Rugby League Heroes: Doug Laughton

An Ashes winner player and World Club Challenge winning coach

Doug Laughton is perhaps better known for his coaching exploits, but this outstanding backrower starred for St Helens, Wigan and Widnes and captained Great Britain. He became player-coach of Widnes in the first of three stints in charge of his hometown club. In the late-1980s, they were twice champions of England and World Club Challenge winners. But he had less success at Headingley where he coached Leeds between 1991 and 1995.

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

Winning the Ashes in Australia. We won the decider 21-17 with Roger Millward scoring a late try. I played second row. Malcolm Reilly was loose forward. I was usually a loose forward so I could pass a ball and I combined well with Roger and set up his late try. We’d talk about moves before the game, but Reilly didn’t want to do them – he just wanted to knock people over. But moves between Roger and me came off.
Soon after that, I presented awards to some kids. I watched them play and they had skills that I didn’t develop until I was in my 20s. I said to someone that we might never win the Ashes again. And 50 years on, we haven’t.

You played for St Helens between 1963 and 1966.

My hometown club Widnes made me an offer, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted, so I went to St Helens. The A-team coach, Steve Llewellyn, said I was quick with good ability, but I wasn’t big enough to play loose forward. He encouraged me to get into the weights, and I put on a stone in a few months.
It was fabulous to play alongside Tom van Vollenhoven and Alexander the Great. Murphy was incredible. John Warlow looked after me. You learn nothing by not being a cheeky little bugger. You have to listen, and I did.
In those days, it was all about Wembley, and I didn’t get to play there for Saints, which was a shame. I missed the 1966 final with injury.

Why did you join Wigan?

When I was injured, I’d just got married and I’d started my own business. One day I went for my pay packet. It was 19 quid less tax. I didn’t look impressed, so they asked what was wrong and I said I’d like one of the envelopes they gave Van Vollenhoven or Murphy. I didn’t want to play for them again. You have to treat people properly.

Tell us about Wembley in 1970 and the following year’s Championship Final.

Castleford’s Keith Hepworth should have been sent off in 1970, no doubt. He was a hard little bugger, but there can be no room in the game for fracturing Colin Tyrer’s jaw. Cas were a very good side and they beat us 7-2.
The 1971 Championship Final against Saints was agonising. They scored two late tries. The winner came in the final seconds as they hit the post with a drop-goal, took the rebound and scored a try. You can’t change yesterday, but you can make tomorrow. We knew we had to get our heads up and move on.

After winning the Ashes on Australian soil, why couldn’t Great Britain back it up by winning the 1970 World Cup? And what do you recall of the multiple bouts of violence that marred the final?

I don’t know. It was perhaps a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show. Australia had Billy Smith back at scrum-half and he was excellent. Fighting was more common than you’d think – we had a few nutters in the pack! I think I was about the only forward who didn’t want to fight. I do have one permanent reminder of that World Cup though – I still have a mark on my right arm where the French captain’s tooth got stuck!

Do you regret turning down the captaincy of the 1974 Lions to take up a contract with Canterbury?

In the same set of circumstances, I’d do it again – I’m a strange character! I was captain against France. It was rare to do well in France because of the French refs, but I put Keith Fielding in for three tries. However, there was a strong rumour that David Watkins would be tour captain because of Brian Snape’s influence on the game. The RFL rang me up and said they’d heard the rumours I wasn’t happy. We played France again at Wigan with me captain, but my mind was already made up.
It was a mistake, but the money was a factor as well. It was eight or ten grand for about 12 games, whereas many players were on £25 for a win or £5 for a loss in England.
I didn’t get on with the Canterbury coach Malcolm Clift. After one game, he read out the tackle counts, and I had only made 16. But I had played well. I’d poleaxed a couple of players and I’d made a try-saving tackle. But he told me to change my game. In the next game when a player was being tackled by someone else, I’d touch them on the head. Malcolm praised me after the game for making 71 tackles – an all-time record in Australia. But none of the tackles hurt anyone and there were no try savers.

You did captain the Lions in 1979, but you only played in the first Test.

I got injured at training. The performances in Australia were a disaster. We lost the first Test 35-0. They were just a lot better than us.
Eric Ashton was coach, and he missed the first four weeks because his daughter had been in a car accident. We won five tour matches and then Eric flew in. He came in when we were having a drink and he accused us of being a load of drinkers. He had us out at 6am running the legs off us. Half the squad were still pissed. He kept telling us Australia were better than us, which wasn’t ideal. He had coached me at Wigan though, and he was good then.

Why did you move to Widnes from Wigan?

For some away games, we would stop for lunch. The players always got a mixed grill, which was hardly ideal a couple of hours before a game. The chairman always had a turkey dinner. I was sick of mixed grills, so one day I intercepted his turkey dinner and ate it. He put me on the transfer list!

You played in four more Challenge Cup Finals, winning two. What are your memories?

1975 was very special as it was the first for Widnes for so long. Vince Karalius, my idol, was coach, and I was captain. Lifting the Cup was a dream come true, and that was the name of my book.
I was player-coach in the 1978-79 season, and it was a really memorable season. We beat the Australian tourists, and nobody has done that since. Then we beat Wakefield at Wembley. We came second in the BBC team-of-the-year award, and I won the Man of Steel.

How did you adapt to coaching?

When I was appointed player-coach, Reg Bowden said just because you were a great player doesn’t mean you’ll be a great coach. But I thought a good player had more to offer. I signed a young Andy Gregory – it was a mystery why Wigan didn’t sign him. We got to Wembley in 1981 and beat Hull KR. I coached them until 1983 and then took over again in 1986.

Tell us about the signings of Martin Offiah and Jonathan Davies.

Ray French told me he’d seen a player who was as good as Van Vollenhoven, but a Saints scout had been pretty scathing about him. I then watched the Rosslyn Park Sevens on TV, and Offiah was outstanding. Rugby League had changed moneywise with signing-on fees and further annual fees making the game much more attractive to people like Offiah.
Jonathan got 40 grand up front, but we got it straight back on his debut. I got into trouble for not putting him on until after half-time. The chairman and I argued about it, and he threatened to sack me, but I didn’t want to risk losing the game by putting Jonathan on too early. I did put him on soon after half-time, because we’d scored a couple of early tries and the game was won.

Was the highlight of your second spell the 1989 title decider with Widnes?

No, it was the World Club Challenge win against Canberra. The Wigan win was great, of course. Maurice Lindsay phoned me before the game and wasn’t happy that I was so confident in the press, but I was certain we would win.

Tim Sheens told us last week that Canberra’s preparations were hit by Grand Final celebrations and players unable to travel.

Bollocks! They certainly did take it seriously – you could tell that by the way Laurie Daley tried to decapitate Jonathan. Look at their side – it was packed with talent. We were 12-0 down in no time and what we did to come back was magnificent. It was the first official World Club Challenge and I’m very proud of it.

Why did you move to Leeds 1991?

Players were coming off contract and were worth so much more with everything we’d won. Other clubs had more money, so I knew things were going to get tough for Widnes.
Leeds offered me a good deal – 75 grand, a house, a car and a pension, which I’m still getting money from. I said to myself if Leeds could match Wigan for spending, then no one would beat me. We were top at Christmas, so we started well, but Wigan came good again.
We didn’t win a trophy, but I brought some good kids through. I signed Adrian Morley, Kevin Sinfield, Francis Cummins and Graham Holroyd – those last two were the youngest two players to play at Wembley.

Tell us about your relationship with Garry Schofield.

He didn’t like it when I gave Ellery Hanley the captaincy, but not many people like the boss, so I was used to it. Ellery was the captain of Great Britain and he’d been a very successful captain of Wigan, so it was the right decision.
Schofield had been captain for a while and Leeds hadn’t done much. Some of the things he did weren’t going to endear me to him. The mentality of the side wasn’t right. They looked like market traders getting off the bus, so I got them to dress properly.

Your departure from Headingley was very sudden. What happened?

I was in South Africa during the 1995 rugby union World Cup to look at Joost van der Westhuizen, the South African scrum-half, and Jonah Lomu. But rugby union went professional, so there was no point hanging around. Leeds then told me they’d agreed to get Dean Bell as assistant coach, but my contract said I could appoint the assistant coach. I didn’t know Dean, so I left.

You went back to Widnes for a third spell.

Widnes were gone by then. I was cooking food and feeding them all on a Saturday morning. People weren’t getting paid, including me. It was no good for team spirit. I tried my best, but it was never going to work.

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