The achievement of two non-vintage Leeds and St Helens sides in reaching the Super League Grand Final on Saturday evening is a testament to the winning culture and proud heritage of both clubs. In recognition of this, here are a couple of all-time great Leeds and Saints XIII’s to argue over in the pre-match build-up.
Saints fans in particular might feel that my selection is a bit dubious given that the admirable Saints Heritage Society (to which many thanks for some of the material here) has only recently organised a vote for an all-time great Saints team. They are probably right. But, in my defence, I have only deviated from their choice to include a few players of whom I have personal memories. It is also a credit to the enduring strength of St Helens that you can make changes in most positions without weakening the dream team in the slightest.
1. Kel Coslett: despite the excellence of the current incumbent, Paul Wellens, Kel Coslett is unlikely ever to be usurped as Saints’ finest full-back. Coslett holds the club’s appearance, point-scoring and goal-kicking records. He also won every honour in sight, was a successful club captain and completed an unlikely transition to the pack later in his career.
2. Tom Van Vollenhoven: according to the “Vollenhoven Calypso” tribute single, the South African winger was “the greatest of all time” and 392 tries in 408 games make it hard to argue. One of his many legendary performances was scoring a hat-trick to win the 1959 Championship Final for Saints against Hunslet, despite having a torn hamstring. He was even better when both legs were in working order.
3. Duggie Greenall: small, at 5 feet 9 inches and 11 and a half stone, but as tough and skilful as they came. Greenall was also known for his Al Jolson impersonations, which led to the crowd’s shouts of “Give ‘em ‘Mammy’” being misinterpreted by the visiting Australians in 1952. The Aussies refused to accept that someone Greenall’s size could tackle so hard and believed that, rather than a request for a song, “Mammy” was a codeword to hit them with a secret plaster cast concealed up his sleeve.
4. Mal Meninga: Former Kangeroo’s captain Meninga was not at Saints for long but is such a giant of the game that he has to be in the greatest all-time XIII of any team he played for. Meninga was like the Incredible Hulk with Usain Bolt’s pace and therefore somewhat tricky to stop in full flight. He had subtle hands and an eye for a pass too. Allegedly crime levels in Brisbane have never been so low as during this real-life superhero’s time as a policeman there.
5. Alf Ellaby: a model professional in the days (1920s) before the concept really existed, Ellaby was a keen proponent of proper preparation and firm critic of foul play. Some old timers claimed that all Ellaby’s centre ever had to do was toss a pass in his general direction because he could catch anything but nothing could catch him. A total of 278 tries in 290 Saints appearances suggests they might not be exaggerating.
6. Tommy Martyn: known as “Tommy God” to many at Knowsley Road, Martyn was instrumental in establishing Saints as a leading club in the summer era of rugby league. He was a fantastic playmaker who was worshipped for his silky skills and sunny disposition by his home fans but mysteriously under-appreciated elsewhere. Martyn was brave too, as he seemed to spend most close-seasons lying down in operating theatres being welded back together again.
7. Alex Murphy: one of the great characters of the game, “Mr Magic” took the cheeky, crafty scrum-half stereotype to a new level. Towards the end of one stunning performance as an 18 year-old in guiding Great Britain to a 44-17 victory over Australia, he picked up one of the pint glasses that had been thrown onto the pitch by disgruntled Aussies and raised it in salute to all four sides of the Sydney Cricket Ground. They were not amused. Murphy later became an endlessly quotable coach who scattered more crockery than a Greek wedding.
8. Alan Prescott: even by the borderline insane standards of rugby league players and the 1950s, Alan Prescott was a tough man. In 1958 he captained a Great Britain side with only eight fit players on the pitch to a legendary test win against Australia in Brisbane, despite breaking his arm in the fourth minute of the game.
9. Keiron Cunningham: they have erected a statue of hooker Kieron Cunningham in St Helens town centre. Even though it is inert and solid bronze, I would still back it to get over the line from ten metres out. The statue is less elusive than the real thing but about as much fun to tackle.
10. Cliff Watson: London-born Watson had fearsome strength in the tackle and on the charge. He terrified the Aussies and holds the dubious distinction of being the only Great Britain player to be sent off against them twice. On both occasions he deserved it but not as much as his adversaries deserved the thumping he gave them.
11. Dick Huddart: the King of Cumbria was a record signing from Whitehaven in 1958. Bizarrely the deal was signed in a toilet, as Huddart and Saints officials hid from irate Wigan directors who thought they had got to Huddart first. Huddart had pace, power and a hand-off that would have concussed a rhino. He won every team and personal honour available, including an Australian Grand Final with the great St George side of the 1960s.
12. Roy Haggerty: Saints have had numerous high-quality forwards that might be more obvious candidates for a greatest XIII. But Haggerty would run through brick walls for his team and, for that matter, a bit of light recreation. If only for team morale purposes, how can you not include a man who once took his portable telly on tour because he did not want to miss “Coronation Street” whilst he was out of the country?
13. Vinty Karalius: the Lithuanian-descended Karalius was nicknamed the “Wild Bull of the Pampas”, which was harsh on the bull, as it was a model of restraint and even temper by comparison. The complete loose-forward, Karalius was a rampaging runner, brutal tackler and superb passer of a ball.
Although a fantastically skilled forward, Clues was also what my Grandad used to call, with some understatement, “a big rough bugger”
1. Ken Thornett: an outstanding Australian full-back whose signing symbolised Leeds’ usurpation of Hunslet as the top club in the city. Apparently a local bookmaker used to offer odds on when Thornett would fail to catch a kick. They had few takers and even fewer payouts.
2. Eric Harris: arrived from Australia in 1930 as an unknown and left as a club legend, having scored 391 tries in 383 games and club record 63 tries in the 1935-36 season. He was known as the “Toowoomba Ghost” due to his slight build and elusive knack of slipping through tackles.
3. Lewis Jones: the “Golden Boy” was a stunning signing from Welsh Rugby Union in 1952 and his twelve sparkling years at Leeds peaked with the club’s first ever Championship win in 1961. A devastating attacking back who was arguably the biggest star in the game in the mid-fifties.
4. Garry Schofield: a great source of opinions and a man so self-assured it is said that he runs outside smiling when there is lightning in the sky because he thinks God is trying to take his picture. The confidence was backed up by his talent, as he was an outstanding player at club and international level. Perhaps the only major personal failure in his career was to finish growing the moustache he spent a decade trying to sprout.
5. Andrew Ettingshausen: One for the ladies. Ettingshausen was known as “E.T.” but looked like an Aussie surf God and had a sideline as a male model. He could play a bit too though and plenty of British defenders were happy to see E.T go home to Planet Oz.
6. John Holmes: sported a ‘tache that Pancho Villa, let alone Garry Schofield, would have been proud of. Famously modest and unassuming off the pitch, Holmes also happened to be a genius on it and is rated by many Leeds fans as their greatest ever player. His magic hands and creative brain led Leeds to back-to-back Challenge Cup wins in 1977 and ’78, amongst many other victories in his club record 625 games.
7. Rob Burrow: must get sick of being patronised about his small stature but it is part of what makes him an inspiration as a professional sportsman. The work he must have put in (not least on his tackling technique) to be not only competitive but a major threat in a modern game filled with giants is incredible.
8. Barrie McDermott: during his fiery playing days McDermott seemed an unlikely candidate to end up in his current post as Head of Youth Development at Leeds. For much of his discipline-challenged career, McDermott barely seemed in control of himself, let alone a prospective nurturer of the club’s youngsters. But he was also a capable, hard-working forward who helped lay the platform for Leeds’ current golden era and was revealed by his post-retirement media work to be a witty, gentle giant in real life.
9. David Ward: another club stalwart who spent his whole career with Leeds and later coached the club. His greatest moment was perhaps captaining the team to the 1977 cup win a mere fourteen emotional days after the death of team-mate Chris Sanderson in a league game at Salford. Despite early onset baldness, Ward also has a reputation as a Frank Sinatra impersonator.
10. Jamie Peacock: a born and bred Leeds fan and the current England captain. A phenomenal worker, whose ability and commitment is respected throughout the game. He has twice been named as the best forward in the world.
11. Arthur Clues: a recent biography by Maurice Bamford is entitled “Saint and Sinner”, which just about sums it up. Although a fantastically skilled forward, Clues was also what my Grandad used to call, with some understatement, “a big rough bugger” in a post-war era that was full of them. He was given a life ban from rugby union as a youngster for abandoning his touch judge duties to join in a fight. Clues remained a well-known larger than life character in Leeds long after his retirement. He was also the only man to score a try on the rugby side of the Headingley ground and a cricket century on the other, as well as being a former Australian yo-yo champion.
12. Jamie Jones-Buchanan: perhaps not the most talented second-rower in Leeds’ history but deserves inclusion as a very good player and representative of the impressive core of local lads at the heart of the club’s most successful era. Jones-Buchanan is a model of dedication and deeply involved in the grassroots rugby league scene from which he emerged, as well as being the proud wearer of a Mr T hairstyle.
13. Kevin Sinfield: the most successful captain in Leeds’ history, having led the club to four championships and two World Club Championships. As well as being a top player, Sinfield is also a well-educated and interesting character off-the-pitch. His family home was the nearest thing Oldham had to a Che Guevara shrine and Sinfield still holds true to his socialist roots.
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