Obituary: Maurice Lindsay – Rugby League’s visionary leader

MAURICE LINDSAY (May 8, 1941 – May 17, 2022)

Rugby League visionary Maurice Lindsay witnessed the very best of times at Wigan Warriors, as well as the proud club’s worst, and was a driving force in the seismic shift to summer action via the creation of Super League.

Negotiating determinedly with powerful Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch, he brokered a deal for a lucrative television contract and a move from winter seasons, with top flight-clubs following the earlier example of Wigan by going full-time.

Soon after taking over at the Rugby Football League (RFL), Lindsay remarked: “I knew it was a massive challenge but it needed to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck. Otherwise we were in danger of being a small parochial sport for ever – and the danger is that you can finish up with no game at all.”

The Horwich-born former bookmaker and plant-hire company owner, who has died aged 81, was an able and versatile sports administrator.

He served as Chairman of Wigan (in two spells) as well as football clubs Wigan Athletic and Preston North End, Great Britain team manager, Rugby Football League president and chief executive, Chairman of the RL International Board, chief executive of Super League, a member of the shareholders’ committee of football’s Premier League and the Football Association Council and Chairman of Racecourse Data Technologies Limited.

Current RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer said: “Maurice Lindsay will be remembered as one of the most significant leaders in the sport’s history.

“At Wigan, the strength of his personality was critical in their emergence as arguably the greatest club side of all time in this country, one which dominated domestically and flourished internationally, and whose impact extended well beyond Rugby League.

“When he moved to the game’s central administration at the RFL, he was the leading figure in driving through the inception of the Super League in 1996, which genuinely transformed the sport.

“He was a truly unique character, a wonderful raconteur, always had a twinkle in his eye, and lived a remarkable life.

“Rugby League would not be where it is today without him.”

Wigan were in a slump, having been relegated to the Second Division, when Lindsay arrived in 1980 and formed a new and innovative board of directors with Jack Robinson, Tom Rathbone and Jack Hilton.

Under the ‘gang of four’, there was an immediate return to the top flight, before the club went on to dominate the game in unprecedented fashion, winning a string of silverware, including eight league titles between 1987 and 1996 (with seven of them in a row), nine Challenge Cups (with eight consecutively), seven John Player Special/Regal Trophies, five Lancashire Cups – and three World Club Championships (it was his idea to introduce an annual one-off winner-takes-all match).

Perhaps the most memorable of that trio of matches was the first, an 8-2 success against Manly Warringah Sea Eagles in front of 36,895 at Central Park in 1987.

Lindsay was responsible for bringing a variety of fans’ favourites to the club, including Dean Bell, Andy Farrell, Andy Goodway, Andy Platt, Brett Kenny, Denis Betts, Ellery Hanley, Frano Botica, Joe Lydon, Jason Robinson, Martin Offiah (for whom he paid Widnes a world record £440,000), Gene Miles and Mick Cassidy, while he also recruited two great overseas coaches in Graham Lowe and John Monie.

But perhaps his greatest PR coup was the signing of a 16-year-old schoolboy international live on breakfast television. Shaun Edwards went on to become the most decorated player in Rugby League history and is now defence coach for the France rugby union team.

On the other hand, Lindsay did have an ability to fall out with those around him, with one famous incident being when he sacked his then coach Alex Murphy, who allegedly threw a telephone at his Chairman after a blazing row.

Lindsay became GB team manager while continuing his Chairmanship of Wigan and was on the tours of New Zealand in 1990 and Australia in 1992, the year he was elected president of the RFL.

He also became RFL chief executive that year, leaving Wigan, and started to drive forward the plan for summer rugby, dangling a £75 million carrot (later to become £87 million) in front of clubs but upsetting fans and traditionalists with proposals for a series of mergers.

They didn’t happen, but the creation of Super League did – and ironically, Wigan’s stranglehold weakened (while the Warriors have claimed five of the 26 available titles to date, St Helens have taken nine, Leeds Rhinos eight and Bradford Bulls four).

Lindsay left the RFL to become chief executive of Super League, a role he held until 1999.

He also became Chairman of the RL International Board in 1996, which, at the time, was at odds with the Australian Rugby League.

Lindsay returned to Wigan in 2000, soon after they moved from Central Park to what is now the DW (then JJB) Stadium.

They won the Challenge Cup in 2002 and reached the Grand Finals of 2000, 2001 and 2003, but lost on each occasion, to St Helens, then Bradford twice.

But in 2005, they missed out on the play-offs, and the following year, flirted with relegation, and in 2007, he stepped down, citing his disappointment at missing out on reaching the new Wembley for the Challenge Cup Final (they were beaten by Catalans Dragons in the semis) and ill health. He then focused on football and racing.

“Although Maurice Lindsay never wore the famous cherry and white shirt, he is just as much a significant icon of the history of this prodigious club as the players on the pitch,” wrote Wigan Warriors historian Keith Sutch on the club website.

Gary Hetherington, chief executive of one of Wigan’s biggest rivals Leeds, said: “It’s the end of an era for one of Rugby League’s legendary and most charismatic characters.

“Maurice had plenty of critics during his time in the game; anyone who has a vision and has a strong will to lead will always find people who believe they could do things differently or better.

“But his record of success, not just on the field with Wigan but the profile that side brought to the game, should never be underestimated as their players and indeed the Chairman himself became household names across the country.

“I had many battles with Maurice but I always believed he had the best interest of the game at heart and he achieved a great deal.

“It was hard to fall out with him for long. He had no family, but Rugby League was his family and we have lost one of our own.”

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