Rugby League Heroes: John Newlove

JOHN NEWLOVE was the Featherstone Rovers captain when they won the Challenge Cup in 1973 as his two tries helped them beat Bradford Northern 33-14.

After a dozen years at Post Office Road, he left for an Indian summer at Hull, where he played in a team that won every league match in 1978-79, won a Floodlit Trophy and played again at Wembley. His three sons, Shaun, Paul and Richard, also played for Featherstone, with Paul one of the stand-out players of his generation.

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

It would have to be Wembley in 1973, although winning the Floodlit Trophy with Hull in 1979 was great too. I was in Featherstone’s Wembley squad in 1967, but I missed out. It was like being a full-time pro for a week. I really enjoyed being part of the occasion, and in 1973 I knew what to expect. Everything went really well on the day. My memories of the game are how well we started. We were 17 up in 20 minutes and one of their props was taken off. It just got better and better. Having watched it again, Bradford didn’t play too badly – we just played very well. We were favourites, having finished second, but we lost in the Championship play-offs early on, but when we were fully fit, we were an excellent team.

Tell us about your amateur days with Ackworth.

I’m from Pontefract and supported Featherstone from a young age. My favourite players were Don Fox, Jackie Fennell and Joey Mullaney. Don was the best player. Jackie was a small player, mainly a fullback, and he was the other centre when I first played for Featherstone. I signed for Ackworth with all my mates, but I didn’t start playing until I was 19. I played at Ackworth for three years and then went to Featherstone. 

Do you remember your debut against Keighley in November 1966?

It was a torrid game. One week I played with Ackworth. The next I was in the Featherstone ‘A’ team. Then I was in the first team a week later. The pace of the game was a bit too much for me at first. The team was struggling a bit, which is probably why I got in. Keighley beat us.

You played in that season’s Challenge Cup semi-final against Leigh and then in the three games before Wembley, so how disappointing was it to miss out? 

It was disappointing, but it was the correct decision because they ended up winning. I’d played in the qualifying rounds for Ackworth, so Featherstone thought I’d be cup-tied, but it came through that I wasn’t, so I played in the semi-final. We finished 20th in the league, but we came good when it mattered.

Carl Dooler won the Lance Todd Trophy and Steve Nash won it in 1973. What were they like? 

Carl was a good player, but he wanted something better all the time, and he wanted something better than Featherstone. He was great at Wembley, but he just wanted to get away, and he went to Hull KR. Steve is the best player I played with. He was really top notch. 

How did you deal with moving from centre to stand-off?

Peter Fox moved me, and I didn’t want to do it. I kept telling them I wasn’t fast enough, but as long as you had pace for 20 yards to make the gaps, it was okay. Once I’d started, I loved it, and I was more involved. It suited me and I played my best rugby at stand-off.

How did you become captain? 

I didn’t really want to do it. Steve got injured and Peter picked me, but we had some really good leaders in the forwards like Vince Farrar and Jimmy Thompson. I did the best I could. But when Steve came back, Peter told me I played better as captain, so I kept it. 

In 1976 and 1977 Featherstone were involved in two title races. Why did you fall short in the first?

We were top and clear of Salford in 1976 before our last home game with Hull KR. I didn’t play that day. I just couldn’t see us losing. We started well, but they got back into the game and when their confidence went up, ours went down. I don’t think we’d have lost if I’d played. We won the league in 1977. I missed the second half of the season with a frozen shoulder, but it was a fantastic achievement for the club.

What was your testimonial in 1978 like?

It was a lot of hard work! I didn’t really enjoy it, but I met a lot of people including supporters, which was nice. 

Late in the 1977-78 season, why did the Featherstone players go on strike in support of ousted Chairman Gordon Appleyard?

I don’t remember the details, but it was a players’ vote, and we went on strike. We refused to play in a play-off. We had a friendly with Hull for my testimonial, and that got cancelled, which cost me a lot of money. I do remember Gordon, but I don’t know what it was about. 

Why did you drop down a division in 1978 to join Hull FC?

A new regime took over at Featherstone and I didn’t get on with them. I was ready for packing in. Terry Clawson was the coach, and he wanted Mick Morgan. He asked me to go to York in a swap deal with Mick, but I refused. When Hull came in, I knew they had signed Charlie Stone, Vince Farrar and Graham Bray, so I decided to give it a go. I was 34 and I had two seasons there. It didn’t bother me dropping down a division because I knew they had a lot of good players.

Hull won every league match in the 1978-79 season, the only time this has happened in the history of the professional game, aside from the war years. Do any games stick in the mind?

We were losing to Whitehaven, and one of the directors came in at half-time, put more money on the table, and we ended up winning. That was a coincidence; we’d have won anyway because we just wanted to play and win. There wasn’t much pressure to keep winning. Hunslet were our main rivals. We played them on the greyhound stadium next to Elland Road, which was very narrow, so there was some pressure that day. That was in October, and we were well clear by the end of the season. 

Who were the best Hull players?

Obviously, Knocker Norton stood above everyone else. He was brilliant. We’d run around the field in training, and he was miles in front of everyone else. He was very unorthodox as a player because he could do anything. You’d always be thinking, “What’s he going to do here?” Charlie Stone was another who was incredibly fit. Keith Tindall and Keith Boxall, Charlie Bray and Brian Hancock were all really good players. 

In the first season back in the top-flight, Hull FC won the last-ever Floodlit Trophy. 

A lot of people didn’t think we’d be near the top of the table and challenging for honours, but we were really good. The club kept buying players, which was good, so the standards didn’t drop. We finished third, which was a great effort. The Floodlit Trophy Final was brilliant. There were extra seats around the speedway track at The Boulevard. The atmosphere was electric. It was a cold night, and a really hard night, but we beat Hull KR 13-3.

The sides met again at Wembley in 1980. Why did FC come up short?

We didn’t play as well as we could have done. We scored a try, which the ref disallowed for an obstruction by Sammy Lloyd that would have made it ten apiece. It was such a disappointment.

Who were the best stand-offs you faced? 

Roger Millward was very good. I used to like playing against him, David Topliss and Alan Hardisty because they brought out the best in me. Roger had some really good forwards running off him. You could learn a lot from him. He had a bit of pace over 25 yards, which you needed at stand-off.

When did you realise the end of your career was nigh?

I was 36. There was no injury. I’d just had enough. I’d got a job at the power station at Ferrybridge. I did nights, and after a week, it was like jetlag. That’s what did me. I could have played on longer without those nightshifts.

You never played internationally. Were you ever close?

The nearest I got was being 16th man when England played Australia at Headingley. Roger and Tommy Raudonikis got sent off. Australia won easily. There were a lot of good halfbacks back then, and I didn’t play my best rugby until I was well over 30. They were always going to go for younger players. 

When did you realise Paul was going to be a pretty special player?

When he was about seven or eight, he used to play in the field, and you could see he was going to be really good. I didn’t push him, but I’d do some passing and running with him. He started in the under-9s coached by Vince Farrar and Terry Ramshaw, and I let them do the coaching. When he got to the under-17s, Peter Smith was the coach, and he later played with Peter in the Featherstone side. Peter Fox was his coach at Featherstone, and he was a big influence on Paul, as he had been on me. 

How would it have gone had you come up against each other? 

I wouldn’t have liked to face him, put it that way! I’d have liked to play with him because I’d know when to give him the ball or not.

Your other sons, Shaun and Richard also played.

Shaun wasn’t into rugby for a long time, just football, but suddenly he changed. He played for Jubilee, and Featherstone signed him very quickly, but he broke his leg. Richard lacked that yard of pace he needed to be outstanding, but he was solid enough. He had one year with Wakefield in Super League, and they won at St Helens. Richard scored, but Paul didn’t play that day.

What was your favourite moment of his career?

When he was at Featherstone after five years, they wanted him to stay. They did a video of his 100 tries. I watched it at least once a month! It was an unbelievable video. So many of the tries he scored were fantastic.

Paul was twice involved in big-money transfers. How much did you advise him? 

It was quite stressful because they were long, drawn-out processes. He signed with Bradford because of Peter, and when they sacked him, he wanted to be off. He’d just signed a new contract as well. They waited till he’d signed, then they sacked Peter. I knew eventually someone would pay the money as St Helens did, and they’d get their money’s worth!