Rugby League Heroes: Colin ‘Buck’ Armstrong

Colin ‘Buck’ Armstrong is one of the great Cumbrian players of the last 50 years.

Three times he faced the Kangaroos and twice he captained Workington at Old Trafford.

Professionally, he started out at Carlisle before making a name for himself in the top division with Hull Kingston Rovers.

Battling for most of his career with type-1 diabetes, he was a central figure in Workington rising through the divisions in the mid-1990s before spells at Swinton and Whitehaven.

He later took up coaching and refereeing.

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

I’ll go for two. Signing for Hull Kingston Rovers was a great move for me because I got to play with players like Gavin Miller, Chris Close and Zook Ema. Choppy [Close] was nuts. I remember a fight he had with Halifax’s Dan Stains one day – incredible! And then with Workington – captaining the team at Old Trafford against London to win the Premiership.

Why are you nicknamed ‘Buck’?

It started at work many years ago at a building site. I was into shooting, so it was ‘Buckshot’ and then it got shortened to Buck.

How did you get into Rugby League?

I didn’t play at school, but I’ll always remember watching Clive Sullivan score that runaway try in the 1972 World Cup Final when I was nine. I followed Workington from then with my dad. I played a bit of rugby union with Egremont and then went to Broughton Red Rose in 1979. I actually played a couple of games for Town in 1983/84 as a triallist – as ‘AN Other’ of course!

How did you end up at Carlisle?

Workington didn’t have a second team and they’d gone into the first division, so I signed for Carlisle along with Alan McMullen and Kevin Pape. Kevin had spent the majority of his amateur career at stand-off. We had a good rapport, and he could run like the wind. He was top-division standard but he spent most of his career in the lower leagues because he had a great job in the steelworks.
We had a decent team, but we trained in Wakefield because that’s where most of the players were from. We played at Brunton Park, which was fabulous, and we were getting 3,000 crowds. John Atkinson, the Leeds legend, was the coach. John Risman was the assistant. Things started to decline though, and they left Brunton Park for Gilford Park, which was like being back at Broughton. That’s when I left.

What were the highlights of your days in Hull?

Just being there and playing in that squad was great. We played at Old Trafford in the 1990 Divisional Premiership final against Oldham. That was a big day for us. We were something like 29-8 up, only for a young Tommy Martyn to come off the bench and help them turn it around.

Why did you leave Rovers?

I played in the pre-season games in 1990 and then they signed the Kiwi international James Goulding. We played against Warrington on TV, and Goulding started with me on the bench. You weren’t on and off the pitch like a sub is now – I got two minutes at the end. Roger Millward justified it by saying Goulding was an international.
Salford and Wakefield also wanted me, but Town had just sold their training ground and had some money. It involved dropping a division and I signed the day they got hammered by Trafford Borough. I thought, “What have I done?” My first game was against Carlisle under the new floodlights at Derwent Park and there was a big crowd. Brad Hepi, with long hair all the way down his back, scored the winning try. But we put a great run together and a lot of it was down to player-coach Ray Ashton. He got Workington’s revival going in the 1990-91 season.

You played three times for Cumbria against Australia. How daunting was that?

It was daunting when you saw names like Meninga, Renouf, Sailor, Stuart, Shearer, Langer, Sargent, Elias and Walters on the teamsheet! But I’d played against Steve Roach for Carlisle against Warrington in a pack that also included Kevin Tamati, Les Davidson, Les Boyd and Mike Gregory. Now that was daunting – but we did quite well against them. So you realise you just have to go out and do your normal job, no matter how good the opposition.

How did your diabetes affect your game?

Before I was diagnosed, I regularly felt tired, which was confusing because I’d always been fit. I’d taken over a pub, so I put it down to the hard work and the late nights. I was diagnosed in December 1991 and had to go to hospital for five nights to learn all about it.
I wouldn’t say it’s life changing, but it’s a different way of life – getting used to injections and testing my blood. It didn’t really affect my career, but John Short, the Town physio, always had a sugary drink if I needed it.

What made Peter Walsh such a good coach?

He was the first coach who really coached me. Roger Millward, for example, coached the team as a whole, but Walshy also worked on us individually. He attracted some fabulous players like James Pickering, Mark Mulligan, Des Drummond, Ged Byrne and Phil McKenzie.
Jimmy was a quiet fella, but he was unbelievable on the pitch and he’s one of the best players in the club’s history. Des had won Superstars. I remember playing against him once. A teammate said, “Don’t run at him!” I looked at him and thought, “He’s only five foot five. What’s going to happen?” So I ran at him and found out. He tackled me with his head and cracked my sternum. I didn’t run at him again.
In Peter’s first couple of months in 1992, you could tell things were happening. Training was so hard, but it was different, which kept things fresh. We were runners-up in 1993 to Keighley and only just lost at Old Trafford to Featherstone. Then we topped the second division and beat London at Old Trafford.

After you lifted those trophies, you lost the captaincy. What happened?

I wasn’t happy because it wasn’t really explained. Suddenly, before the season opener with Leeds, I wasn’t captain any more and it was Phil. I was on the bench, but you have to get on with it.
We were unlucky to lose to Leeds and a few others. We were bottom in December. I had the Red House pub at this time, and Peter used to come down for a chat. The rumour was that he was always drinking in the pub, but that was rubbish. We used to talk about the team. We identified fitness as a problem, and that’s when Peter brought in Mick McGurn as conditioner. It turned the season around for us. We trained all Christmas and went on a great run in January and February. We ended up mid-table.

How did you feel in 1995 when it was announced the four Cumbrian clubs would be merging?

I thought it was a good idea, because I wasn’t confident any of them could go it alone, long term. Town were doing well, but it wasn’t necessarily going to last. A merged team would have been great. And I’d still be in favour of a merger.

Your next coach was Kurt Sorensen. What was he like?

Shocking! Peter should have stayed longer, and I don’t really know what happened. He was a huge loss. Kurt told me it’s a young man’s game. I was 32. “You’re 38 and you’ve just finished playing,” I told him, but it wasn’t a good start to our relationship. He was only there one season. The highlight was winning at Wilderspool with four drop-goals, but we came bottom. He’d been a fantastic player, but his attitude was terrible.

Why did you leave Town midway through the first Super League season?

My contract was about to expire, and Swinton coach Peter Roe offered me more than I was on at Town for the remainder of that season. So I went. I got an 18-month deal. We got promoted along with Hull KR. They didn’t get big crowds though. Peter got sacked and when Les Holliday took over, I didn’t get picked, so I signed for Whitehaven.

Having captained Town, how were you welcomed at the Rec?

Not brilliantly at first, but it was okay after a while. Stan Martin was a great coach, and they had some amazing Kiwis like Siose Muliumu, David Fatialofa, Gus Malietoa-Brown and Aaron Lester – and lots of very good Cumbrians. It was an excellent team. Siose was the best player – he was absolutely fantastic. Stan had been the Kiwis’ Under-19 coach, so he knew which players to bring over.

You returned to Workington and then went back to Whitehaven again.

I went back to Town in 1999 when Andy Platt was the coach. It was good at first, but it all went Pete Tong when Mick Jenkins was signed by Gateshead and Evan Cochrane got a nasty head injury at Keighley. I played every game and won the player-of-the-year award. But Gary Murdoch took over as coach and didn’t reply to my messages, so I went back to Whitehaven for my last season in 2000. Kevin Tamati was coach and was as bad as Sorensen.
I fell just short of 500 games and loved every single minute of my career. Over 18 years, I barely missed a dozen games.

What’s the state of the amateur game in Cumbria?

It’s struggling a little bit now. I coached Seaton after I finished playing and standards were good, but a few teams have packed in now. Seaton have a good set-up and my grandson is there. I help where I can, and they have some promising kids. Unfortunately, many players seem more bothered with going out or playing with their computers. Everyone has five stag nights, and it massively disrupts the season.
At 16, kids get signed by Super League clubs, but I think it would be better for everyone if they stayed local. The amateur game was probably in the 1990s when players were striving to play for Town or Whitehaven.

You reffed for a while. Did you get less abuse because of who you were?

I really enjoyed it! I finished playing at 37 and my wife suggested going into it then, but I wanted to coach first, so I left it too late to get into the pro ranks. I loved it though and did some Academy games.
I didn’t get a lot of abuse, but there was some. I knew the game inside out, so I could tell when players were carrying on. Refs do get a lot of stick, but some of them like to hog the limelight.

Tell us about the Spanish international in your family.

My stepson is Miguel Blanco-Charters. His dad is Spanish and his mum Norma, who I’m now married to, is English. He came over as a kid, got into rugby and loved it. He’s played for Seaton since he was 16 and he’s 32 now. He’s played six times for Spain against Malta, Greece, Russia, Ireland twice and Italy.

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