Obituary: Bill Ashurst – A pioneering, all-time great of Rugby League

BILL ASHURST (April 12, 1948 – June 14, 2022)

Bill Ashurst was a pioneering and record-breaking backrower who represented Great Britain and Lancashire and, at club level, played for hometown Wigan, Penrith Panthers, Wakefield Trinity and (very briefly) Runcorn Highfield.

He coached at Wakefield and, after a spell as assistant to Alex Murphy back at Wigan, at Runcorn, as well as community clubs Ince Rose Bridge, where he began his playing career, Wigan St Patricks and Hindley. 

Almost always entertaining, sometimes controversial, Ashurst, who has died aged 74, was tall and rangy with deft handling skills, a telling swerve and effective chip, and a distinctive ’round the corner’ instep-first goal-kicking style (rather than the traditional straight run-up and use of the toe), which most players were to copy. 

Many have observed that the 40-20 rule, which didn’t come into operation until well after his playing career had ended, would have particularly suited the man with the shocks of black hair, given his accuracy with the boot. 

Ashurst landed 146 goals and six field-goals, along with 74 tries, in 185 games across two spells at Wigan, 55 goals, six field-goals and 19 tries in 46 appearances for Penrith and 15 goals, ten field-goals and five tries in 32 matches with Wakefield. 

Such was his impact at Penrith, who set a world record transfer fee of £15,000 when signing him from Wigan in July 1973, that when they named him in their best-ever side in 2006, they flew him back to Australia to join in the celebrations.

Born in Ince, Wigan, he excelled at both football, having a trial at Blackburn Rovers, and Rugby League, playing for Wigan Schoolboys and coming through the ranks at Rose Bridge.  

First signed as a back by Wigan ahead of the 1968/69 season, Ashurst made his debut in the 19-16 Lancashire Cup first-round defeat at St Helens.

In his autobiography, ‘Tries and Prayers – A Rugby League Journey’, Ashurst told an interesting tale about that debut.

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.

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

It was the first of 26 outings (with 15 tries and a goal) that campaign, including the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy final, in which St Helens were defeated 7-4 at Central Park, by which time he was playing centre.

He also helped his club win the last Lancashire League title in 1969/70, when he started playing in the pack, and the Lancashire Cup two seasons later, with Widnes beaten 15-8 in the final at Knowsley Road.

But Ashurst, who featured in the Wigan side that set a club record of 31 successive league wins between February 1970 and February 1971, suffered the disappointment of defeat in two major showpieces – the Challenge Cup final of 1969/70, when Castleford were 7-2 Wembley winners, and the Championship Final of 1970/71 when, after Wigan topped the table, he won the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match and scored a try and kicked two goals in the 16-12 loss to St Helens at Station Road.

The Cherry and Whites also lost out in the Floodlit Trophy final of 1969/70, when Leigh won 11-6 at Central Park.

By the time Ashurst joined Penrith for the 1974 season, he had made 164 appearances, crossed for 67 tries and kicked 142 goals.

He had also featured two times for Lancashire (in the defeats by Yorkshire in September 1971 and October 1972) and three for Great Britain – a try-scoring debut as New Zealand won 18-13 at The Willows in September 1971, and in two victories over France in early 1972, 10-9 in Toulouse and 45-10 at Odsal, where he crossed twice.

However he was overlooked for the World Cup squad in 1972, when Jim Challinor was coach, and against in 1975, when Bill Oxley and Ashurst’s old Wigan team-mate Alex Murphy were in charge.

By that time, he was a firm favourite at Penrith, who shortly after his arrival, also signed Dewsbury and Great Britain international hooker Mick Stephenson for £20,000 as they  sought to mount a challenge in the Australia top-flight, which they had joined in 1967.

The pair were part of a squad that also included the likes of threequarters Ross Gigg and Glenn West, halfbacks Zac Olejarnik and Terry Wickey and prop Tim Sheens, who was, of course, to become a much-lauded coach.

Ashurst captained the Panthers for a short spell before Stephenson, with whom he sometimes clashed on a personal level, was handed the role, and his energetic and aggressive style and match-winning knack helped endear him to supporters.

He was also prone to injury, was sent off on several occasions and in 1977 sensationally quit the club, citing homesickness, and re-joined Wigan, by now coached by Vince Karalius (Eric Ashton was at the helm throughout his first stint).

Ashurst played 21 times, scoring seven tries and kicking four goals and six field-goals, in 1977/78, when his side finished fifth in the table and reached the Lancashire Cup final, which Workington won 16-13 at Wilderspool.

His last game for the club was the 22-10 home defeat by Bradford in the second round of the Challenge Cup in March 1978, after which Wakefield broke their transfer record by paying £18,000 to take him to Belle Vue, where his old Penrith colleague David Topliss was captain and central to the deal.

While his time with Trinity was injury-affected, he returned to Wembley for the 1978/79 Challenge Cup final, in which Bill Kirkbride’s side were beaten 12-3 by Widnes, who were coached by Ashurst’s old Wigan team-mate Doug Laughton.

A persistent knee problem forced his retirement in 1981, after which he became Wakefield coach in succession to Ray Batten.

He could not stave off relegation to the Second Division, however, and he returned to Wigan as assistant coach to Murphy, with the pair guiding the club to a first Cup success in ten years when Leeds were beaten 15-4 in the John Player Trophy final of 1982/83.

Ashurst also coached Runcorn between April 1987 and January 1989, and due to a player strike, came out of retirement at the age of 40 to feature against Wigan in the first round of the John Player Special Trophy in 1988/89.

While Runcorn were drawn at home, the tie was switched to Central Park, and Ashurst named himself on the bench. An injury to Ian Moffitt meant he came on during the first half, only to be sent off eleven minutes later after headbutting Andy Goodway. His side was beaten 92-2.

An honorary vice-president of Wigan Supporters’ Club, The Riversiders, he remained a popular figure in the town and kept close links with both the senior club, attending a past players’ event earlier this month, and the amateur scene as well as making return visits to Australia.

Those included last month’s trip Down Under to support fellow former Penrith player Royce Simmons in his 300km walk from his hometown of Gooloogong in New South Wales Central West to the Panthers’ BlueBet Stadium to raise funds for Dementia Australia. 

In the latter part of his life, Ashurst became a Christian and tried to atone for some of the wrong he had been guilty of in his younger days.

In his autobiography there are various tributes paid to him 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.

“I have no regrets, it’s gone, it’s over, it’s been forgiven,” she wrote.

“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.”

Bill leaves his wife Sheila and seven children – Billy, Carl, Graham, Kathleen, Laura, Leeane and Andrew, as well as 31 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

At the time of writing, details of his funeral have not yet been released.

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