Rugby League Heroes: Johnny Whiteley (Part 2)

Following on from part one of this interview, this is the second and final part of an interview with Johnny Whiteley, the former Hull FC and Great Britain loose forward. After a glorious playing career, he moved into coaching with Hull FC, Hull KR and Great Britain. He is the last coach to lead Great Britain to Ashes success against Australia, a feat he achieved in 1970.

RR: You told us last time about your wartime childhood and playing career. You then moved into coaching with Hull FC in 1963, firstly as a player-coach. What attracted you to coaching?
JW: All my life I’d been interested in tactics and the physicality of the game, so it was a natural step for me. I’ve never had a week off from coaching lads since about 1939, when I was nine and I and my friends would use my uncle’s gym during the war, when all the men were away fighting. I’ve don’t it ever since. After this interview I’ll be taking a class of children!

RR: By 1970 you were coaching the Great Britain Lions. Malcolm Reilly told us a fortnight ago that you got the team wrong for the first Test. Is he right?
JW: It wasn’t quite that simple. 1970 was the first time in Lions history we started in Darwin and moved from north to south. All the other tours started in Sydney, so you used to hit the big boys at the start. But we played the minnows early and blew them away. Everyone thought we were the bees’ knees and we came to a halt in the first Test. We knew we could play rugby, but the mental strength you require in a Test in Australia had to be there as well. Everyone’s calling you a Pommy bastard. You’re fighting a whole nation. You get abused in the street. And you have to prove yourself and find the courage and energy to beat them. We went from strength to strength when we moved down to Sydney and we won the second and third Test.

RR: We haven’t won the Ashes since 1970, so what do you remember of that deciding Test?
JW: We’d come good by then and were beating everyone, so it was a challenge to the Australians to knock us off our pedestal. We had no ham and eggers on the 1970 tour. We had 26 players who stuck together and those not selected were still a big part. When the team was announced, everyone clapped each other, and you could feel the camaraderie. I knew we would win because of how we’d trained and the unity of the 26 players. We were firing on all cylinders. Every player felt six feet tall and played like that. We won the Australian hearts and they applauded us off. We hadn’t just won, we had put on a show, especially with Roger Millward scoring that wonderful try in the left-hand corner. Everyone had reached their peak at just the right time.

RR: Three months after the tour there was a World Cup. The final is regarded as one of the dirtiest games of all time*. Why did your players behave as they did?
JW: It stemmed from the tour. There were simmerings and resentment that came from that Ashes series. We lost both the fight and the game. We were still a good side and were unfortunate to lose. The scenes weren’t good to see, especially as we had been so disciplined on the tour. The players were experienced enough to be disciplined, but we lost it. The Australians contributed to it, but we lost control. And that was my last game as Great Britain coach in my first spell.

RR: After the tour, you left Hull FC to coach Hull KR. How tough a decision was that?
JW: I wanted to play for Hull FC, captain them and manage them, which I did. I did the same with Yorkshire and Great Britain. But a lot of people won’t realise that there wasn’t a coach in the UK who picked the side back then. It’s not like now. The directors picked the team, not the coach. At Hull, we had got rid of the Chairman and the committee. Joe Latus came in and brought his entire henchmen in. They were from a football background and were illiterate about the game, but they held my destiny in their hands. I started to try and beat the system and wanted a say in team selection. They wouldn’t agree, so I finished. While I was in Australia, my friend Colin Hutton had become a director at Rovers. He said the board would give me some leeway, so I was happy to join them. I signed the best young players in the city. We won the Yorkshire Cup. We beat the New Zealand tourists handsomely and we went up the table. But I got the sack despite all that in 1972. I vowed that no one would rule my destiny again. I walked out of Rovers and got a lease with the brewery and had my own business.

RR: You coached Great Britain in the 1982 Ashes series at the age of 52. Is it true that some of the players couldn’t beat you in a lap of the field in training?
JW: Yes, that story is true. Dessie Drummond was super fit but there weren’t many others and he’d hurt his shoulder. We were so short of talent. Most of the players who did have some talent didn’t have to work hard. They got picked automatically because they could pass, run and tackle. But you needed more than that to play Test football. A lot were good players, but life was easy for them. The mental strength wasn’t there and the Australian side in 1982 was one of the best ever. I was appointed three weeks before the series began, so there was no way in the world could I get them fit. On tour, you have 12 or 13 weeks, so you have a chance. A rugby team is like a torch with 13 batteries. You can’t just put one good battery in. I played with people who tossed it off, whereas I was fit. Sometimes I wished I was an individual athlete. You train religiously and someone else doesn’t care and you have to give your energy to that tosser.

RR: You formed the West Hull amateur club. How did that come about?
JW: Yes, I formed them and picked the green-and-gold colours. I had it in mind when I came home in 1970. I didn’t want them play in red, white and blue, because you had to earn the right to play in Great Britain’s colours, so we played in Australia’s instead!

RR: You played in an era of great loose forwards. How did you rate the others?
JW: I don’t live in the past, I draw from the past. In my day, every rugby player was like a tradesman. They knew their position. Vince Karalius was excellent. He used to say that he wished he had my calmness! There were also Albert Blan, Ken Traill, Derek Turner – whom I roomed with on the 1957 World Cup tour. But Billy Ivison was my idol. He wasn’t the biggest player in the world, but he went through defences because he was tough and skilful. We were all enemies on the field, but great friends off it. We were all of the same kind.

RR: What was Roy Francis like to play for?
JW: He was the best ever, in my opinion. He was so far in front of what was around. He had tape recorders and 8mm films. There were six top sprint coaches in England and one of them was in Hull – Harold Thrussell. Roy employed him. We were taught how to run. Every player had to have spikes – even the 18-stone props. We were taught how to get from A to B with the least amount of exertion. He stayed with us throughout our careers. I took Harold to Hull Kingston Rovers. Roy would also have tackle bags on moving vans for us to run at! I was his blue-eyed boy. I trained all day. I lived with him for a while. He brainwashed me! He’d sit in the dug-out with a white towel. He told the players to keep their eyes on it. If the towel was spread over his knees, we had to move the ball. If the towel was between his knees, the forwards had to take it forward.

RR: You are one of 30 members of the Hull FC Hall of Fame, as is the great winger of the 1910s, Billy Batten, who is also in the Rugby League Hall of Fame. Did you get to know him?
JW: I started going to the Boulevard in 1935 and people were still talking about Billy. When he played, men with placards used to walk up Hessle Road saying, “Billy Batten is playing” and that would put thousands on the gate. He was a hero to everyone who could remember him. When I started playing for Hull, he was in a wheelchair. We would talk about rugby and we became quite friendly. I always had a chat with Billy, asking questions, wanting to know about his time in the game. Another from the Hall of Fame who took to me was Jim Sullivan. He would call me over and talk to me when we played Wigan. That made me feel ten feet tall!