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

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Bob Spurr

Castleford hooker Bob Spurr (587) had played 323 games over fifteen years during a long career at Wheldon Road before he decided to take up Rovers’ offer of a new challenge aged 32. What Featherstone got was a dependable and likeable team player who won his fair share of ball from the scrum, worked hard on defence and had perfected the art of the ten yard scoot, those dashes from acting halfback which win valuable ground. Bob was a fitness fanatic and it told in his contribution to the team. In his first season he was an ever-present and didn’t miss a match until November 1984. At the end of his first season he won the club’s Player of the Season award.

Spurr was our first hooker after the introduction of the sixth tackle ‘handover’ rule in 1983 which was the beginning of a radical change in the role of the hooker. With many less scrums and against-the-head heels becoming increasingly uncommon, hookers had to adapt to survive. Spurr’s work-rate in the loose guaranteed his value to the team. Over the next three seasons he was challenged for his spot by Tony Staniforth (607) who came to Featherstone from Hunslet Parkside and then by Kiwi import Mark Roiall (611). Neither player could dislodge the evergreen Spurr.

As Bob came to the end of his career in the 1986/7 Rovers had a hooking crisis. It seemed that almost every week the number nine changed. Bob himself played six games that season, A team hooker Tony O’Toole (572) was given the occasional run, wily veteran Keith Bell (509) played a few games too, future club chairman Mark Campbell (618) converted from the second-row for some games, Martin Slater (631) was signed from Castleford but was not the answer and another local youngster Mark Hinchcliffe (639) got a chance. Unsurprisingly, this affected the team’s performance and at the end of the year, Rovers were relegated.

Bob Spurr had a short loan spell at Bradford, and then decided to retire, having played 108 games for Rovers and scoring 14 tries. He had proved to be a dependable and loyal servant, who then did some coaching with the Academy side before seeing both his sons make the grade professionally, Chris Spurr (784) playing 47 games for Rovers.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Ray Handscombe

Keith Bridges (497) was widely regarded as the league’s number one possession-winner from the scrums, the fastest striker of the ball. Playing down the road at Belle Vue was the man widely regarded as the next best after Bridges. So Rovers moved smartly and signed Wakefield hooker Ray Handscombe (553). After starting his career at Leeds, Ray had played for our neighbours between 1974 and 1979, clocking up a total of 132 games. When he arrived at Featherstone he slotted straight into the first team, where he formed a solid front row combination with Mick Morgan (552), Alan Bence (557) and Mick Gibbins (505). Apart from his ball-winning skills, Handscombe was active in the loose, known for his backing up and a tough tackler.

His first job was to get Featherstone out of the Second Division, achieved at the first attempt in 1980. Rovers then consolidated in the top flight. Gary Siddall (551) slotted into the front row, and that was the winning combination that took Rovers to Wembley in 1983. In Ray’s finest hour he combined with Tex Hudson (487) effectively to starve Hull of possession at crucial stages of the match, getting the better of his opposite number Keith Bridges and winning the scrums 11-5.

Over the course of his five years in the number nine shirt he was challenged for his position by a variety of aspirants. John McNeill (560) from Castleford played a few games before moving to Leeds. Neil Gray (562) was signed on loan from Doncaster, Tony O’Toole (572) came through the ranks and was capped by GB Colts, and Craig Wright (579) was another local product. None could move the redoubtable Handscombe.

          In a pre-season friendly against Dewsbury at the start of the following year Ray broke his leg and so at 33 quit playing. He did make a single game comeback in November 1984 to help Rovers out of a crisis in a match against Leigh which we won 13-6. After winning the scrums one last time Ray retired again having played 127 games and scored 15 tries for Featherstone. He then turned to coaching and had a successful spell with the Rovers Colts team.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Keith Bridges

When Peter Fox took over at first team coach, the battle for supremacy in the number nine shirt was an almighty three-way battle between three very talented players. In typical forthright fashion it didn’t take Fox long to make his mind up. He moved Vince Farrar definitively to prop forward, Dennis Morgan had to be content with A team rugby and later played for Doncaster and Bramley. The all-important ball-winning role went to Keith Bridges. Once established in the team, Bridges began to show his uncanny range of skills and quickly became recognised as fastest striker of the ball in the league. The weight of possession he could offer to his side was worth his place alone, but also good ball-handling skills in the loose and tireless defensive work made Keith Bridges a vital part of any team he played in. He formed a formidable front-row line up, first with Les Tonks and Jimmy Thompson, then Thompson and Vince Farrar. They were the platform on which Rovers built one of their best ever sides. Keith made his Great Britain debut in 1974 on the Lions tour to Australia. It was the first of his three Great Britain caps, but it was a tour shortened by injury in that debut game. He also won seven England caps and appeared in the 1975 World Cup squad alongside Steve Nash and Thompson.

          Keith went to Wembley twice with Featherstone in 1973 and 1974 (and later with Hull, against his home town team). The blatant thuggery that took concussed him in the 74 final was surely a major contribution to our defeat that day. In 1977 he picked up the first of his four championship medals. Within a year Rovers had made a big mistake by selling both Thompson (to Bradford and Farrar (to Hull). That and a year-long injury to Bridges saw Rovers relegated in 1979. The club cashed in and sold Keith to Bradford where he linked up with Fox and Thompson. £23,000 looked like plenty of money at the time but considering what he achieved, it was a giveaway price. Bridges won the Championship with Bradford in 1980 and 1981, and then in 1983 with Hull FC.

At the end of his distinguished Featherstone Rovers career Keith Bridges had played 235 games and scored 44 tries. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Milan Kosanovic

Born in Lika in what is now Croatia in 1932, Milan Kosanovic’s family was Serbian which would inevitably create problems in that trouble-torn area. He saw his country invaded by the Germans in the Second World War, and when the Ustasha regime came to power his family had to flee their homeland to avoid being massacred. Milan was nine years old. The Kosanovics eventually ended up in a Displaced Persons’ Camp in Halifax once the war was over and they started to make a new life for themselves in West Yorkshire. Milan was soon trying his hand at rugby league and was soon signed by Bradford Northern, where he played for six years, establishing a strong enough reputation as a hooker to gain selection for Yorkshire (perhaps even then the qualification rules were open to interpretation). He then played for Wakefield for three years where he won a Challenge Cup winners medal at Wembley and became a film star (sort of). He and many other Trinity players were extras in ‘This Sporting Life’, some scenes of which were shot at Belle Vue in 1962.

In February 1964 Milan transferred to Featherstone and quickly became first choice hooker. His Rovers debut was against his adopted hometown of Halifax, in what was an easy win that day, with two tries each for Kenny Greatorex and Malcolm Dixon. Skipper Dixon and Les Tonks were to become Milan’s regular front row partners over the next three years. In 1965 Kosanovic faced a challenge for his number nine shirt from a young and upcoming Vince Farrar, who then switched to prop forward with great success.

In the 1966/67 season it was Graham Harris after his place, and both players played some great rugby at the side progressed through the rounds towards our second trip to Wembley. Milan played most of the league games that year, but Graham was preferred for the Cup clashes, and so Harris got the nod for Rovers’ big day out against Barrow at Wembley. Kosanovic was on the bench, but didn’t get a game. With that, at 35 years old, he retired after 94 games as a Rovers player and 307 in his whole career. He managed just one try for Rovers, but try-scoring was hardly the hooker’s job in those days.

Later in life he ran a wine bar in Halifax called “Milan’s” and died in 1989 aged just 57.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Willis Fawley

Signed from the local juniors, Willis Fawley made his debut in March 1951. He was immediately marked out as a very useful player as, allied to his necessary ball winning skills in the scrum and his exceptional strength, he was a quite speedy player in the loose, capable of causing havoc in the opposition defence. His major rival for the number nine shirt was veteran Bill Bradshaw, and a battle royale developed between the two throughout our Wembley season of 1951/52. In the end, it was the old head Bradshaw who got the nod at Wembley. From the following year Fawley established himself as first choice and went on to have one of the longest careers in Rovers’ history.

He was first choice hooker for Featherstone for ten years, seeing off the challenge of a number of talented youngsters, including Peter Barraclough and Dennis Morgan. Veteran Stan Moyser had a shot, but Willis was invincible. In 1959/60 he scored 17 tries, an unheard of haul for a number nine, showing his value in the loose, especially a good understanding with clever ball-handling loose forward Cliff Lambert.

It was his benefit year in 1960/61, and Fawley was still at his best. When Walter Ward gained favour in 1962, Willis became captain of the A team, still playing his same consistent game. It was not until Rovers signed Milan Kosanovic in early 1964 that the writing was on the wall for Fawley’s career. He continued to play on, offering sterling service to the reserves in the twilight of his career. Just before Rovers went to Wembley 1967, the soon-to-be-retired Willis played his symbolic final match on 5th of April, now aged 37 years old. In total, he played 372 games for Featherstone and scored 59 tries.

There can be no doubt that to play for Featherstone Rovers for seventeen straight years you have to be a hard man. Nothing typifies this aspect of Willis Fawley’s character more than Boxing Day 1954 and a game against Castleford. Fawley’s head collided with the goal posts with such ferocity that a crack rang out around the stadium and the crowd fell silent fearing the worst. The posts continued to reverberate as Fawley was stretchered off and his stricken colleagues continued playing (no subs in those days). Incredibly after about fifteen minutes, the unstoppable hooker came back out onto the field to rapturous applause and battled on to help Rovers to an 8-all draw. A true Rovers legend.