Rugby League Heroes: Ron Cowan

WITH his dad and brother having left Scotland to play Rugby League, a 20-year-old Ron Cowan, who had just toured with the 1962 British Lions, travelled south from Selkirk to sign for the Rugby League giants Leeds.

As a wing or centre, Cowan gave the Loiners a decade of tremendous service before ending his career with brief stints at Hull FC and Keighley.

Now aged 82, he remains an ardent supporter of the game. 

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

It would be the 1970 Championship Final against St Helens at Bradford. That’s probably the nicest memory I have, even though we lost. I hadn’t played for nearly three months because of a hamstring injury, but I came back into the centres. Odsal was packed. I’d never seen such a big crowd. I scored a try from halfway after I caught Kel Coslett’s goal-line drop-out. For about six months afterwards, the try was shown when the Grandstand theme tune played every Saturday. 

You are the son of Jimmy and brother of Stan, both of whom played for Hull FC. What do you know of their careers?

My dad played for Hull in 1924, but I don’t think he was there too long. Stan went to Hull in the late 1950s and spent about ten years there. I came down in 1962 at the age of 20. I didn’t actually play against Stan at all for some reason. I had four brothers and two sisters, so I’m the youngest of seven. There are three of us left, including my 98-year-old brother. All five of us boys played rugby. 

How did the offer come about to switch codes? 

I played for Scotland when I was 18 and I’m still the youngest Scot to have played for the British Lions. When I was selected to go on that Lions Tour in 1962, I worked in a local mill in Selkirk. They said they’d have to pay me off, as they couldn’t pay me for the four months I’d be away, so I went on the tour unemployed. The Scottish Rugby Union said they’d look after me and get me a job. That never materialised and Leeds came along, so I thought I’d give it a go. My brothers and I always talked about Rugby League. Stan played for Hull. Jack got some interest as well. I used to get calls from various League clubs when I was younger, but it was taboo back then. If you spoke about it, you were banned.

Did that attitude thaw over time?

No. When I came back home in 1962, I tried to go to the ground at Selkirk to show them one or two things I’d learned, but I was always chased away. The SRU would get in touch with Selkirk to say, “Tell Cowan to stay away.” My wife was a tea lady at the club, and her friends were married to other players, but I still had to watch games from another stand and go straight home. Then after two hours, I’d go back to collect my wife from the club house. It was very sad. After 14 years, a journalist from the Scotsman newspaper phoned me and said he could help me get my amateur status back. I said it was too late, but he told me Bill Beaumont had written a book and lost his amateur status over it, but that Twickenham had reinstated it. I eventually agreed. I had to go to Murrayfield and sit in front of two of the big people at the SRU. I had to make various promises like not taking people to Rugby League! It was awful, to be honest. I soon realised I wanted to watch Rugby League again, and even now, I can’t wait for the new season to start. It’s a fabulous game. Between you and me, I think Leeds will have a great season with the signings they’ve made!

What do you remember of your Leeds debut at home to Doncaster?

It was a rather dull game, and I didn’t get much of the ball. Derek Hallas was my centre, and he’s still one of my very good friends. Robin Dewhirst became my centre after that, but he had a bad knee, which spoiled his game. 

Your debut season was interrupted by the infamous Big Freeze which saw most games postponed between December 1962 and March 1963. Castleford did manage to get their cup game with Leeds to go ahead in the February. Do you remember it?

My wife still talks about that game! They used these huge braziers on the field to take the hardness away, but of course it left ash on the ground, and when I came off the pitch, my legs were scraped to bits. 

The great Lewis Jones was the difference that day. What was he like to play with?

He was a fabulous player, but he was just about finishing when I came down from Scotland. We overlapped by a couple of seasons, and it was a pleasure to play with him. 

Because of the postponements, Leeds had to play 18 games in eight weeks, of which you played 15.

I just thought it was my duty to just get on with it. It was probably easier for me on the wing. All the teams would have had the same problem. 

Why didn’t you play in the second half of the 1967-68 season?

I thought my career was finished with a hamstring problem, which nobody could sort. The club doctor told me to retire, so I sat out the season and with a long rest, I felt it was okay to train again. I managed to play for another five years. 

You scored in the semi-final and the final as Leeds became champions in 1969. What was that team like?

We had a good team in those days. Roy Francis had taken over as coach, and he brought in five or six senior players like Dick Gemmill, Harry Poole, Les Chamberlain, Mick Clark and Kenny Eyre. They brought some real experience. With players like Alan Smith, John Atkinson, Syd Hynes, Mick Shoebottom, Bev Risman and Barry Seabourne, we had a great back division. Beating Castleford in 1969 was a real career highlight, given that they had players like Reilly, Hardisty and Hepworth. 

Tell us more about Roy.

Everybody thought he was fantastic. He got us extremely fit, but there wasn’t much said about movements and what we were going to do in certain games. Rugby has now changed completely with everyone knowing exactly what they have to do. I think they’re over-coached now. Roy came from Hull and got us fit. Backs were always doing speed and ballwork but not much sitting down to examine what we’d done last week or who we were going to be up against. We just went out and played our natural games. Defences were good – nothing like today, but things were more off the cuff too. 

You played on the terrible day that Mick Shoebottom’s career was ended. What are your recollections of the incident?

He was such a good player. He was diving in the corner to score. He was just about picking himself up from the ground when the Salford player [Colin Dixon] tried to jump over him and accidentally knocked into his head. It was a complete accident. Colin wasn’t a dirty player. He tried to jump out of his way and broke his cheekbone. Mick went to hospital, and I think he had a stroke during the operation. He was a magnificent player. He was a wonderful chap. I think it was obvious straightaway he wasn’t going to play again. It’s just one of those things. Even the opposition loved Mick. He still attended matches and we saw lots of him. The players and wives were a big family. 

Was it a factor in Leeds losing to Leigh at Wembley a fortnight later?

I didn’t realise it was so close to the final. It’s amazing what you forget at 82! I can’t remember anything being said about Mick not being there before the game. We’d beaten Leigh comfortably a few months earlier, and we were playing so well. We were red-hot favourites, but Alex Murphy played extremely well. Syd was sent off, which didn’t help. It was just one of those times that the underdog won. We were pretty well beaten. 

Why did you join Hull in 1972?

My legs were beginning to give me a lot of problems. Everybody was getting testimonials, but Leeds said I wouldn’t get one because I’d got a reasonably good signing-on fee. I didn’t think that was fair. I was into my 30s. I should have stopped earlier, but Hull came in for me, and my father and brother had played for them, so it was appealing. They wanted me to play centre to Clive Sullivan. I played a few games, but it didn’t work out. I went to Keighley for a few months, but I should have finished as a Leeds player. I’m still a Leeds fan. My heart is still very much at Headingley. 

How do you look back on your time at Headingley?

They were such happy days. I just loved my Rugby League and Glad, my wife, had a wonderful time in Leeds. We were so well looked after, and we often go back down now 60 years after I first moved. I still see Kenny Rollin when I go to games. I was never actually dropped in my ten years at Headingley. I was always back in when I was fit. I’m proud of that, given that the wingmen were Smith and Atkinson with Geoff Wrigglesworth before that. 

Which of your opponents made the biggest impression on you?

When I first came down, Tom van Vollenhoven and Billy Boston were something else. Mick Sullivan was finishing up, but he was still excellent. Eric Ashton was very good. Neil Fox was made for Rugby League, he was a big strong man. I loved playing against Neil. I tackled him one day. Just as we were getting up, he stood on my hand. I couldn’t do anything. He just looked at me and smiled! 

Do you think you were ever close to international honours?

I played for Other Nationalities in France alongside Lewis Jones. I had a terrible game because I had a migraine, and I just wasn’t with it. I shouldn’t have played, but you didn’t get good advice back then. I went straight into bed at the hotel. I was twice told I was on the Great Britain shortlist, but I never quite made it. When I first came down, I was just happy to be playing for Leeds. It’s not that the ambition wasn’t there, but I was just happy to be playing for Leeds. Who wouldn’t be happy playing with players like that at a stadium like Headingley?