Feature: A player who could have been a contender

League Express editor Martyn Sadler reviews ‘Tries and Prayers – A Rugby League Journey’ by former Wigan, Penrith, Wakefield and Runcorn utility Bill Ashurst

How often have we seen talented sportsmen whose achievements don’t match their talents?

It’s a story that is as old as the hills, and we’ve seen it in countless films, including the great 1950s classic film ‘On the Waterfront’, directed by Elia Kazan.

From that film who could forget the immortal words of Terry Malloy, a dockyard worker and talented boxer played by Marlon Brando.

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am,” said Terry.

This article originally appeared in this week’s edition of League Express newspaper. Click here to download the digital version to your computer, smartphone or tablet

Bill Ashurst was, in my view, one of the greatest players, in terms of pure natural talent, to have played Rugby League.

It’s ironic that his new autobiography has been published almost to coincide with the accession of two other great players to the Rugby League Hall of Fame, in Malcolm Reilly and Willie Horne.

In terms of pure Rugby League ability, I’m convinced that Bill would have been in the Hall of Fame long ago, if he had handled his career a little differently, perhaps with a little more dedication and, perhaps, wisdom.

His book tells us about a world of Rugby League that is far removed from what we see today.

Click here to download the latest issue of Rugby League World magazine to your computer, smartphone or tablet

The violence that was an accepted part of the game, the muddy fields, crazy behaviour away from the pitch, and clubs that were run as personal fiefdoms of their directors are all key parts of the book, as are arguments, fallouts, sackings and fights.

Of course violence is a topical subject, after Ben Flower’s moment of madness at Old Trafford last weekend.

So it’s interesting to look back at another shocking incident from a match in which Ashurst played – the 1970 Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, when Castleford beat Wigan 7-2.

That game was marred by a terrible foul by Castleford halfback Keith Hepworth on Wigan fullback Colin Tyrer.

“I believe it was one of the most malicious hits ever,” writes Ashurst.

Ashurst presenting playing jerseys ahead of the NWML English Lionhearts Tour of Canada
Ashurst presenting playing jerseys ahead of the NWML English Lionhearts Tour of Canada

“I did people in my life in the game, but in my opinion nothing as bad as what Keith Hepworth did to Colin that day.

“The way I saw it, ‘CT’ collected a kick, passed a quick ball to Kevin O’Loughlin and literally jumped three feet in the air after an elbow-high, jaw-attacking tackle from Hepworth. I think that he would have gone to prison if he had done that in the street.”

Hepworth was very fortunate not to be sent off for that tackle, and the memory of a stricken Colin Tyrer has stayed with me to this day. It was a terrible day for Rugby League.

On the other hand, Ashurst has given us some great memories, and for me personally a lot of those came from his days at Wakefield Trinity, who he joined in the latter part of the 1977/8 season, when the club was facing the danger of relegation.

I still recall his debut for Wakefield on Good Friday in the local derby against Featherstone at Post Office Road. Ashurst led the team superbly. His kicking game and the variety of his passes were mesmerising for a team that had previously been playing with very little spirit.

For the latest updates and breaking news, follow us on the social media platform of your choice

Wakefield lost the game 19-16, but Ashurst’s last-minute try for Wakefield was ruled out by the referee, with most observers claiming that it was a harsh decision.

Throughout the book Ashurst claims to have a hearty dislike of Yorkshire and Yorkshiremen, but after that debut the Wakefield supporters certainly didn’t dislike him.

“When I came off that park the Wakefield players and supporters were in awe of me even though we had lost. I had got those players in the palm of my hand and I knew that they would follow me anywhere in the fight to keep us in the First Division and that it would be a fight to the end.”

Because of his influence Wakefield did avoid relegation that year, and the following year they were at Wembley, where Ashurst played for them, quite unwisely, with a chronic knee injury. Not surprisingly he couldn’t secure them a victory against Widnes.

The one thing that Bill Ashurst couldn’t be accused of is under-estimating his own ability.

That was apparent when he made his Wigan debut against St Helens at Knowsley Road in the Lancashire Cup in September 1968.

The Wigan team at the time was coached by Eric Ashton, and Eric selected Bill to make his debut on the wing, playing outside Bill Francis, who was at centre.

How often are debutants selected on the wing, even though they aren’t wingers? When Saints were winning 16-4 at half-time, and Bill had received just two passes, he approached Eric in the dressing room.

“You’ve got it wrong,” he said to Eric.

“What do you mean I’ve got it wrong?” said Eric, not too pleased to be confronted by a young debutant.

“Look, I’m a centre, Bill (Francis) is a winger. You have got us in the wrong positions. Put me in the centre and him on the wing.”

There was silence in the dressing room, but Eric was wise enough to recognise the point that Bill was making.

Let us know what you think about this story – and the rest of the game’s hot topics – on our free forum

“He swapped us over, and I had a great second half. We still lost, but by three points, 19-16.”

Could you imagine a Wigan debutant in today’s game telling Shaun Wane he had it wrong, and persuading the coach to change his tactics?

Bill was a key part of the Wigan team that won 31 games in a row between 1970 and 1971, but he seemed unable to break through into the Great Britain team until the 1971 Kiwis arrived and he was selected to play in the first Test at Salford. It’s worth bearing in mind, for those who believe the international game could be stronger than it is today, that there were only 3,764 spectators present at The Willows that day to see a Kiwi victory.

Bill scored a try and generally played well, but was one of seven players dropped for the second Test, which Britain also lost. And he would only play two more Tests for Great Britain, both against France in 1972, before heading to Australia to spend three seasons with Penrith, where Bill had his great feud with Mike Stephenson (Stevo).

Bill did a moonlight flit from Penrith back to England, but 30 years later was invited back to the Panthers when he was selected in their Team of Legends to celebrate 40 years of that club’s existence.

P-30-Tries-&-Prayers-coverBy then Bill, who had been abused by his father as a boy, had discovered Christianity, and was trying to mend some of the wrongs that he had been guilty of in his younger days.

There are various tributes paid to Bill by the people who knew him, including some moving words from his wife Sheila, who gave him seven children and several times came close to divorcing her wayward husband. If she had done, it would be hard to argue, from reading the book, that Bill wouldn’t have deserved it.

“I have no regrets, it’s gone, it’s over, it’s been forgiven,” she writes.
“Throughout everything, Bill has been a really good dad to his children. They think the world of him, as do his grandchildren to us both.”

And ultimately, whether you’re in the Hall of Fame or not, to be loved and admired by your own family is perhaps the most we can hope for and the biggest reward we can be granted.

‘Tries & Prayers – A Rugby League Journey’ is published by London League Publications, and is co-written by Steve Manning with a foreword by current Australian coach Tim Sheens. The sale price is £14.95.
Bill will be signing copies of the book at Warriors World this Saturday, 25 October, at 1.00pm. Warriors World is based at Unit 40, Grand Arcade, Wigan, WN1 1BH.

Please note, a technical error meant the print version of this article in issue 2,937 of League Express was missing a large chunk of text. We apologise unreservedly for this.