Eight Days a Week: Fixture Cramming 1980s style

When the sport resumes after the current hiatus, how to fit all the ‘lost’ games into the available time left in the calendar is going to be a struggle, so Rugby League World looked back to find out how it has been done in the past.

While one of the many effects of the coronavirus has been to put Rugby League and the rest of the sporting world on hold, there have been other times when the fixtures have flowed thick and fast after unavoidable breaks in play, especially before the move to summer in 1996.

Those who have studied the history of the 13-a-side code would point in particular to the exceptionally harsh winters of 1946-47, when pipes froze along with pitches and the season became the longest on record, and 1962-63, when Leeds, for example, did not play in January, February or March, but had 18 matches in the two months which followed.

But when it comes to a short sharp burst of activity, can any team match Bradford Northern’s top-flight schedule of April 1983?

To imitate Monty Python’s Four Yorkshireman sketch: “Leeds having 18 matches in two months? Luxury. We played four times in six days.”

Amazingly, it’s true, and even more amazingly, Peter Fox’s part-time team, who fitted in training and playing around regular jobs, won the lot, against St Helens, Workington Town, Carlisle and Featherstone Rovers.

A raft of earlier postponements caused by both snow in January and rain in March left plenty of clubs playing catch-up.

Things weren’t helped by the fact that Carlisle, having won promotion in the first season of their existence, declared a financial crisis early in the New Year and were unable to fulfil a number of fixtures, which were then rearranged.

And to cap it all, the Rugby League Council refused an extension to the season, insisting the final day of the Slalom Lager Championship be on Sunday, April 17, allowing the top-eight Premiership to start seven days later.

Workington played five times in nine days, Carlisle five times in ten and Halifax twice in two.

But in terms of being busy, Bradford, with a squad including the likes of Jeff Grayshon, Graham Idle, Keith Mumby, Brian Noble, Gary Van Bellen and Ellery Hanley, bettered the lot.

The six-day slog, which must have tested coach Fox’s famed motivational powers to the full, began on Tuesday, April 12, when Alan Redfearn (2) and Keith Whiteman crossed for tries (worth three points) and Steve Parrish kicked two goals in a 13-6 victory over St Helens in front of 4,276 at Odsal.

At the same venue the following evening, a crowd of 4,243 witnessed a 26-3 win over Workington in which Gary Hale (2), Ian MacLean, Dale Fennell, Hanley and Van Bellen scored tries and Mumby landed four goals.

Fox and his players got a day off before a Friday, April 15 meeting with Carlisle, and the ‘home’ club’s ongoing problems meant Bradford were at least spared the 200 mile-plus round trip to Cumbria, with the game switched to Huddersfield.

Safe to say there were more Northern than Carlisle fans in the 1,204 attendance for a 55-3 Fartown stroll which featured a Hanley hat-trick, a Van Bellen double and further tries from Noble, Dick Jasiewicz, Whiteman, Mark Fleming, Chris Parrott and Parrish, who landed all eleven goals.

If the players were flagging by that point, it wasn’t showing as they went into their April 17 game against one of Fox’s former clubs Featherstone Rovers at Post Office Road.

It was the fourth meeting of the sides that season.

Northern had won 11-0 at Rovers in September to make the Websters Yorkshire Cup final, in which they went down 18-7 to Hull at Headingley.

And in November, Featherstone were defeated 17-5 at Odsal.

In late March, the pair were pitted against one another again in the semi-finals of the State Express Challenge Cup.

And this time Rovers, who in December had handed the coaching reins to Allan Agar, father of current Leeds Rhinos boss Richard, came out on top, denying Bradford a trip to Wembley with an 11-6 win at Headingley (Rovers went on to beat hot favourites Hull 14-12 in the final).

With the Premiership of sight, there was only pride – and revenge – for Fox’s side to play for, as they summoned up one last effort to win 24-13, with Ian Sheldon, Hanley, Jasiewicz and Mumby going over the whitewash and Parrish adding six goals before a crowd of 3,753.

It was the 49th match of the campaign for Northern (by contrast St Helens, with all the benefits of a full-time environment and modern fuelling and recovery methods played, 35 times last season).

Fox’s side, who finished ninth in the league, also played in the John Player Trophy, reaching round three after a second-round meeting with Hull went to a replay (they played the title-winning Black and Whites five times all that season), and took on the touring Australian national team at Odsal.

And Frank Stanton’s all-conquering Kangaroos were made to work pretty hard for their 13-6 win in front of a 10,506 turn-out, with the industrious home side only a point behind going into the last eight minutes.

Interestingly, as well as the three Ashes Tests, the Aussies played 12 other matches on tour, ten of them against club sides and the others against Cumbria and Wales.

Odsal chief Fox used 35 players over the course of a campaign in which Bradford chalked up 22 wins, finishing with five in a row after losing six times in succession between September and October.

Joint top try-scorers, with ten apiece, were Hanley, who turned 22 towards the end of the season, and the long-serving Mumby, who had been with the club since 1973 and was a Great Britain international.
Hanley was to win the first of his 36 Lions caps in 1984, and the following year, joined Wigan for £150,000, with Steve Donlan and Phil Ford moving the other was as part of the deal.

This feature was first published in Rugby League World, Issue 468, April 2020