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GERREMONSIDE! When Rugby League Was The King Of Sports

by Russ Litten
3 June 2013 53 Comments

We look back at a time when Rugby League was king. A very different game played by a very different breed of player. Not men who followed macrobiotic diets or dabbed on moisturiser, these were men who supped pints and smoked tabs. Welcome to real rugby.

Rugby

Men who lifted concrete paving slabs on a weekday and drove taxis through battle scarred city centres on a night. Men with what your Dads would have called “proper jobs.” And as well as putting in a solid weeks graft on the factory floor or the building site, they spent their only day off getting their heads stamped into a freezing lake of mud. They didn’t do it for the money and they didn’t even really do it for love. These were men who were born into the North Of England for a specific and divine purpose; to spend their Sabbath re-enacting that most primeval of pagan rituals – the holy game of Rugby League.

Back in the eighties, a Sunday afternoon watching thirteen a side was a much different experience to the sanitised sporting day enjoyed by modern day crowds. There were no cheerleaders, no sponsored stadiums and no Australian coaches with their “tactics” and “sliding defences” – just a rain battered open field with a corrugated iron roof and some big hairy arsed docker pissing the residue of last night’s bitter down the back of your leg. Back then, as now, RL was a family game. Although the families that attended grounds such as Wilderspool, Odsal and The Boulevard made the Addams Family look like the Vonn Trapps. In marked contrast to the Italian sportswear and designer wedge haircuts of the eighties football terraces, the average Rugby League Kop End was a sea of Freeman catalogue jeans, terrifying facial tattoos and egg stained scarves. Grubby infant delinquents pelted hapless shivering touch judges with half eaten pies and red faced Nana’s turned the air blue, waving their meaty fists at the ref, screaming at him to “gerremonside!”

On the pitch, we were treated to brain battering brawn and balletic brilliance in equal measures. For the ultimate in skill, speed and psychosis, the dream Rugby League line up would have looked something like this:

At full back, Paul Woods. A Welshman with the heart of a lion and the face of a pit-bull, “Psycho” Woods was like a kamikaze pilot crossed with Captain Caveman, hurling himself enthusiastically into the paths of stampeding giants without a thought for personal safety. He was also loved the needle of a good grudge match. In one local Hull Derby, Woods was engaged in a running battle with the opposing scrum half who managed to inflict a nasty gash on Psycho’s leg with his studs. Woods retired to the touchline to have his bloody leg hastily bandaged. Noting his absence from the last line of defence, the scum half took the opportunity to chip the ball over, and went racing for the ball. Psycho made a bolt for him whilst his leg was still being bandaged; the bloody white bandage unravelling twenty foot behind him like a streamer. He leapt on his opponent and they went tumbling around in a blur of fists, studs and medical dressing.

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The wingers would have to be Henderson Gill and Des Drummond. Henderson started his career at Bradford but enjoyed the best days of his career in the all-conquering Wigan side of the mid eighties. He possessed a bewilderingly low centre of gravity which made him virtually impossible to knock over, and a sidestep that could send an entire team colliding into each other as he zigzagged through their defence, leaving the swiftest of opponents grabbing handfuls of empty air. The diminutive Des Drummond was simply Rugby League’s first Superstar and an automatic choice on the right wing for all the Great Britain teams of his era. Des’s speciality was a blistering burst of acceleration down the touchline followed by a spectacular swan dive at the corner flag. Des Drummond even appeared on the telly programme Superstars, a rare exposure for RL players at the time. He marked his appearance by feeding all other competitors a trail of dust and briefly almost made Rugby League marketable to the South of England.

Centres – Joe Lydon and James Leuluai. Joe was that Rugby League rarity, a handsome clean cut chap whose pop star good looks remain largely unblemished by a career being chased around by raging Neanderthals. It was his undoubted gazelle like pace that allowed him to escape serious punishment – that, and his natural evasiveness. A full flight Joe Lydon was more evasive than a politician in a live telly interview with Jeremy Paxman. Joe maintains a successful career these days as a RL pundit on TV, a role that seems to have fallen to him by default – he’s probably one of the only Rugby League veterans who’s face is suitable for public broadcast before the watershed.

By marked contrast, James Leuluai was blessed with a face that came with an 18 certificate. The New Zealand International may have had a visage that suggested he spent training sessions chasing parked cars, but what he lacked in movie star appeal he more than made up for in sheer physical prowess. Blessed with natural balance, speed and the tackling strength of a pack forward, Leuluai would the powerhouse counter-foil to Lydon’s poise and grace.

Half back pairing – Ellery Hanley and Andy Gregory. Before making the move into the pack and becoming both captain and loose forward for both his club and country, Ellery Hanley was a stand-off. And what a stand off! Hanley had the upper body strength of Mike Tyson, the graceful movement of Fred Astair, lightening speed of foot and thought, and was equipped with a natural rugby brain that seemed to control the play around him like telekinesis. Always able to find the extra yard of space or the impossible pass out of any tight corner, Hanley was quite simply the complete Rugby League Player.

At scrum half, Andy Gregory – like a Tetley Bitter fuelled Popeye, and the man BBC’s Ray French habitually referred to as “the lickle pocket backle ship”. What Andy lacked in vertical inches he made up for in sheer skill, guile and bravery. With his shirtsleeves rolled up to his shoulders and his little bandy legs whirring round like a Tasmanian Devil on an exercise bike, Gregory roved around the pitch like a demented gargoyle on PCP. The master of provocation, there was no finer sight on a Rugby League pitch than seeing Gregory leap three feet into the air to stick the nut on an opposing Australian’s knee. Andy made the headlines again a year or so ago when he fought off a twelve stone rottweiller by repeatedly punching it in the face. Without dropping his pint. A true Rugby League giant.

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Front row – Kevin Ward, Eddie Szymala and Len Casey. Kevin Ward was probably the hardest rugby league player to never throw a punch in anger. An affable gentle giant off the pitch, the Yorkshire born prop forward could make an entire opposing front row shit their collective shorts with a thousand yard Yosser Hughes style stare. It was very rare that Kevin ever had to clout anyone – no one would have been daft enough to provoke him. At Hooker, Eddie Szymala was a wind-up merchant extraordinaire. Festooned with more tattoos than Robert De Niro out of Cape Fear, Szymala delighted in the sly dig and the fine art of verbal abuse. Loved by the people of Barrow and reviled by opposing fans everywhere in the North, Eddie was like a leary circus strongman, a permanent pain in the neck for referees. Prop Len Casey had a similar love/hate relationship with RL crowds in the 80’s. A pantomime villain on steroids, Casey was in possession of a black road sweepers tache and spectacularly bad temper, once famously barging over a referee who had the ill judgement to send him of for battering someone in a televised match.

Second Row – Phil Lowe and Mick Crane. Phil Lowe was one of the first British RL stars to win the respect of the famously sniffy Australian press and players, battering them all around Wembley when the Aussies toured here in 1973. Phil was a giant of a man in all senses of the word, a naturally skilled match winner and a keen exponent of the art of steamrolling would be tacklers. In retirement he remains a great ambassador for the old fashioned values of the game, and has also kept the up the other grand tradition of the retired player by owning not one but four pubs in the Hull region.

Mick Crane was not the most physical of forwards, but possessed an amazing array of passes, strolling casually round the pitch and slinging the ball around at impossible angles. Often the provider of tries for his team mates, Mick once surprised himself by dummying his way through an entire Salford defence at The Boulevard and getting his name on the score sheet. So exhausted was he by this spurt of activity that he jogged over to the cheering Threepenny Stand and asked a bloke leaning at the front barrier for a drag on his cig. Suitably refreshed by a lungful of Benny Henny, Mick strolled back and converted the try. The Jack Duckworth of Rugby League, Mick spent most of his off-field time donating money to sick animals, especially dogs and horses. Mick could often be found in various charitable establishments, tearing up little slips of paper and dragging furiously on an Embassy as his latest equine or canine interest stumbled dramatically at the final bend.

The number 13 journey would have to go to the legendary Steve “Knocker” Norton.

If Knocker had been a car, he’d have been a bright red Ford Capri with yellow flames up the side and a horn that played the theme tune to Hawaii Five-O. He had a head like a badly dented watering can and hands like two knuckles of ham – but with the oval ball in his hands he was a beautiful force of nature. Defence splitting passes, a bewildering array of chips, kicks and punts, more slight of hand than Paul Daniels – it was like Knocker had the oval ball under a spell and he could make it swoop, swirl and slide around the pitch like a mud spattered magician.

And that’s the ultimate Eighties Rugby League Line Up – a head-spinning blend of flair, brutality and beer soaked charisma.

Rugby League may have become the sleek sanitised and media-friendly sport we see on our digi-screens today, but it’s beating heart will always be in a bucket of sand somewhere on a freezing mud-lake in Whitehaven in 1982.

 

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Dave Lee 11:39 am, 14-Jan-2011

At long last some overdue recognition for living god Knocker Norton. There's tales of him leaving the pitch, putting on an overcoat and walking straight to the nearest boozer, still covered in Boulevard mud, an opposition prop hanging off his neck. A titan. Brilliant evocation of another time.

The Connoisseur 11:51 am, 14-Jan-2011

Would have been fun watching that line up Russ, used to love watching FC and KR in the 80s, Casey a personal favourite, remember him giving the entire French pack a good kicking at the Boulevard when he was a "proper" international skipper..had hands like shovels..., on the pyscho side you could add Lee Crooks, Chris Burton ( who gave Eddie Szymala a good hiding at Craven Park once , the only time i saw Eddie frightened), Dave Watkinson, Trevor Skerrett , Ronnie Wileman and John Millington and many more just from the Hull clubs, another head case i loved was Alan Rathbone , part of the lunatic fringe known as the Warrington pack...so many memories,,cheers

Finton 12:02 pm, 14-Jan-2011

Brilliant article ( though a tad Yorkie biased ;o) ). Personally, I'd have lumped Sean Wane in there if only for the headbut he executed on Roy Powell behind the sticks at Central Park & Nicky Kiss for his Romany origins & ear rings. I'd have also mentioned Joe Lydon's court case in the mid 80's for unzipping that dress in the Turnkey nightclub as he probably neglected to mention that to the Union top brass when interviewed.

Finton 12:03 pm, 14-Jan-2011

Alan Rathbone......didn't he get shot in the arse in Warrington trying to climb through a window after a, ahem, "business deal" went wrong. Probably by Lee Bamber. Who was riding a horse at the time....

Phil Ascough 12:27 pm, 14-Jan-2011

Spot on. Particularly the Andy Gregory/Popeye reference. That's exactly what I thought all those years ago - Gregory was Popeye but without the good looks.

El Stubio 12:53 pm, 14-Jan-2011

My grandad played for Dockers and Hull FC 'A' back in his day. I love listening to his rugby stories. He came down to watch one of our school rugby matches once and butted into the teacher/coaches half time talk, basically told us all to "stop being a load of fairies and fucking gerrat'em" Sound advice which I totally ignored being stuck out on the wing!

Kenny Whizzbang 1:32 pm, 14-Jan-2011

Loved the article, Russ. I particularly enjoyed the thinly-veiled references to Mick Crane's off-field activities!

Oldtimer 6:04 pm, 14-Jan-2011

Completely Hull-biased list, and the grannies turning the air blue were specific to Humberside too. Elswhere RL crowds were pretty cheerful, but the Hull grannies would have scared Vince Karalius. I'll give you Mick Crane, RLs George Best, but anyone non-Humber would find room for Kurt Sorenson (maybe, heaven help us, in his original position of wing) and Mal Reilly. Tony Fisher was harder than Eddie Syzmala, and indeed anyone. And Alan Rathbone was the nutcase in a pack that included Boyd and Tamati, which is an extraordinary achievement. And Rocky Turner would shit Phil Lowe.

TomBatley 12:06 am, 15-Jan-2011

Oldtimer - this is a team of the 80's. Mal Reilly, Tony Fisher and Rocky Turner's respective careers were predominantly in the 60's and 70's, not the 80's. On a similar theme, I can't really understand why Phil Lowe, Paul Woods and Len Casey have been included in this XIII. None of the aforementioned trio played much top flight RL in the 80's, especially not Woods.

Paul Wilkinson 12:43 am, 15-Jan-2011

A highly amusing and nostaligic article which made great reading(even allowing for a chronic Hull FC bias!). Unfortunately, Joe Lydon hasn't done any RL pundity for years! He sold his sole to the rah-rahs long ago and now works as an WRU administrator. Anyway, More Rugby League articles please!

Russ 1:25 am, 15-Jan-2011

OOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLDDDDDDDDDDD FAITH-FULL! ; )

Russ 1:34 am, 15-Jan-2011

Jut to clarify gentlemen - the team selection was based purely on my own personal bias. These were just my own favourite RL players of the eighties.

Lee Mullen 4:39 am, 15-Jan-2011

Sabbath??? When was Sunday ever the sabbath! Never! Get it right!

Danny Morgan 10:39 am, 15-Jan-2011

Paul Charlton, tough tough cumbrian - full back at salford in the 70's , looked like he smoked 100 fags a day but rarely saw him beaten, absolute deadly tackler.

Steven Wood 12:46 pm, 16-Jan-2011

Great to see Des Drummond there. Loved watching him at Leigh. John Woods would push Hanley close for stand off in my view. Woods was the great RL player I ever saw.

Finton 2:03 pm, 16-Jan-2011

John Woods was the best "natural" rugby player I ever saw, alongside Jonathan Davies & Sean "The Gargoyle" Edwards. Oh, & I neglected to mention Denis Boyd earlier on. Hard? Just a bit....

Dave Lee 5:28 pm, 16-Jan-2011

Lee, the Sabbath can be on Saturday, Sunday or even Friday depending on your religious beliefs. I personally hold my Sabbath Sunday to Friday with occasional Saturdays in line with the teachings of the First Church of Dave, a small, ill-defined religion I run from me back bedroom.

Rob 7:55 pm, 16-Jan-2011

I am not sure about Phil Lowe, I was never a great fan of his, and one you missed out for sure was Mark Broadhurst. He was the hardest man I've ever seen play Rugby League. It's good to see a few Hull players get a good write up, but you've missed out a few decent Rovers players, George Fairburn for one!

Danny Morgan 8:19 pm, 16-Jan-2011

No one mentioned Jim Mills , we had a picture of him on the mantelpiece to stop the kids going near the fire.

Russ 8:31 pm, 16-Jan-2011

I did consider putting in more Hull KR players, but then I suddenly remembered I heartily despised them and all they stood for ...

Rob 4:26 pm, 17-Jan-2011

You despised Rovers for what? Winning? Playing well, being a good side? Being the only team in the world able to score two tries against the 1982 Kangaroos? Danny Morgan is right about Big Jim Mills, he was a claasic prop when rugby was proper rugby.

John 4:52 pm, 17-Jan-2011

What a good read, thanks. The Jim Mills comment had me in stitches :-)

Chewie 11:06 pm, 17-Jan-2011

The pocket battleship is now a fully fledged member of the GB Allstars (touch team managed by the Life For A Kid Foundation). We have just aquired the services of Dennis Betts too.....Along with the likes of Paul Newlove, Graham Steadman, Steve Hampson, Chico Jackson and Ikram Butt (Plus many others)...Looking forward to the new season !!!!! Great read by the way...Oh, and Paul Woods never played for Great Britain.....But he should have. Brilliant and scary lol

steven 12:40 am, 18-Jan-2011

Article evokes fond memories following the Loiners..Steve Pitchford, prop forward & probably the fattest man ever to play RL?? Fcuk knows how he got around the pitch for 80 mins..as a yougster clad in green snorkel jacket,invading the pitch at the end, sliding around in the mud trying to get 'tie ups' off the players, old boot laces used to by players to tie up their socks..used to have loads!! Great times...

Finton 8:39 am, 18-Jan-2011

Steve Pitchford? Kate Moss compared to Gary Van Bellen of Bradford NORTHERN ( not Bulls ).

Danny Morgan 6:24 pm, 18-Jan-2011

I have it on good authority that the one man you did not want to meet on a Rugby League pich or anywhere else for that matter was a man called Frank Foster from Barrow, never saw him play personally.

Steve 7:42 pm, 22-Jan-2011

Excellent article - Picture perfect. Takes me back to the cup of Bovril at half time, just after changing ends - amidst the wind and rain. C'mon You 'ull!

Keith Warren 9:26 am, 28-Jan-2011

Just about any Sydney or Brisbane club side out of the 80's could of flogged the shit out of your sad little line up. Tell Ellery that Terry sends his regards.

Kenny Whizzbang 12:49 pm, 28-Jan-2011

@Keith Warren - you have to ask why Terry was targeting Ellery in the first place. It's because he was the best player in the world at the time.

Rob 12:56 pm, 28-Jan-2011

Keith, yeah apart from this little event at Craven Park in '83 when your very vest got beaten http://queensland.rleague.com/flashback/1983hullvqld.php and Mark Broadhurst proved my earlier point about him deserving a spot in the side.

Huw 2:21 pm, 4-Feb-2011

This is Rugby League & nothing to fucking do with the 6N.

Keith Wildman 1:35 am, 5-Feb-2011

Huw. Did you just read the first 8 words of the standfirst and then stop?

Dan 1:20 pm, 6-Feb-2011

I watched the Wales England six nations game on Friday night, it was described as a "Classic game" and an "advertisement for Rugby Union" it was shocking roll on the Super League, and come on you bulls :)

Sausages 12:18 am, 11-Feb-2011

Sorrenson and Koloto

Rob 2:22 am, 11-Feb-2011

My mate told me tales of Frank Foster when he played for Hull KR, I was told tales of him thumping someone before the game as a warning as to what they could expect on the pitch. Players would go to pieces as a result. Off the field he was the perfect gent. Shame I never got to see him play!

Danny Morgan 8:03 am, 9-Oct-2011

having watched the 'Classic Rugby Union World cup match' my only thought was some of the forwards wouldn't even get on a Rugby League pitch even if they were carrying a bucket with a sponge in it.

No More Flat Caps 2:41 pm, 10-Oct-2011

I think you may find the "Lickle Pocket Backle Ship" was supplied by Alex Murphy.. Despite being a hopelessly dated commentator - Ray French does have the ability to pronounce his words....

russell johnson 8:58 pm, 29-Jan-2012

Came to this article straight from the era of the biff web site all great stuff and beautiful reminders of TGG ,I don't like to compare toughness or dirty play all those mentioned and quite a few moderns are the reason RL will always be something other sports can only dream of........ For all you kick and claps "Make haste fron Babylon....."

Jim 11:12 am, 12-Jan-2013

Enjoyed reading that, thanks to the author. I recognise Oldtimer's comment about Hull grannies. First time I noticed it was at the Boulevard c.1987 (Kevin Ward being a target) as Cas won comfortably.

Jimmy James Jameson 10:51 pm, 12-Jan-2013

Enjoyed the read, though was less impressed with the anti rovers outburst in the comments section and for that I shall drop James leuluai for Gary prom and knocker norton for Gavin miller ;).... Paul woods wasn't fit to lace George fairbairns boots either for that matter! That aside thanks for posting - loads of great memories.

Rob 4:23 am, 13-Jan-2013

Are you mad Jimmy James Jameson? Gavin Millar cost us the Cup Final against Castleford, insisting he played when injured, he was a complete waste of space in that match. Norton was by far and away a better player. I agree about Paul Woods though, Fairburn was a truly great player.

JJJ 11:19 am, 31-Jan-2013

That's just one game Rob, Miller was a fucking beast for Rovers - Man of steel in 85. Anyway John Dorahy cost us that match missing a conversion in the dying minutes of the game, admittedly it was a tough kick but you see players nowadays like Kevin Sinfield putting them over in their sleep.

Rob 8:13 am, 8-Feb-2013

A tough kick? No pressure on him there, on the wrong side of the pitch, dying seconds, on the touchline, and it fell agonisingly short. Modern day rugby balls are much easier to kick I suspect then the older balls.

Nick 8:28 pm, 3-Jun-2013

Great article !

Bert Badger 5:54 am, 3-Aug-2013

How about Kevin Tamati? Anyone who can belt seven shades of the proverbial out of an Aussie test prop while they're in the sin bin has to be a tough rooster.

Jeff mcnab 2:04 pm, 10-Aug-2013

Well I remember watching that cup final with mr lindop as ref at your house russ hull was deserted 10 - 5 to the robins

Alan rathbone 9:18 pm, 25-Aug-2013

Finton/Did mention Dennis Boyd,am glad i played on the same side at leigh first time i ever heard ribs being broken.I do miss the 70/80s but paying a price with my fucked up body.I also remember hitting Kevin Tamati by mistake in the pack at Warrington.Never did tell him.

Basil 3:59 am, 27-Aug-2013

Story not told to many,/Barrow came to sign me 80sin my property.One of the directers said how come there,s no handle on the front door.Ireplied so no fucker can get out.Never did fancy going to Barrow.Talking of barrow,Tony/sorry 4 hinding your shoes.I should of shit in them.

Nick Kindon 10:03 pm, 27-Aug-2013

Fantastic article. As Billy Thompson said these were the days when a high tackle was one that missed. Some great names mentioned. Wasn't Steve Pitchford first known as "The Pocket Battleship"? Once saw hard as nails John McAtee from Leigh poleaxe Paul Woods not long after he signed for Hull. Never went blind-side again for the rest of the gsme!

Basil 8:40 pm, 30-Aug-2013

Basil Rathbone,One big lesson teached to me was that of Tony Fisher,Never start a fight whilst on the floor.i ll never ever forget those huge hands.i bet tony had no trouble wiping his arse,one top bloke i believe,and hard case.

Basil 8:47 pm, 30-Aug-2013

Thanks Russ for the great read/

martin 3:06 pm, 14-Oct-2013

trained with steve pitchford in the70s he was solid as rock very fast and super fit.tony fisher what a hard man and great bloke,oh and steve won the lance todd trophy.

Mark Pitchford 11:38 pm, 30-Nov-2013

Up yours what would u know about playing rugby steve my old man knocked jim mills all over the place in 77 cc final & was no where near fat but fit as the proverbial butchers dog lasted 80 mins every week not 10 or 15 then a rest like most mod day forwards

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