Rugby League Heroes: Colin Tyrer

Colin Tyrer played almost 250 games for Wigan from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, having already made his mark at Leigh. He is perhaps best remembered for an incident at Wembley in 1970 when a late, high tackle from Castleford’s Keith Hepworth broke his jaw, and without him, Wigan went on to lose. He also played for Barrow and Hull Kingston Rovers before becoming assistant coach at Widnes.

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

Probably the 1970 Challenge Cup semi-final when Wigan beat Hull Kingston Rovers at Headingley. It was a great feeling, knowing we’d got to Wembley, because a lot of great players never make it. Ray Ashby told me if I signed for Wigan, I’d play at Wembley, and he was right. 

You played for Astley & Tyldesley Collieries. Were you a miner?

No, I was only 17 when I signed for Leigh. I played open-age for Astley & Tyldesley. A few ex-pros played there and they were really good. I learned a lot from them. Dicky Massey was one ex-pro and it was great to play alongside him.

When did you realise you could pursue it professionally? 

I didn’t really think about it like that. I played at school and really enjoyed it. I actually played alongside the famous singer Georgie Fame at school. His name was Clive Powell then. He was captain of the team, but we knew he was a talented singer too, and he went on to have a couple of number ones. I also played with Frankie Parr, who was a great scrum-half for Wigan. He played in the 1965 Wembley final. As for me, I’d played a lot of stand-off when I was younger, and I always kicked goals. I played for the Great Britain Under-19s in Carcassonne. I had a trial at Wigan and played a couple of ‘A’ Team games, but they weren’t interested, and Leigh came in for me.

You made your Leythers debut against Swinton on 18 August 1962. Were you nervous? And what were the highlights of your time there?

I wasn’t nervous. I never was. I just enjoyed the occasion. I was very happy at Leigh. We won the Lancashire Cup Final with Bev Risman at fullback. I was on the wing. Bev was a big signing from rugby union. The best game was beating Wigan [18-9] at Hilton Park, and I scored all our points. I think that’s when Wigan decided they wanted me.

Why did you leave Leigh?

Alex Murphy came to Leigh. He was just coach at first because of his contract situation with St Helens. Eventually he got permission to play, and he was our player-coach. Anyway, one day we conceded a try just before half-time. Murph was fuming, screaming his head off. “Who missed him?” he shouted in the dressing room. Well I was fullback, so I was one of the players who had missed him, and I owned up. He went mad. I thought he was going to have a heart attack. I took my boots off, threw them across the dressing-room at him and said that’s my last game here. I signed for Wigan on the Wednesday. He thought it was a set up, but I hadn’t spoken to Wigan before that. 

You signed for Wigan as Ray Ashby’s replacement. How did he take that? 

Ray was brilliant. He’d played for Liverpool City and when Wigan took him in, he was made up to be there. He played at Wembley with them and was man of the match. He was so grateful for those opportunities and when I signed, he couldn’t have been nicer to me.

You scored a try and three goals on your Wigan debut at Rochdale on 3 March 1967.

I don’t remember the game, but I did settle in nicely at Wigan. Eric Ashton was the player-coach, and he was great with me. I played in a couple of ‘A’ Team games with Eric and all I can say is I wish I’d played with him at his peak. I broke the try-scoring record for a fullback two seasons in a row, and I received most of the try-scoring passes from him. I scored after two minutes in one game, and he said, “You’ll get six tonight.” I scored four, so he wasn’t far off. Billy Boston was still playing, and he was magnificent too. But they were coming to the end of the careers, and I just wish I’d signed there as a 17-year-old. 

You were playing when limited tackles was introduced in 1966. How did it affect you? 

You had to keep your wits about you, but you soon learned to adapt. The game became more interesting because one team couldn’t just keep the ball for ages. It could be boring, so I think limited tackles is the best thing to have happened to the game. Eric told me once about the great prop Brian McTigue. He scored a try in the first minute of a match, rubbed his hands and said, “That’s it now!” because once a team took the lead, they could just keep the ball and win the game. McTigue used to hold up the ball, which he called the pill, and tell the players, “This is the boss. The pill is the boss.” He knew the importance of keeping hold of it.

Wigan won the 1968-69 BBC 2 Floodlit Trophy with a 7-4 win over Saints.

That was at Saints, I think. The Floodlit competition was exciting, and it gave us a rare chance to be on TV. Night games were great as well. 

What do you remember of the build-up to the infamous Challenge Cup Final of 1970?

We were still over the moon to be at Wembley. At the press conference the day before, the media warned me to be careful about Castleford targeting me because they had played Salford the year before and had tried to do the same in that game.

What are your recollections of the Keith Hepworth incident and the rest of your day? 

It was well into the game. It happened after 18 minutes. I brought the ball up and Hepworth hit me high and late after I’d passed it. I was disappointed with the referee. He was from Yorkshire and so were Castleford. Maybe not sending Hepworth off was down to it being the big Wembley final, but it was still a terrible decision. My jaw was broken and I was concussed. I came back to the hotel in agony. I went to Wigan hospital, where they stitched my teeth and jaw together. My food had to be mashed up for two months. My front tooth was missing and that turned out to be a good thing because they would have had to remove it to get a straw into my mouth.

Did Hepworth apologise? 

No, never. I cracked him a couple of times and even got sent off once by Billy Thompson. I couldn’t believe it! “You can’t send me off for that. It’s not like I broke his jaw!” Billy was apologetic about it and said it was down to the touch judge.

Alan Hardisty told me the Wigan forwards had also targeted the Castleford fullback. 

I don’t think that happened. It was certainly never a tactic. 

Did the incident affect your confidence?

No, I came back the same player. 

What do you remember of the 1971 Championship Final defeat to Saints, who scored two late tries to win? 

I don’t remember that at all.

You were sometimes criticised for taking a long time to line up a kick at goal.

I just did what I always did! Eric Clay once said to me, “Come on! Hurry up!” He even threatened to penalise me, but I knew he couldn’t do that. Imagine a ref hurrying up a footballer taking a penalty!

Why did you leave Wigan? 

I’d done six years and wasn’t going to get a testimonial, so the only other way to make money was to move. I went to Barrow. John Cunningham was at Barrow, and we won the second division when I was there. I knew they wouldn’t be at first-division standard, so I said I was retiring. And I did. Then Colin Hutton rang a few months later to ask me to play for Hull KR, and I made my debut on Boxing Day. John Cunningham had also gone there. Colin was a lovely fella and he treated me brilliantly. I retired as a player in 1978, and two years later they won the Challenge Cup at Wembley. It was a shame to miss that, but I was 36 by then.

You played with Roger Millward at Rovers. Was he better than Murphy?

Roger Millward was a brilliant player. There wasn’t much of him, but by god he could play. But no one was better than Murphy.

Tell us about your coaching career.

I went to Widnes as assistant to Doug Laughton. We beat Hull KR at Wembley in 1981. That was when Andy Gregory needed some dental treatment in the morning, and he went on to have a blinder. Then we had the replay in 1982 after Mick Adams had scored the try off the crossbar to win the semi-final against Leeds. Doug then finished, and I took over for six matches with Harry Dawson at the end of the 1982-83 season, and we won them all. I stayed on as assistant when Doug came back and the team we had in the late 1980s with Martin Offiah, Alan Tait, Jonathan Davies and Phil McKenzie is one of the greatest teams I’ve ever seen. Doug went to Leeds and wanted me to go with him, but I didn’t fancy the travelling.

My sons Sean and Christian were starting to come through in the professional game – Sean with Wigan and Christian at Widnes. I decided to leave Widnes then because I didn’t think it appropriate to be coaching there when he was playing. My grandsons now play the game. Three are at Wigan – Keiron and Josh who are Sean’s sons, and Joseph who is Christian’s son – and I’d love to know if Wigan have had three generations play for them before. John, David and Darryl Kay did it at Leigh, but I don’t know about Wigan. It would be great to see them go on to have professional careers.

Next week’s Rugby League Heroes will feature Colin’s sons, Sean and Christian.

The above content is also available in the regular weekly edition of League Express, on newsstands every Monday in the UK and as a digital download. Click here for more details.