Rugby League Heroes: Alan Hardisty

Castleford maestro who was coveted by the Aussies

Any list of the great British stand-offs would surely include Alan Hardisty near or at the very top.

This Castleford legend played at Wheldon Road from 1958 to 1971, playing over 400 matches and scoring more than 200 tries. He was at his peak in 1966 on the Lions Tour, when he was rated by even the harshest Australian critics as one of the best players in the world.

He formed arguably the greatest ever halfback partnership in British Rugby League with the terrier-like scrum-half Keith Hepworth.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

It would be when I got a phone call from Len Garbutt at Castleford to say I’d been made captain of Great Britain. It was a wonderful honour. It was January 1967, and I captained the side for both games against the French. The first was in Carcassonne and we won 16-13. Then we beat them 23-13 at Wigan.

The first game of Rugby League you watched was the 1952 Challenge Cup Final. What do you remember about it?

My dad took me to the local pub. He sat me on the floor in front of everybody else and said, “Right, be quiet.” And that was my first experience of professional rugby! My brother was a big fan and we used to play lots of touch and pass on the local field. I was lucky enough to have a teacher who was Rugby League barmy called Percy White, and he organised matches on Saturday morning. That was the beginning for me.

You broke your collarbone and your dad advised you not to play any more. Were you always going to defy him?

He said he’d kill me if I played again! My mother had to take me on a two-mile walk every other day to the hospital. She had five other kids, so she wasn’t very impressed. When the hospital said I was better, I broke the other one the next day. Whether he knew I still played after that or not, he never said, and he didn’t come to games for a long time when I signed pro. I was wary about telling him when I signed pro. I got £1,500. He said I had to give my mother £1,000 and I could keep £500, and I bought a Lambretta with it.

What are your early memories of the club?

Harry Street was coach when I signed. When I finished with Glasshoughton Under-17s, I went down to Cas. George Clinton was the A-team coach and he said we could join in second-team training that day. They had a game on the Saturday against the first team and they put me on the wing. At half-time, Harry Street came over for a word and asked what position I was. When I told him, he moved me to stand-off, and he signed me after the game in his car. He locked me in while he went to get the signing-on contract! I’d have signed for ninepence to be honest, so the money was a real bonus, and I made my debut at Keighley.

What do you remember of physio Billy Rhodes, who had previously coached Castleford on four separate occasions?

I remember him sending me back on the field with a broken ankle one day. He just strapped it up and told me to go the wing for the last 20 minutes. When he told Harry I’d broken it, Harry ran on the pitch to drag me off. That’s what it was like in those days. If you told Billy you had a bad shoulder, he’d tell you to hang your coat up. If you did, he’d send you away because your shoulder was obviously alright if you could reach up to hang your coat.

You played a Cup game against St Helens in 1961. Can you recall your first encounter with Alex Murphy?

My first memory of Alex was him looking at me when there was a scrum. He pointed at me and said, “I’ve heard about you. Me and Vinty are having you today.” Naively, I said, “Who’s Vinty?” And Vince looked up from the scrum with his cauliflower ears and growled, “I’m Vinty.” I just thought to myself, “I’m not going down the blind side today.” But Vince was good with the little ones, to be honest. I’m glad I wasn’t his size!

Tell us about your partnership with Keith Hepworth and other players from Ashton Road School with whom you shared a dressing-room.

Keith and I were put together as ten-year-olds. I scored the tries, and he did the tackling. He wasn’t a bad man to have beside you. We just clicked straightaway. He liked to be told what to do, and I was an organiser. He used to ask my opinion on things, and he just got on with it. But he was more than just a tackler. He was a champion runner, and he could certainly play. I was at his 80th recently, and he still reminds me of a day I threw the ball back at him and hit him on the nose because his passing wasn’t the best in that particular game!

We had a lot of local players, and down the years they have made the club what it is today. I took Clive Dickinson down the Lane. He was a terrific defender, but he was pretty shy, so he took some persuading. Eventually he came down, and he played second team. Eventually he got into the first team and the club was astonished about his defence. “I know,” I said. “I’ve been telling you how good he is for a year!” But he wasn’t the biggest lad, so they turned him into a hooker. If someone needed sorting out, I’d go to Clive ahead of Bill Bryant or Malcolm Reilly. He really hit hard in the tackle.

Johnny Ward was a terrific ball player. He was big and clumsy usually, but give him a rugby ball and he could do anything. I followed him everywhere because he’d always be able to slip a pass out of the tackle. We had a great understanding.

Bill Bryant was from Wakefield. He was similar to Johnny but a different build. He’d get the offload away over their heads. He was tall and lanky and very hard to tackle, especially if they wanted to stop the offload. Johnny and Bill made things easy for me.

You won in France on your Test debut. Is it true they turned off the hot water and took away the towels they had provided in response?

Yes, that’s right! I wasn’t a lover of the French when we played them. The referees let them get away with quite a lot. They didn’t meet you head on for a scrap, they did it behind your back. I remember a winger going clear one day. I went for the cover tackle, but their centre wiped me out and the try was awarded. Their refs turned a blind eye to everything, but Australia were the opponents you wanted to play against.

As a playmaker, what were you subjected to by opponents?

I came in for a lot of rough stuff. I’d be called a “yellow bastard” and other things to imply I was a coward because I wasn’t the biggest, but you got them back by scoring tries.

Did Harry Street really leave the club after an argument with the directors over a car-parking spot? And how did he compare to the other Cas coaches of your time?

It is true, and it was such a shame because he was an excellent coach. He was very good with the young players, and we’d come through at a good time for him. He knew the game back to front, but there was something going on between him and the board, and it was a daft reason for him to end up leaving. George Clinton took over, but he wasn’t really at the same level. Tommy Smales was very good – he was full of football, if you know what I mean. He always had a move for us to try like a run-around or a short kick. Derek Turner was the opposite. He just took the forwards and said to me, “Alan, get something on,” in terms of the backs putting moves on. He was more of a forwards coach, and he was very good for Brian Lockwood and Malcolm Reilly, who looked up to him.

You won the first three BBC 2 Floodlit Trophies. Why did the competition bring out the best in Cas?

We loved the Floodlit Trophy and we seemed to always to do well in them. It was a big deal to be on television back then. I think some clubs were a bit negative about television because of the possible effect on crowds, but we had no problem with it. We were getting better and being on TV gave us a chance to show what we could do to a larger audience. We had a good win in the first final against St Helens in 1965, and then we beat Swinton and Leigh in the next two.

What do you remember of a young Roger Millward?

He was incredible, but it was a shame we couldn’t fit him in somehow. He had to play on the wing, and even then he scored tries and kicked goals. He was only a little lad, but he was a terrific player with a great sidestep. I think he was always going to leave because of Keith and me, and I suppose it was an easy decision when Hull KR came in for him.

The 1966 Lions Tour must have been a highlight of your career. What are your recollections of those three months?

I soon found out we needed rubber studs with the grounds being so hard. You had to go down as quickly as you could to avoid being picked up and slammed down, but the hard grounds really suited my style of play, as opposed to the rain and the mud. It was great to tour with so many top players, and I loved every minute on and off the field. I was at my best on that tour, and it was great to train every day. We were probably at our best as a team on tours because for once we were able to be full time as opposed to when we were back home.

The camaraderie was great. Lads you’d been fighting with throughout the season were suddenly your friends. Flash Flanagan, the Hull KR hooker, was an example of that. He was a great fella to have on tour, but I wasn’t sure at first. I met him at RFL HQ. We were queueing to show our passports and to show we’d had out inoculations. He didn’t even know he had to get them. And then I had to sit next to him on the plane. He was pressing the air-hostess button every two minutes. “Does the pilot know there’s a rivet loose on the wing?” But he was a great lad and great for team spirit on tour, even though he smashed me with his elbow the next time Cas played Hull Kingston!

You won the first Test but were unable to bring home the Ashes.

I loved the big matches. There was so much tension. I partnered Tommy Bishop who loved the hard stuff. No one intimidated him. He was like Keith, which helped, but Tommy liked to be known as a big hitter. He stuck his chest out and was proud of it, whereas Keith was a bit quieter about it. We knew how good the Aussies were, so it was great to beat them. But I do remember everyone kept saying, “Wait till Arthur Beetson gets into the team,” and sure enough he did, and we saw what he could do in the third Test. We gave a good account of ourselves in those last two Tests, and we couldn’t have got much closer. Ken Irvine scored a try in the decider that shouldn’t have stood. They were such tough matches and the hard grounds. We also had the two sendings-off in those games. The Cliff Watson decision was for kicking, but it was a nothing incident. Peter Dimond had done it to him too.

Castleford won the Challenge Cup in 1969, beating Salford at Wembley. What was the key to the success?

The team looked after itself. We had a good front row and a good front line of defence with Malcolm Reilly and Dennis Hartley. Keith would drop behind that and would tackle anyone who broke through. Derek Edwards at fullback was fantastic. It was three lines of defence that made us very hard to break down. I wasn’t the best defender though!

My try was talked about a lot, but it just happened. It wasn’t really planned. Malcolm was great with the ball. I passed it to him and ran around him. As he went through, he threw Jackie Brennan over his shoulder and handed it back to me. You could tell straightaway that Malcolm would be a very special player. I remember his first game at Hunslet. I had to calm him down a bit because he was chasing the ball everywhere. He wanted to be involved in every pass and every tackle. He was a fitness fanatic. He was like having two players in the side.

You played against David Watkins that day. How did he compare to the best stand-offs you faced?

David was very quick and a good player. He came from rugby union and did very well. You had to watch him closely. Mick Shoebottom was also very good. We roomed on tour, despite having battled against each other every week. He was a hard lad but also a very good player. I ended up replacing Mick at Leeds after his terrible injury.

You toured again in 1970. After the first-Test loss, did you expect to be dropped?

Well, I wasn’t surprised because when you have a man like Roger Millward in reserve, he’s bound to be used. Had it been a player I didn’t rate, I’d have been disappointed. I was still 100% behind the lads. We were all together, that was the beauty of touring. I still have fond memories of 1970, and I still go to the reunions. It really wasn’t a problem that I wasn’t picked, and it was great to see Keith in the team that won the Ashes. He was like my right arm, and I was so pleased for him.

When you returned to Cas you fell out with them and then ended up as player-coach. What happened?

St George had wanted me after the 1966 tour and offered me $20,000. That would have been brilliant because it was our off-season. It was a lot of money and St George had won all those consecutive Grand Finals and it was thrilling that they wanted me. But Castleford decided I couldn’t go.

Then the same thing happened in 1970 when Penrith wanted me. They initially said yes, but then they changed their minds. So, I refused to play for them again. I stayed away for about three months. Then the Chairman knocked on my door and said they wanted me to be player-coach because they were sacking Tommy Smales. I didn’t want to at first, but my wife talked me into it. So I went back as player-coach. Things went okay and I was looking forward to the next season when I bumped into the Chairman behind the stand at an A-team game. He said they were advertising the coaching job and I was welcome to apply. I was furious and I demanded they let me go on a free transfer. I’d done 13 years there and never missed a training session and they treated me like that.

Derek Turner was coach of Leeds by now, and he was on the phone when Mick got his injury. We agreed a deal and I had two and a half years there. I really enjoyed my time at Leeds.

Did you expect Keith to join you and were you as potent a partnership as you’d been at Cas?

No, but it was a nice surprise when Keith joined Leeds. Derek loved him so I’m sure he would have been behind it. He preferred Keith to me, that’s for sure! Keith and I were more or less the same at Leeds. We did exactly the same things and we played well together again.

Was it tough going to Wheldon Road as a Leeds player?

Not really. It was just another game. I got a bit of aggro but not a right lot. Most of the fans knew I’d given them 15 years and were pretty good to me.

You played St Helens in both major finals in 1972, losing at Wembley but winning the Championship Final. Did you wish they’d been the other way round?

Wembley was a body blow but to come out and beat them the week after was nice. We should have won at Wembley and that was the one we would have wanted them to win, so yes. Ever since my dad took me to that pub to watch the final in 1952, that was always the one I wanted, and most of us thought the same. It was the big one. I was disappointed to lose, but at least I’d won it twice before. Some great players never win it at all.

In your last full season at Headingley, Leeds lost to Dewsbury in the 1973 Championship Final. Why were you sent off?

I could see things were going wrong for us that day. They got a free kick and did a double run around. I’d seen them do it before. And I knew a long ball was coming at the end of it. So I went for the interception, but I was a yard slower than I used to be. I stuck my arm out and it caught their winger John Bates under the chin. We both went flying through the air. I got up and the ref just said, “Keep going, Alan.” They were captained by Mike Stephenson, who was a good player. He was an excellent runner from dummy-half and a real workhorse. He was a better player than commentator!

Why did you move to Rockhampton?

I’d had those previous offers from Australian clubs, so it was always in the back of my mind to go. Rockhampton was country football, so I knew it wouldn’t be the same as St George or Penrith, and it was too warm out there. The grounds were like concrete, and they were a novice team. I had a job on the railways. I did twelve months but that was long enough. One of the games was against the 1974 Lions. I doubt many British players have played against Great Britain!

Post-playing, you opened a gym and then a massage business. Is it true you helped someone walk again?

Yes, and I still see him down at Cas. One of the reasons I was suited to it was I’d had so many injuries myself, so I knew a lot about them. It was nice to help people. Some people come to you in real pain. I found a new way of doing bad backs, for example. I had the odd machine, but I mainly used my hands.

Years ago, people used to come up to me in Castleford town centre to talk about rugby. Now I see them rubbing their shoulder and then they come up to ask me about it! It was a lovely job to do, and I only recently packed it in because of the pandemic.

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