Rugby League Heroes: David Hobbs

After winning the Lance Todd Trophy as a 21-year-old in 1983 as Featherstone Rovers ripped up the form book to beat champions Hull FC, David Hobbs went on to excel for Great Britain, Oldham and Bradford Northern. He coached the latter, and led Wakefield before coming full circle as coach at Post Office Road in 2005. He has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

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

It would be the Wembley final of 1983.

Hull played their semi-final against Castleford a week after Rovers beat Bradford. I’m guessing most of you wanted Castleford to win.

With the aura of playing at Wembley, it didn’t matter who we played. We were going to be underdogs anyway. Allan Agar didn’t make us do anything different or anything we couldn’t do. We just did our usual thing.

Before the final, you had the small matter of avoiding relegation. You lost a crucial match to Barrow, but your try in a 9-9 draw with Wigan ultimately kept you up.

I don’t remember that match, but Barrow had to win at Hull on the final day to stay up and send us down. Hull needed to win to win the Championship, and that’s what happened.

Did all the squad believe they could win when you first found out you were playing Hull? 

I often get asked this. Yes, we all believed we could win. We all played to our full potential, and Hull didn’t perform. 

What memories do you have of the week’s build-up? 

We went down on the Wednesday. Allan set up a training camp at the local police sports’ facility at Watford. He tried to make it as natural as possible. As full-time players, Hull were probably conditioned a bit better, but we didn’t change anything, so the night before the game we relaxed by playing snooker and some of the older players had a few pints. I didn’t really drink in those days. My room-mate Peter Smith lived and breathed his health, and that rubbed off on a lot of us.

What do you remember of your early try?

The nervous energy disappeared quickly. We needed to hang in early and have a tidy opening. Hull decided to take us on down the middle, which was a strange game plan. Allan was a big believer in practising certain moves with the ball, and he brought in a play for the semi-final, but we didn’t use it. We looked at a video on the Thursday night, and we decided to use it with James Leuluai and Paul Prendiville on that side. They were the people we wanted to get at. We got a couple of penalties in quick succession. We were 15 metres out, and it was a good call by our captain, Terry Hudson, to put the move on and I scored from it.

You led 5-0 at half-time, but Hull quickly scored twice. One was a penalty try conceded by you. Was it a fair call?

Looking back at the replay, I still think Lee Crooks may not have got to the ball, but I played a big part in stopping Lee getting to the ball. We needed to be strong, and they scored two quick tries. They thought they would win at that point, but they kept playing up the middle and didn’t use their backline. Terry got sinbinned, so Peter became captain and asked Steve Quinn to kick a penalty from the sideline. And Steve kicked it, which brought us back to within a score.

You scored your second try and then had a drop-goal ruled out because it deflected off Trevor Skerrett. 

When the ball came to me, I wasn’t expecting it. I wanted another drive or two to get into a better position. I don’t think Trevor touched it, but Charlie Stone headbutted Peter Smith, and that gave Steve the chance to kick the winning penalty. 

When did you find out you’d won the Lance Todd? 

I found out when there was a stoppage in play. It was announced over the tannoy as we waited for a scrum. I was delighted, but there was still five minutes to defend!

Tell us about Allan Agar, who became the only coach in history to win the Man of Steel that season.

He came to the club in difficult circumstances. We weren’t doing well. He was the first coach I had who analysed the opposition. He would get us to target certain players. Everything was quite specific, and he turned us round. 

Tell us about your dad’s and brother’s involvements with Featherstone Rovers.

Kevin, my brother, was a good player there, but he chose a bad time to take a spell out of the game because he’d have been in the Wembley squad. He was a bit of everything on the field. He started at centre and moved to fullback and then went into the forwards. He had an influence on me as he was four years older. He taught me a lot, especially my kicking game. My dad, Derrick, was club secretary, but he’d handed it over by Wembley. He took over after the ‘67 Challenge Cup Final and went through to the early 80s. 

Featherstone was a great place to play rugby. We played in schools and grew up together. We had a close-knit community. We left school, went down the pit and drank in the local clubs. We were in a bubble. The same people you went to work with would then be telling what you did wrong on the field!

How did the miners’ strike of 1984-85 affect you?

I was involved in the initial stages before I went on tour. My wife had to look after our daughter while I was away. I was having to send money back from the tour to keep them going through the strike. I was in the lap of the gods training in Australia as a full-time rugby player while everyone was battling away back home. Within a few days of getting back, the guys I worked with knocked on my door for me to go picketing. “Here we go,” I thought. No one expected it to go on as long as it did. It was hard.

You made your Great Britain debut in 1984. Tell us about the Lions Tour.

I had an up-and-down international career. I played in the Under-21s and the Under-24s and then got picked for the full side. It was strange coming from Featherstone, where I was expected to score points, because the Great Britain set-up was very different, playing with the best players around. When we toured in ’84, it was great to sample a full-time environment, and it made you play a different game. You bond well with some players and not so well with others. Rugby on tour splits you into two teams, and everyone is fighting for a Test spot. Frank Myler had a lot of critics for his style, but we competed with the Aussies over three Tests, and we closed the gap compared to 1982.

You were sent off in the first Test for a high tackle on Greg Conescu. What happened?

I never went out with the intention of getting sent off. I was on the bench for a long period. It was a close game. I got on for the last ten minutes, which I was disappointed with. I was frustrated. Greg was a good player. He was carrying the ball, and he lined me up as much as I lined him up. What happened wasn’t what I intended, but a switch tripped in my head for some reason.

Why did you move to Oldham towards the end of the 1984-85 season? 

When you’re on tour, other directors and coaches are out there, and you make contact with people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Not long after we came home, the clubhouse and the stand burned down at Featherstone. They weren’t the richest club by any means. Frank Myler had been in touch since we came back, and he was building a half-decent side at Oldham with Andy Goodway, Mick Worrall, Terry Flanagan and Des Foy, who were all Great Britain players. It wasn’t a fashionable club, but the playing staff was good, and we did well when I was there, reaching a Lancashire Cup Final and the Challenge Cup semi-final. 

The Roughyeds pushed the 1986 Kangaroos all the way.

I got a bad leg injury in the first half, and the international law was once you’d left the field, you couldn’t go back on. Colin Hawkyard scored a try, which got us very close. It was a great atmosphere. To play in that environment against the best team in the world was something to cherish. 

Why did you sign for Bradford in April 1987? 

I’d always been big pals with Brian Noble. We go back to when we were 16 and we met at a centre of excellence in London. We kept in touch throughout our careers. Brian got married, and after the reception, Barry Seabourne pestered me to sign for Bradford for the best part of three hours! I stayed at Odsal for eight years. 

How did you become player-coach?

Barry left, which was a shock, and I was asked to steer the lads before they made an announcement later in the week. They asked me about other candidates, and I told them I’d be interested. It pricked their ears, but Ron Willey came in and we struggled under him. He wanted to play a different style. When he left, they turned to me, and I became player-coach for over a year until Peter Fox became available. 

How did Peter turn Northern around?

Peter was quite easy to understand with his methods. He relied heavily on his forwards, which I was used to. He loved his forwards. He’d put up with his backs! We were struggling, but he turned the club around. 

Your last club was Wakefield, whom you also coached in 1994-95.

I didn’t fall out with Peter, but we were going in different ways. We could have won the Championship in 1994, but Peter didn’t understand how important some people were to the club, and we parted company. Dave Topliss had always been pestering me to play at Wakefield, so I went there with six or seven games left of the 1993-94 season. I became coach but soon realised the game itself was changing into a modern era and one that I wasn’t completely sure I enjoyed. Everyone plays the same now. The game had gone down a different road and I didn’t stay too long. 

You had one final coaching fling at Featherstone Rovers between 2005 and 2008 when you experienced both relegation and promotion. What tempted you out of retirement?

Gary Price was the coach at the time, and they were struggling to avoid relegation. I offered to help. You could still get off-the-cuff rugby in the lower divisions then. We built a side to get promoted with the likes of Jamie Fielden, Stuart Dickens and Ian Tonks. We were tough down the middle, and we won the Grand Final at Headingley. The players all wore flat caps in celebration! It was a fantastic day.

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