The long and rich history of Featherstone Rovers Rugby League Football Club

Friday, 21 June 2013

The National Coaching Scheme

The role of the coach in Rugby League has changed radically over the years. Nowadays the coach is considered to be perhaps the most important figure at a club, which is a far cry from the time when teams were chosen by selection committee, tactics decided by senior players and the coach was limited to overseeing a few laps of the training ground to keep the lads fit. Of course, even in those days, the best coaches did much more than that. Witness Eric Batten’s impact on Featherstone Rovers after his arrival in 1951 for proof of that. The job of a coach gradually evolved to its current status through the sixties and seventies with the emergence of “personality” coaches such as Alex Murphy and our own Peter Fox who insisted on having control over team selection. Coaching in Britain took a great leap forward after the 1982 Kangaroo tourists destroyed Great Briatin and an influx of influential antipodeans made their mark. Before then however, sterling work had been done in England by the National Coaching Scheme to raise coaching standards throughout the game. This initiative was set up by secretary general of the RFL Bill Fallowfield in the early 1950s and the two men he chose to head up this new coaching scheme both inevitably had strong Featherstone connections.
Laurie Gant MBE in his playing days

Both Laurie Gant and Albert Fearnley served Featherstone  as players and coaches. Laurie Gant, who sadly passed away late last year, served Featherstone Rovers and rugby league in general in every possible way. He started out as a player for Wakefield and signed for Rovers in 1948, making his debut on. After playing 112 games and scoring 15 tries, he had a short spell at Hunslet before retiring. The highlight of his playing career was of course packing down in the second-row at Wembley in 1952. He then became involved in coaching, and also spent many years as a top-grade referee. As well as his work with the whistle and on the coaching field, he then became Rovers head coach in 1966. Within a year Laurie Gant had led Rovers to a Wembley triumph, our first ever. He stepped down in 1970 and was replaced by Peter Fox. Laurie carried on with his work at the RFL, running coaching clinics and summer courses for thousands of schoolkids to encourage them to take up the game. Later in life he was chairman of the Rovers Past Players Association. He was one of only two Featherstone players awarded an MBE for his services to sport.

Laurie Gant’s right-hand man in the RFL coaching department was the indomitable Albert Fearnley. He had a distinguished playing career at Halifax, and gained a wealth of experience having played in Championship and Cup finals, including the most famous of all, the 1954 Cup final replay at Odsal. After playing at Wembley in 1956, he arrived at Post Office Road with a bagful of medals, to beef up the Rovers pack. A quick look at Featherstone teamsheet of the day, including Kenny Welburn, Willis Fawley, Norman Hockley, Wyn Jones and Cliff Lambert, might make you wonder quite why anybody felt they needed “beefing up”. He did just that though for two years, playing 67 games and managing a notable 18 tries. He had a short spell as unofficial forwards-coach in his second season, before moving on to Batley as their player-coach. More than one young Rovers forward of the day could tell the tale of how Fearnley’s uncompromising style opened their eyes as to just how tough you had to be to play the game then. It’s probably fair to say that Albert’s robust approach to playing was reflected in his coaching methods, but there can be no doubt he got his message across.

The game has changed in many ways since then, and today’s coach needs a host of skills as a teacher, a motivator, a tactician, a psychologist, a trainer and a public relations officer, as well as overseeing those laps of the training ground.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Featherstone & Castleford United

Today we’ll look at one of the most unusual fixtures in Rovers’ history. Not an epic derby clash against Castleford, with both teams heroically defending local pride, but an occasion when players from both teams joined together, tackling and running alongside each other against a common foe. A prototype of the dreaded Calder team circa 1995? Thank God no. The occasion was the 1961 New Zealand tourists, and for reasons best known to themselves the RFL decided, instead of the usual fixture list, to arrange games against a whole raft of “combined” teams. It was customary for touring teams to face the best club sides during their stay in the UK. Thus Rovers had played against the 1955 Kiwis (and lost 7-6) and the 1959 Aussies (and won 23-15). For this tour, not only did Rovers and Castleford combine, but also Salford and Swinton played together as a “Manchester XIII”, Leeds, Hunslet and Bramley as a “Leeds XIII”, among others. Maybe the hope was that these combined outfits could attract larger crowds, by appealing to the fans of two or more clubs.

So, who made the line up for the Featherstone-Castleford select XIII?  The game was played on Castleford’s ground. Both coaches of the day, Harold Moxon and Harry Street (who had of course previously played for Featherstone for a short while) were involved in the preparation of the side. The side contained eight Rovers players and five from Castleford, reflecting the superior strength of the Rovers team at that time. Fullback was Castleford’s Albert Lunn, with Rovers regular Jackie Fennell missing out. The right three-quarters were blue and white; Jim Hunt and Ken Greatorex. The left three-quarters were amber and black; Geoff Ward and Colin Battye. Half-backs were Alan Hardisty and Don Fox, a pretty handy combination it has to be said. Joe Mullaney was a travelling reserve (no subs in those days). The pack was almost all Rovers, with the familiar front row of Len Hammill, Willis Fawley and Malcolm Dixon, Terry Clawson and Norman Hockley in the second row and only John Sheridan as Castleford’s representative at loose-forward, taking Cliff Lambert’s birth.  In his autobiography, Terry Clawson pointed out that he was only prepared to play provided it meant not having to pull on a Castleford jersey! Unfortunately I have been unable to find out what shirts this combined line up wore.

And how did they get on? It was only the third game of the Kiwi tour, played on the 26th of August. The tourists had previously lost to both Liverpool (Widnes and Liverpool City) and Manchester (Salford and Swinton), but won this game 31-20. For Featherstone-Castleford, Geoff Ward scored two tries, Jim Hunt and Len Hammill one each and Terry Clawson kicked four goals. Perhaps an understandable lack of cohesion between the two clubs’ players contributed to a disappointing result against modest tourists. The Kiwis went on win the first test against Great Britain surprisingly easily 29-11, though Britain bounced back to take the series with authoritative wins 23-10 and 35-19 in the second and third tests.

The match programme announced: “This temporary merger today will be watched with much interest by those writers of anonymous letters who suggest that the two clubs should permanently band together and play on a field in Pontefract Park”. So it wasn’t Maurice Lindsay’s idea after all! For RFL officials looking for clues as to whether a merged club could ever be viable, a crowd of 5,774 was reasonable, comparing with the previous Kiwi tour (5,100 at Featherstone and 2,440 at Castleford) quite well. The whole idea of combined sides was abandoned though, never to be repeated.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Testimonials and Benefit Seasons.

Club Captain Liam Finn was recently granted a rugby league testimonial for ten years’ service to the sport. The tradition of the benefit year for players who have given ten years service to a single club really came into force after the war, and as such many loyal servants from the pre-war period missed out on that end-of-career pay day. Before 1945 testimonials seem to have been granted on a very ad hoc basis consisting of just one designated league fixture with a portion of the receipts going to the player concerned. Names such as Jim Denton, Ernie Barraclough, Jack Hirst all put in at least a decade of service each, but there is no documentation of them having received a benefit or testimonial. Some players were luckier.  In 1929 a joint testimonial match was declared for Arthur Haigh and Jimmy Williams. Previously John Willie Higson had a benefit in 1921 and three years later Billy Seymour.

It was quite common in those days for players whose careers had been cut short by injury to receive a testimonial fixture as recompense. Thus Jack Higgins had a benefit played for him in 1946 after a serious injury forced his retirement. The following year a game was arranged for the widow of Wakefield player Frank Townsend who tragically died in a match against Rovers at Post Office Road in 1947.

After the war that fine servant Frank Hemmingway was the first player to qualify for what we would recognise now as a benefit season in 1949/50. A feature of the club in the 1950s was unsurprisingly local lads signing for their hometown team and playing the majority of their career there. Thus, eight different players enjoyed a benefit season during the fifties.

50-1    Walt Tennant
51-2    Jimmy Russell & Jack Blackburn
54-5    Jack Ogden
55-6    Fred Hulme
57-8    Ken Welburn
58-9    Alan Tennant
59-60     Cliff Lambert

The pattern was similar in the 1960s. Again, seven benefits in that decade, including two of Featherstone’s most loyal servants sharing a testimonial year. Surely two such great players deserved separate seasons.

60-1    Willis Fawley
62-3    Jack Fennell
63-4    Don Fox & Joe Mullaney
67-8    Malcolm Dixon
68-9    Ken Greatorex
69-70    Stan Nicholsen

The seventies were a fine decade too. There were just two seasons when no benefit was held.

71-2    Arnie Morgan
72-3    Les Tonks
73-4    Keith Cotton
74-5    Mick Smith
75-6    Vince Farrar
76-7    Jimmy Thompson
77-8    John Newlove
79-80  Harold Box

In the eighties, such was the backlog of players who had played ten seasons, Keith Bell had to wait thirteen years for his benefit.

80-1    Ken Kellett
81-2    Paul Coventry
82-3    Mick Gibbins
83-4    John Marsden
84-5    Keith Bell
85-6    Peter Smith
86-7    Steve Quinn
89-90  Gary Siddall

In the nineties we had just two beneficiaries reflecting the changing times. Freedom of contract and the abolition of the old retain-and-transfer system meant that players started to move around a lot more between clubs.

91-2    Nigel Barker
95-6   Chris Bibb

Since then, that trend has continued although three players have proved themselves loyal clubmen by sticking out ten years.

2002    Danny Evans
2006    Steve Dooler
2007    Stuart Dickens

Monday, 17 June 2013

Featherstone’s Most Capped Player

Jimmy Thompson holds the record for most caps gained whilst a Featherstone player. He won 20 caps between 1970 and 1977. After leaving Featherstone for Bradford he won one further cap, making a total of 21. However, the Rovers player who won most caps in his career was another player from that same era. Steve Nash signed for Featherstone as a diminutive scrum-half in 1967, and our half-backs at that time were Mick Smith and Carl Dooler. Steve actually made his debut at stand-off, filling in for few games when Rovers had made it to Wembley and were resting players before the final. Just over a year later Carl Dooler had been sold to Hull KR and the number seven shirt was Nash’s for the next seven years.

Within four seasons Nash’s club form had been sufficiently impressive to warrant an international call up. He won his first Great Britain cap in 1971 against France at St.Helens. Britain won 24-2, Steve Nash’s half-back partner Roger Millward got two tries and there was a rare try from dashing second-rower Jimmy Thompson. Nash did enough to keep his place in the GB squad, and he faced both France and New Zealand the following season. In November 1972 the Rugby League World Cup was held in France. An impressive British side won all their games with Steve Nash at scrum–half, including a 53-19 thrashing of New Zealand. Nash scored his first international try that day and half-back partner John Holmes had a field day. In the World Cup final Britain drew 10 all with Australia, a game which included a sensational length of the field try from Clive Sullivan. Extra time was played, but as the scores remained level, the World Cup was awarded to Britain, as they had won the group. Nash became the first and only Featherstone player to get a World Cup winner’s medal. Ex-Rover Terry Clawson was also in the line up.

Nash’s international career continued with six caps on the 1974 tour. This was a golden age for Featherstone rugby, as both Jimmy Thompson and Keith Bridges also figured prominently on that tour. The same trio were selected to represent England at the 1975 World Championship. Steve Nash then left Rovers for Salford after a record domestic transfer fee of £15,000. He had won sixteen GB caps in his career so far. At Salford he went on to win eight more caps. In 1977 alongside Peter Smith and Jimmy Thompson he was once again in Britain’s World Cup squad, and all three players appeared in the 1977 World Cup final which Great Britain lost 13-12. It was Thompson’s second final after 1970, and also of course Nash’s second final too.

After playing all three tests against the 1978 Kangaroos Nash was selected for his second tour in 1979 but didn’t play any test rugby. He might have thought his international career was over, but he was (unwisely in the event) recalled to face the might of the 1982 Kangaroos in the twilight of his career. He was the GB captain for the first test at Hull when Great Britain were slaughtered and the gulf between the British and Australian games was finally fully exposed. It was a disappointing end to a very respectable international career. He was replaced as captain for the second test by Jeff Grayshon, then of Bradford, another member of a select band of players who have had the privilege of both captaining Great Britain and playing for Featherstone Rovers in their career.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Titanic Cup Clashes against Workington

Fans these days complain of the top teams such as Wigan, Warrington and Leeds always meeting each other in the grand finals and big cup ties, but in the 1950s it was Featherstone Rovers v Workington Town that was one of the big tickets. Both clubs have a strong cup-fighting tradition, born in that era. Enough has been written already about our Wembley debut in 1952, but before that decade was out Featherstone and Workington were destined to meet in a further four cup ties, all of epic proportions, including two semi-finals.
Rovers at Wembley v Workington in 1952
After losing the 1952 final, Rovers arrived at the 1955 semi-final looking for revenge. They had beaten Belle Vue Rangers (great name, great club), Bradford and Leigh on the route to the last four and another clash with Town. Big ticket? An astonishing 36,077 people packed Headingley to see who would face Barrow at Wembley. Just four of the Wembley 1952 team were in the line-up three years later; Don Metcalfe, Ray Cording and pack men Kenny Welburn and Cliff Lambert. Having shown some marvellous form in the early rounds, Rovers must have fancied their chances, but on the day a very subdued display allowed Town to triumph 13-2. Despite dominating the first half, Featherstone failed to score, and Town produced two strikes of their own against the run of play. In the second half Workington established a strangle-hold that they were never going to loosen. 
Back to the drawing board then, and three years later came another chance. In the 1958 Semi-final at Odsal Rovers were without the injured Don Fox, but had such stars as Joe Mullaney, Cyril Woolford and Jack Fennell in their ranks. Wembley 52 veterans Lambert, Welburn and Alan Tennant were still going strong. Once again a tight game ensued, but Rovers disappointed their share of another huge 33,926 crowd, going down 8-2, the only try of the game coming from Ike Southward. He also scored at Wembley where Town were pipped by Wigan.
Three big games and three defeats. Rovers must have been sick of the sight of the all-conquering Cumbrians. Imagine their feelings the following season when the first round draw of the 1959 Cup came out and Rovers drew Workington away.  Having won 10-0 in a league fixture there just a week before, Featherstone probably thought they might have been pushing their luck to get a second successive positive result at such a notoriously difficult venue. They won though, with a phenomenal 80 minute tackling stint, and despite Town grabbing the game’s only try, Rovers triumphed 8 points to 5 thanks to four Terry Clawson penalties.  No change of luck in the semi-final that year though, beaten by Hull 15-5.
Showing a distinct lack of imagination the draw-makers for the first round of the 1960 competition came up with Workington v Featherstone!  Off to Cumbria again then, this time for a 15-0 success, practice having turned the Rovers team into a dab hand at tricky Cup ties in Workington. Tries from Wills Fawley, Joe Mullaney and Mick Clamp saw us through. That year it was Wakefield Trinity’s turn to break our hearts in the semi-final. Rovers were beaten in the 1962 semis too, as that particular golden age of rugby league drew to a close. Workington had played in three finals, the only Cup finals in their history. Rovers had lost five successive semi-finals between 1955 and 1962, but would be back again for Wembley glory with a new side before the sixties were over.

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Ones That Got Away

It’s always nice to see a local lad doing well after leaving Featherstone, one of the latest being Zak Hardaker at Leeds.  The disappointment of losing talented players to top flight clubs has always been something Rovers fans have had to live with, but for me that doesn’t stop us taking pride in their subsequent achievements. Zak’s career with us was brief, but better than nothing. There have been some distinguished rugby league players, born and bred in Featherstone, who never played for their hometown team.
Phil Cookson
Two famous examples of local lads who never pulled on the Blue and White played in the 1978 Cup Final at Wembley. Rovers of course had lost an eminently winnable and desperately disappointing semi-final against Leeds at Odsal, and playing in the Leeds second row that day, and in the final too was Phil Cookson. He signed for Leeds directly from Rovers Intermediates in 1968 and went on to enjoy a long and successful career at Headingley. He won England caps at the 1975 World Cup in Australia.

Bill Francis
In that 78 final Phil was up against St. Helens stand-off Bill Francis, another Featherstone man. Francis signed for Wigan in 1963 from Rovers Under 17 team and made his name as a classy centre during 13 seasons at Central Park. He won four GB caps, and at the afore-mentioned 1975 World Cup was playing for Wales (he qualified through the grandparent rule). He transferred to Saints in 1977 and played his entire professional career in Lancashire. I’d always assumed that Wigan must have had a mole in the Featherstone area scouting system to alert them to available local talent so early. After all, they’d also signed Tommy Smales from under our noses in 1958 with a big money offer that we couldn’t compete with. A recent article in the RL Journal offered an alternative and interesting explanation as to how Wigan found out about Bill Francis’s talent before he’d even turned professional. Apparently in 1963 ITV started covering amateur youth games on TV, the star side being the Featherstone & Castleford district team. This team included Roger Millward and Brian Lockwood as well as Francis, and all three youngsters were able to make a name for themselves as juniors. Wigan liked what they saw and snapped up Francis, to our loss.
Other players we could file under the list of the ones that got away would be Alan Banks’ older brother Barry, who signed for York and later had success at Hull. Jason Ramshaw, son of old favourite Terry, signed from school for Halifax before carving out a long career at Keighley. Martin Wood was another local lad who never played for Featherstone. I’m sure fans can recall one or two other names that slipped through the net over the years. Perhaps at the very top of the list should be world record holder and Hall of Famer Neil Fox, who many people thought would sign for Featherstone as his older brothers had done, but instead went to Wakefield Trinity. The rest, as they say, is history. Very illustrious history indeed.

Footnote: Steve Slater writes:

I can recall Terry Morgan & Steve Cooper (Gary's brother) both signing for York in the early 70's, and a very highly rated youngster from the U'17's called Bob Woodhead signed for Hull KR. Big things were expected of him but I never heard his name mentioned again. And there was Dave Topliss. Although he played for Normanton U'17's, he supported Rovers all his childhood, but Normy players were selected for the Wakefield & District side, not Cas & Fev, and when he came under Trinity's spotlight he signed for them instead. There was another Banks brother, Keith, who was the elder of the three. He was a stand off or centre  in the U17's, and played for Yorkshire schoolboys from Normanton Grammar School, and then Wakefield RUFC when they were a top side. Rovers made him an offer to turn pro but he signed for Wakefield instead, where he was a regular around 1976-77, but then suffered the same fate as Phil Butler; recurring shoulder injuries. He retired from the game prematurely, and the last time I heard he was a very successful Games Master at Airedale High, where he has lead many school teams to the national championsip. Another top Union player was Colin Lambert, Cliff's son, who I played alongside for Rovers Juniors & Cas & District. From there he went on to represent Yorkshire at U19's on the wing. He also played for Yorkshire and England schoolboys at Rugby Union, and athletics as a sprinter. He was courted by every Rugby League club in the country in the very early seventies but opted to play for Headingley RU, and then Harlequins. His ambition was to play for the British Lions, but while he played county RU and was part of the England set up, I don't think he ever made the full England RU side.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Rovers Players Down Under

What a remarkable cradle of rugby league talent the village of Sharlston has been over the years. Rovers of course have benefited as much as anyone with such as Don Fox and Carl Dooler doing us proud. Legend has it that Joe Mullaney’s first time out of Sharlston was to play for Rovers in a trial match. Of course local players have travelled much further afield than that to play rugby league, but none of the famous sons of Sharlston probably went quite as far for his club rugby as Ivor Lingard.
Sharlston's finest in Parramatta
Signed by Rovers from Sharlston in early 1961, Ivor was faced with the same tough task as a number of talented half backs at Post Office Road in the early 1960s. How to break into a Rovers team where Don Fox and Joe Mullaney had a mortgage on the six and seven jerseys for years. After four seasons of trying, with some success, Ivor took the unprecedented step of emigrating to Australia. He signed for Parramatta Eels in the NSW premiership where he spent the rest of his career. In many ways Ivor was ahead of his time as it became very trendy during the 1970s for Aussie clubs to import British talent, with such as Mal Reilly, Tommy Bishop and Mick “Stevo” Stephenson heading out to Sydney. During his six years in the first team, Ivor was a model of consistency, appearing in 90 games for Parramatta, scoring 20tries, one goal and eight drop goals. He appeared mostly at stand-off, but could fill in various back positions when necessary. He was noted in the 1964 NSW Yearbook for his perfect execution of the “Cumberland Throw” tackle, common enough in England, but quite unusual for Australians, the art of using the leg to simultaneously trip and wrestle a bigger opponent to the floor. In 1970 he was an ever present in the first team, playing all 22 games, but by 1972 had retired and started to coach the junior teams at Parramatta. He got as far as head coach for the U23s side in 1975.

Following Lingard’s trail blazing, Vince Farrah headed out to Cronulla in 1974 but stayed only that summer. Despite persistent rumours to the contrary Steve Nash never left Featherstone for Australia, choosing Salford instead. Less sunshine, but still. Another former Rovers favourite Terry Clawson turned up at South Newcastle in 1975, from where indeed Rovers re-signed him in 1978.

An international transfer ban ended this flow of talent, and when it was lifted the traffic was very much in the opposite direction as the British market was flooded with Aussies and few of our stars looked good enough to the ARL clubs. Deryck Fox had a successful summer with Western Suburbs in 1986. That club made a speciality of short term success with English stars, Garry Schofield, Des Drummond and Ellery Hanley among them. Deryck made his mark too, and the esteemed Aussie newspaper Rugby League Week compared his style to the great Tom Raudonikis, some compliment.

In the summer of 1989 Graham Steadman was going through a sticky transfer from Rovers to somewhere else, and took the heat off with a very modest summer spell at the Gold Coast Seagulls whilst still a Rovers’ player. That year a long striding English centre took Balmain by storm helping them all the way to the Grand Final. It would have been this kind of amazing form which persuaded Rovers to pay what they did a few years later for Andy Currier. If you ever get the chance to see the 1989 grand final between Canberra and Balmain, look out for Andy’s “unique” tackling style as Canberra race in for the match winning try. Fair play though, he seemed to have a far more positive impact there than his unfortunate stay with us. Also Gary Price left Featherstone for South Sydney to play ARL at the height of the Super League war in 1995. He came back home in 1998.

Friday, 7 June 2013

One Cap Wonders

In English cricket they have a special club whose members are all test cricketers, but won only one cap for England. This club of one-cap wonders is full of great players with hard luck stories about how they failed to win more caps, honest county toilers who just weren’t up to the level but found themselves in the right place at the right time, and the odd character who makes you think ‘How the hell did he ever play for England?’ And so it is with Rugby League. In a recent issue of Rugby League Journal Harry Edgar published the full list of one-cap Great Britain international players. (For those who don’t know, RLJ is the nostalgia soaked magazine that Edgar started up after he sold Open Rugby to League Express). I say “one cap”, although apparently the RFL don’t actually award a cap until a player has played at least two tests. Quite why that is, we’d have to ask them. In a long list of the famous and not-so-famous names, there are many with a Featherstone connection.

Strange as it may seem, local legend Vince Farrah won only one cap, and that towards the end of his career against Australia when he was with Hull. It’s difficult to imagine why he wasn’t picked more often. Former first team coach Gary H Price is another example. Having toured in 1990 without playing a test, his solitary GB cap was against the Papua New Guinea tourists of 1991. More obscurely, two former Rovers assistant coaches are also there; Kenny Loxton, capped in 1971, and Peter Small, capped in 1962.

Ex-scrum-half Mark Aston also won one cap. Needless to say, it wasn’t during his short stint with us. Inevitably among the 90 odd players there are some real head-scratchers, including a few I readily admit I’d never heard of. Most puzzling for me were those mediocre Union converts of the late 80s, who all seemed to win a single cap under Mal Reilly. Do you remember the glorious careers of David Bishop, Gerald Cordle, Kevin Ellis, Jonathon Griffiths, Mark Jones and Rowland Phillips? Modest performers at club level, they seemed to benefit from the higher media profile afforded to

Don Fox, one cap wonder
The one-cap club however has two fully paid up Featherstone Rovers members, and there can be no doubt that they were both cracking players. Don Fox had enjoyed a fine career as Rovers’ scrum-half, but when Great Britain were battered 50-12 by Australia to lose the Ashes in 1963 Fox was drafted into the side at loose-forward. He was to be one of seven debutants as Britain were going through a transitional phase. Players the calibre of Vince Karalius, Eric Ashton and Mick Sullivan had been dropped never to return. These were the days when Britain didn’t really expect to lose at home to Australia, and this third test ‘dead’ rubber turned into a violent grudge match, most unfortunate for a skilful ball-player such as Fox, who was hoping to showcase himself. Fox had previously played for Great Britain v France in a game before France was granted full international status (in 1957), and had toured with the 1962 Lions without being capped. At scrum-half and captain that day for Britain was none other than old Rovers’ favourite Tommy Smales, another local lad who had to leave Post Office Road when he couldn’t oust Don Fox from the first team. Now here they were, side by side for Great Britain. Despite the punch ups, Fox had a good game, scored a try and kicked two goals. For the selectors however it wasn’t enough to ever merit re-selection.

Chris Bibb, one cap wonder
When Great Britain toured New Zealand in 1990 many ‘star’ names decided to stay at home.  Incumbent GB full-back Steve Hampson was one of those to drop out, and in came Chris Bibb after a hugely successful domestic season, to join club-mates Deryck Fox and Ian Smales. The tour started with Alan Tait as test fullback, but by the time of the first test v New Zealand at Palmerston North, Bibb got his chance in the number one shirt. Deryck Fox was on the bench, and in the Kiwi side was future Rover Mark Nixon. Britain won a tight game 11-10 without Bibb really getting an opportunity to shine. Joe Lydon was preferred for the remaining two tests, and despite some more wonderful displays, Bibb’s chance had gone, never to return.

Certainly both these players deserved greater representative recognition than one solitary cap, but can look back with pride that they played for their country at the highest level, an achievement that eludes the vast majority of players.

ex-RU internationals.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Last Minute Drop Goal Winner

As rugby league fans we often have cause to question the justice of life. Take for example, the complicated art of dropping a goal late in a match, and the rewards it could bring. If you are Johnny Wilkinson, it could see you hailed as the saviour of an entire nation, knighthood bestowed and so on. Or if you are Deryck Fox it could earn you hearty pats on the back from team-mates, and gleeful shouts from crowd for a victory over big city rivals. It all depends.

Deryck did some kicking for GB too.
Of its type, Deryck Fox’s winner v Leeds in 1992 was far superior to Wilkinson’s efforts at the 2003 union world cup. A cracking game was locked at 20 all, the highlight of which had been a mighty battle between Bobby Goulding, selected for that summer’s GB Lions tour, and Fox, who had been inexplicably overlooked. In one of those rare moments of bliss for Rovers’ fans, Goulding got himself outplayed in front of the TV cameras, sent off the week after, suspended and removed from the tour in favour of our own skipper who went on to have a great time in Australia.

Fox’s last minute drop goal winner that day was unforgettable. Around 30 yards out, running diagonally towards the Leeds corner flag and shaping to spin out a pass to the three-quarters, Fox slotted a “reverse” drop-goal without breaking stride and hardly glancing at the posts beforehand. Pure genius. That the two precious points gained that day weren’t enough to keep us in the top flight is another story.

Brilliant though it was, this was not my favourite LMDGW from Fox. That came three years previously against Warrington. Another tight game stood 14-14 and a last minute penalty awarded to Rovers 45 yards out gave Fox the chance to snatch the game. For once in his long career he let us down as his kick sailed wide. Silent and not so silent curses rippled round the ground. His only saving grace was that he had at least sent the ball dead and we would have six tackles to attack the Wire line. Six tackles? Forget it. Warrington’s drop out went straight to Fox standing on the spot from which he’d missed the penalty, and he immediately launched a towering drop kick straight back over the heads of the advancing opposition and straight between the posts. You beauty!

It was Deryck’s third that day, and once again he finished that season among the league’s leaders for drop goals. A quick look at the Rovers’ all-time list reveals he just failed to catch Keith Bell in terms of his career total. No disgrace in that though, as Keith was an absolute master of the craft, and seemed to need so little space to add those often vital single points. The list of course lacks any players before 1974, as that is when the value of a “drop” was changed from two points to one. Goal kicking records from before then made no distinction between a drop, a penalty or a conversion, as they were all worth two points. Steve Nash, for example, would have to be near the top of the list if we reckon that most of his 72 career goals were probably drop goals.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Featherstone’s Great Britain Tourists

The 1928 Lions Tourists. Tommy Askin is on the front row, second right.
Until the advent of super league, the undeniable pinnacle of representative rugby was to make a Lions Tour. Every four years, the best of British gathered for a two to three month tour down under. Somehow they were lost amid the upheaval in our sport, and now we have the Four Nations tournament instead. Our union counterparts still manage to organise Lions tours though. Given the rich history of rugby league tours, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic at their passing.

On the walls of the Rovers clubhouse are some of those marvellously evocative Melba Studios photographs of the entire tour party lined up at the Sydney football stadium in their GB kit, There’s Gary Cooper and Don Fox on the 1962 tour, and I guess we’ll never know why Terry Clawson wasn’t there with them. Most tours since that date had a Rovers representative. In 1966 it was Carl Dooler, then in 1970 Jimmy Thompson. On the next tour Jimmy was joined by Keith Bridges and Steve Nash. In 1979 it was Steve Evans turn, and in 1984 David Hobbs. 1988 was the only year no Rovers player was selected, probably because we’d just come out of the second division, but in 1990 there were Chris Bibb, Deryck Fox and Ian Smales who went to New Zealand. On the last full Australian tour Fox was joined by Paul Newlove. Steve Molloy made the 1996 tour, some achievement for a player outside the top flight, our 14th tourist.

Featherstone’s first, and until the 1960s only Great Britain international player was Tommy Askin on the 1928 tour.  Rovers had enjoyed a good run in the league that year, with a talented three-quarter line of Askin and Jack Hirst at centre, Jim Denton and George Taylor on the wings. The run was to take them all the way to the Championship final, a fantastic achievement for a club in only its seventh season. Rovers were deprived of Tommy Askin’s services for the final four games, including of course the final against Swinton, as he was already on a boat on the way to Australia with the Lions tourists. Tommy had played at centre in the tour trial match, but wasn’t initially selected. The selection committee let it be known they were after a winger so Rovers duly picked him in the number two shirt, where he picked up a few tries and got the nod for selection. The club’s supporters made a tremendous financial effort to present him with a full trunk of clothes to take with him on tour. He did them proud.

When he walked out at Brisbane on the 23rd of June 1928 in front of 39,00 people, Tommy Askin became Featherstone Rovers first Great Britain player. He played in all three tests in Australia, and all three in New Zealand,  three times as a winger and three times at centre. His only international try was a vital one, securing Britain a 6-5 win against New Zealand in Christchurch, and clinching the series 2-1. The Lions had previously won the Ashes by the same 2-1 margin. In the book ‘Rugby League Lions’ by historian Les Hoole, there is a magnificent double page photo of Tommy playing in the first test against Australia, in possession and in full flight as the Australian cover races across to tackle.

In all, Askin played 15 games on tour and finished fourth among the try scorers with a respectable nine. After a very successful tour, the players all received a £136 bonus, decent money at the time.  That was the end of Tommy’s international career though. He left Featherstone for Leeds in February of the following year, where he never really settled, before transferring to Castleford, who he played for at Wembley in 1935. In his thirties he came back to Featherstone to finish his career where it started fourteen years earlier.