Rugby League Heroes: Dick Huddart (Part 1)

The Cumbrian superstar

Cumbria has produced few, if any, finer Rugby League players than the great Dick Huddart.
A product of the Risehow & Gillhead amateur club near Maryport, Huddart turned professional with Whitehaven and helped them beat the touring Australians in 1956.
Two years later, this devastating second-rower was slaying the Green and Golds again, this time in the most heroic circumstances in Brisbane.
He won the Lance Todd Trophy with St Helens and later signed with the all-conquering St George in Sydney as a glorious career got better and better. This is the first of a two-part interview with Dick.

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

That’s a tough one because I’ve also got the 1958 Test match in Brisbane, but I’ll go for the day in 1961 when I won the Lance Todd Trophy at Wembley. St Helens played Wigan and we were probably the underdogs, but we had a great team spirit. We also had Vince Karalius, a great player, who would fire us up. “We’re going to destroy these bastards!” he would shout before we went out. Alan Prescott was an excellent coach too – a really personal man who looked after everybody. It was a wonderful day.

RR: You were born in Flimby in 1936. What did your family do?

I am from a coal-mining background. My dad and his brothers were all at the coalface. I did my time as a maintenance fitter at the mines. I started at 15. I left school on a Friday and started work on the Monday morning.

RR: You played for the Risehow & Gillhead amateur club near Maryport.

The Huddarts were a big family in the village, and we all played Rugby League. My Uncle Dan was a very solid player and he played for Workington Town. Another uncle, Dick, was a good amateur winger. Risehow & Gillhead had a very close-knit team and plenty of Huddarts played for them. Before that, I’d been to Flimby High School and played Rugby League there.

RR: Is it true you signed for Whitehaven in 1955 because you didn’t think you’d get into the Workington team?

Well, that was the advice I got from the boss of the Cumberland amateur league – Geordie, we called him. Risehow & Gillhead won an Under-18s final in which we’d been underdogs. I’d always been a fullback, but they played me in the forwards that day and I couldn’t stop making breaks. I was 16. Geordie said Whitehaven and Workington would both be after me. Gus Risman was coaching Workington and Geordie said it would be harder to break into their ranks, so he advised me to go to Whitehaven, and I did.

RR: Was it a big step up?

No, I found it pretty easy, although I hope that doesn’t sound too vain. There were no household names at Whitehaven, although they had some very good players like the fullback John McKeown, who’s actually my cousin. It was a natural progression, and it did me the world of good. I played for a full year in the ‘A’ team, and we won the competition that season. It was my first medal. I started to get confidence and I was very keen on the game, so I progressed well at Whitehaven.

RR: In one of your early games in the Whitehaven first team, you beat the 1956 Kangaroos 14-11. What do you remember of that?

My front tooth got knocked out by one of their backs, Alex Watson – I certainly remember that! We went up for a ball together. I landed on his head and my tooth came right out. They were obviously a very strong team. I was now doing things against world-class players, which gave me so much confidence. Norm Provan played that day, and it was the first time I came across him. I’d later face him in internationals and play with him at St George. I knew I’d had a good game because I made a few breaks and I started to realise I could go to the top.

RR: Whitehaven were a whisker away from Wembley in 1957 when you lost the Challenge Cup semi-final to a late drop goal against Leeds at Odsal. Were you hard done to at the end?

We should have won. It was heartbreaking. It was a dubious incident that led to their drop-goal, but I don’t want to sound sour. Perhaps the officials knew a Whitehaven-Barrow final wouldn’t deliver the biggest crowd at Wembley. We certainly felt hard done to.
We had an excellent team, very well knitted together. Billy Garratt was the stand-off and captain, John McKeown was a brilliant kicker and a great defensive fullback. Syd Lowdon was a very good centre. And we had a very good pack. John Tembey came through a bit later. He was an excellent prop who I also played with at St Helens. He played for Great Britain too, although we weren’t in the same team together.

RR: Were you surprised to be selected for the 1958 Lions tour, aged 21? You ended up playing in 24 of the 30 games, scoring 17 tries.

We had a trial at Swinton – the Whites against the Greens, which was basically the Probables against the Possibles. I was in the Possibles, along with Alex Murphy and Vince Karalius, and that first game was pretty close. But in the second game at Headingley, we absolutely wiped the floor with them. We beat them 41-18 and it was our forwards who stood out, getting the better of theirs. I scored a try in the first game and then two in the second game. There were a few old timers in the Probables team and some of us newcomers in the Possibles ended up getting into the squad, which was named a day after the second trial game. That’s what made it such a successful tour.

RR: Were you disappointed to miss out on selection for the first Test?

Well, I was actually picked and then scrubbed out. Tom Mitchell and Bennett Manson were the tour managers. The team for the first Test in Sydney was put up on the notice board and my name was on it. Manson was a bit of a Mr Pompous and imposed a 10pm curfew on us. All 26 of us went out for a bite to eat one night at 9pm near Sydney. We got back at 10.10pm. None of us had a drink. Manson wanted to send us all home or at least some of us! I was very angry with how he was treating us, and I let my feelings be known, so I ended up getting kicked out of the team for the first Test. Next morning, my name had been crossed off the team list and we got beaten in that first game.

RR: Your Great Britain debut came in the second Test, which is widely regarded as one of the most famous matches ever played. How on earth did you win with only 12 men, which included four playing with injuries, one of whom had a broken arm?

Guts. Pure guts. And we had the willingness to do what we had to do. We lost three players and Vince had hurt the bone in his lower back and could hardly walk. It seized up at half-time, but he got up with the help of Tom Mitchell and went back out there. And of course, Precky (Alan Prescott) carried on with a broken arm. David Bolton had gone off with a broken collarbone, so we were already down to 12 men. We couldn’t afford to lose anyone else, but Eric Fraser and Jim Challinor had also got injured in the first half.
Everybody gave their all. Alex Murphy was amazing – he made a real difference that day and was such a threat all game. I played for 15 years with many of the all-time greats, but Murph is the best footballer I’ve ever seen.

RR: You hammered Australia 40-17 in the decider. How did you win so easily?

The confidence of the Australian team had gone by then. They’d probably lost the third Test the same time they lost the second Test. Phil Jackson came into the team for the third game to replace Dave at stand-off, and he was a great player. Our confidence was very high after what we’d done in Brisbane and, on a personal basis, I felt that I couldn’t do anything wrong at the time. I’m sure the other players felt the same and that makes it so much easier.

RR: Why did you sign for St Helens?

I was in the dressing room one day on the tour having a drink – here’s me from Flimby playing with all these legends! Vince was beside me and said, “You play for Whitehaven, Dick?” “Yes,” I replied. “Would you like to play for St Helens?” he asked. “Bloody hell, yes!”
When I got home, I went to see the Whitehaven Chairman and told him I wanted to leave. I only wanted to go to Saints. He said he knew they couldn’t hold on to me and agreed. They got a record fee, so they were happy. The only available room where we were was a bathroom, so I signed for St Helens on a toilet seat!

RR: In your first season, you scored in the 1959 Championship Final against Hunslet. What do you remember of Tom van Vollenhoven’s performance that day?

Tom’s first try was incredible. He beat them all and then beat some of them again. I was so lucky to play with blokes like that. He was a good bloke and we got on well. He was an incredible winger.

RR: The other well-known name from that Saints team is Ray French. What was your relationship like with Ray?

He is a top bloke and someone who would never let you down. He wasn’t the best player I ever played with, but he was a bloody good forward. He certainly wasn’t into giving us big motivational talks like Vince, but he was very popular in the dressing room, and he always gave 100 per cent. I’ve stayed friends with him down the years.

Click here for part two, in which Huddart talks about life in Sydney, who would have won a World Club Challenge had one been played between St George and St Helens and he selects his all-time XIII.