-10

Roberts roughs up Hanley, Lydon penalty goal, 5-12

Thomas obstruction, Lydon misses penalty goal

Attendance: 17,773

* It wasn't the first time Warrington and Wigan had left English soil to play each other at a venue well outside the sport's heartlands, as the video below shows. This 1934 match was played at Shelbourne Park in Dublin, seven years after opening as a greyhound racing stadium.