Rugby League Heroes: John Gray

The multi-talented sportsman from Coventry

John Gray may well be the finest all-round sportsman the UK has ever produced.

He was a proficient enough teenage soccer player to be offered a contract by Coventry City.

He played first-class cricket for Warwickshire alongside the England captain, taking five wickets on his debut.

He switched to rugby union, representing England in the 15- and seven-a-side versions of the game.

And after just five months in Rugby League with Wigan, he was selected for Great Britain. He was man of the match as the 1974 Lions beat Australia in Sydney, and he went on to excel in Australia with North Sydney and Manly.

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

Winning the second Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1974. It was my first start for Great Britain. We’d narrowly lost the first Test when I’d been on the bench. We didn’t feel as though we were looked after by the ref and we’d played in Brisbane, which had been very warm. We knew we had to win the second Test, not just to keep the Ashes alive, but because we got a percentage of every gate, some of which went to the players. If we’d lost, then the third Test would have flopped at the gate. I don’t mean to sound mercenary, but it was a factor in those days.

We won the game 16-11 and I kicked three goals and a drop-goal. I’ve never felt anything like it. The Sydney Cricket Ground was amazing. It was a whack-a-thon, with people like Arthur Beetson, Jimmy Thompson and Jim Mills out there! I remember one scrum when I had my arms around Jimmy and Jim, and Arthur whacked me and split my eye. I needed 12 stitches and went back on. Different times! We went to New Zealand and the same thing happened there because we lost the first and then had to win the second to keep the series alive. We went home with about £1,500 each. I was a teacher in those days and didn’t make £1,000 a year.

Why did you turn down Coventry City?

I was offered a chance to go at 17, but I wanted to go through my sixth form and get some A Levels. I never believed I was good enough anyway. I was also getting too big for soccer. I was over 15 stone and doing weights.

In your first-class debut for Warwickshire, you took five wickets for two runs in ten overs. Why did you turn your back on cricket when you looked to have a big future?

The problem was you played for six months then you had to find a job for six months. You never earned enough to last you for the year. I just didn’t see that as a career. I played with some fantastic blokes though, like Mike Smith the captain of England, Alan Smith, Lance Gibbs and Rohan Kanhai, who was a great West Indian batter. I got the England opener Mickey Stewart out in one match.

Did you benefit from rugby union’s brown-envelope culture?

No, not a thing! I didn’t see a future with the cricket, but I did with rugby, because I could pursue a career as a teacher as well. We won the RFU Cup in 1972 with Coventry, and we won a heap of Sevens tournaments. I went on tours with the Baa-Baas. The last game of rugby union I played was the Scottish Centenary sevens in 1973. I was playing for England in a tournament with Australia, New Zealand, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France.

We won the tournament and, because of that, I got an offer from Wigan. I was playing cricket at Leamington Spa and three blokes with northern accents told our 12th man they wanted to speak to me urgently. “Holy shit, what have I done?” I thought. [Wigan accent] “Hey lad, we think you’ve got a real future with a team like Wigan.”

What did they offer?

They offered me £5,500 and a job. It was too much to turn down. Again, I hope you don’t get the wrong idea, but it was a huge consideration back then. I had tried to buy a house for £6,000 when I played for Coventry, but I was told I wasn’t earning enough as a teacher to justify the loan. My salary was about £850. The signing-on fee didn’t get taxed because you were relinquishing your amateur status. I bought a super house for about £4,000 in Standish. I was so lucky. Dad was a builder and mum was a magistrate. I didn’t tell them I was going until I had packed my bags because I knew they would be upset at me moving away.

I did enjoy union, but I was annoyed that I didn’t get a cap for the internationals against Japan and Fiji because they weren’t classed as Test-playing nations. And at Coventry, I wasn’t allowed to be the goalkicker because I didn’t play five-eighth or fullback, and only they kicked for goal. It was like some unwritten rule. Hookers didn’t kick goals!

What were your first impressions of Wigan’s team and the club itself?

I went up in July 1973. The first game was in the Wigan Sevens, and we won that too. I was used to Sevens. At half-time in my first full game, the Wigan coach Graham Starkey told me to slow down because I’d done 30 tackles by half-time. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just tackled. To be honest, not many of the Wigan boys were particularly helpful at first, maybe because I was a union player coming in on a big purse. I got a bit of the cold shoulder, but they eventually realised I wasn’t that bad a bloke! Within five months I was playing for Great Britain. I was embarrassed, but maybe I was lucky that the officials wanted some new blood in the team.

When you taught in Wigan, did you teach any future rugby players of note?

I was at John Fisher, and it was a fabulous school, but I was only there for a year and a half before I went to Australia. I’m not aware of teaching any future Rugby League players. I did struggle with the Wigan accent though. I couldn’t understand a word they said! But they were lovely kids.

My favourite pub was the Fox and Goose, a stone’s throw from Central Park. I arrived at the same time as Green Vigo, and we stayed in the same hotel. The first time we went to the Fox and Goose, Green waited outside for us to bring him a beer. He didn’t think he’d be allowed in because that’s what he was used to in South Africa. He was a lovely fella and I’m still in touch with him.

Did you understand the significance of the Lancashire Cup?

I didn’t realise how big it was at first. I knew Brian Snape had bought many of the best players for Salford, and we went in as massive underdogs. We went out there to smash them and run them off their feet. We won the game, and it was really tough. The boys were so elated because they’d beaten such a star-studded side. It was a hell of a pace. We had Colin Clarke, the Great Britain hooker, so I played prop most of the time. I used to throw myself into defence. I was a fairly good tackler. Defence is different in League with the ball-and-all tackle. I can’t tell you the number of elbows I got because I hadn’t been taught to protect myself. But it was a sensational feeling to win the Lancashire Cup.

You played in every forward position in your career. Which did you prefer?

I liked hooker. There was an advantage in being a big hooker than a slightly smaller prop. I could be more value and I had a bit of pace for my size.

Were you shocked to get a call-up for Great Britain against France in January 1974?

I had no idea that there were any GB matches coming up! Most of my team-mates couldn’t believe I’d been picked because I’d only played for a few months. I was puzzled too. I felt embarrassed because I still felt very naïve as a Rugby League player. I thought I was the best frontrower at Wigan, but there were still better players than me at the club. Being picked for Great Britain got me another £1,000. I didn’t even know that was in my contract. That was more than a year’s salary, and I didn’t know it was coming until they gave me the money. I didn’t really know who the other GB players were. All I knew was to go out and do what I’d been doing in every game. I ran the ball hard and threw myself into every tackle.

To be continued in the next issue of League Express, out on Monday 3rd January.

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