Rugby League Heroes: Neil Fox OBE

THERE are few sporting greats with a better CV than Neil Fox, Rugby League’s all-time leading points scorer.

His tally of 6,220 points, garnered over a wonderful 25-year playing career, will surely never be broken. Most of his success came as a Wakefield Trinity player, for whom he debuted at the age of 16 in 1956. He played professionally until 1979, before continuing to play in the amateur game. He won 29 Great Britain caps, playing his part in two successful Ashes series.

The younger brother of Peter and Don, Fox is an OBE, a member of the British Rugby League Hall of Fame and has a street in Wakefield named after him.

RR: One of your most remarkable achievements was your longevity, with your career spanning a quarter of a century. How did you keep going for so long?
NF: I didn’t get major injuries – just pulled muscles or a broken nose. I didn’t need big operations and I didn’t miss training. I might not have been the best trainer, but I was always there!

RR: How did you change as a player throughout your career?
NF: I started in the centres and finished in the forwards, using my brain more than my legs and putting others through the gaps.

RR: How aware were you of Jim Sullivan’s all-time points’ record, which you eventually overtook?
NF: All I wanted to do at first was become a good rugby player. Then people started to talk about it. He was way ahead, so I never thought I would beat it. But I kept going. It was getting nearer and nearer but I was getting older and older! In the end, I’d actually beaten it before I knew it because there was confusion over Jim’s points tally. Friendlies had become part of his tally and were later removed.

RR: You are one of 25 members of the Hall of Fame. Of those who played in the eras before you, which did you get to know?
NF: The one I knew best was Jonty Parkin. I used to have a betting shop in Wakefield and Jonty had a wholesale fish business in the same street. We used to talk a lot. He also lived in Sharlston. He must have been a great player judging by his Test career and he was a very nice person. We had many cups of tea together and we would talk about the modern game. I didn’t know Billy Batten, but his son Eric coached Don and Peter. I played against Brian Bevan who was a great winger. I didn’t know Gus Risman very well, but I would see him at the Lions reunions. I might have played the odd game against him. I met Jim Sullivan a couple of times but not really to speak to. I knew Willie Horne and played against him. He was a great footballer. He kicked differently to me. He was around the corner, which was very different then. I placed it straight and ran straight at it. I used to think, “how can he kick it when he’s running round the corner?”

RR: You played in an era which boasted some magnificent centres. Which did you admire the most?
NF: My Great Britain partner Eric Ashton, the captain of Wigan. I always admired him. I used to like Lewis Jones as well. He wasn’t a favourite of the reporters, but he was a great player. They used to say he didn’t tackle, but he always tried to tackle me! He was one of the best footballers I’ve ever seen. We also had a couple of good lads at Wakefield in Alan Skene from South Africa and then Ian Brooke.

RR: What was the biggest disappointment of your career?
NF: I was forced to play for Wakefield Trinity in the 1968 Championship Final at Headingley against Hull Kingston Rovers. We’d played at Halifax and I felt my groin go. I told the club I couldn’t play in the final. The committee told me if I didn’t play in the final then I couldn’t play at Wembley. But my groin went in the final and I missed Wembley and then the World Cup, when I’d been made captain of Great Britain. I never understood Wakefield forcing to me to play when I wasn’t fit.

RR: You are a member of perhaps the most famous of Rugby League families. What do you know of your father Tom’s career and how much did you benefit from having older brothers like Peter and Don?
NF: My dad played at Featherstone. He left in 1946 and went to Sharlston Rovers, who are an amateur club. They got through to the Challenge Cup first round and were drawn against Workington Town. It was over two legs back then. They beat them 12-7 in the first leg but lost the second leg 16-2 and went out on aggregate. That was a great achievement for a village side. After the match Workington wanted to sign my father, but he had to tell them he was 39 and they should look for someone younger! I got lots of help from Don and Peter. They showed me how to pass, kick and tackle. One day when I was at Wakefield, we were due to play Batley, where Peter played. They asked Peter his thoughts. He said he would take care of Derek Turner and the other 12 Batley lads could look after me!

RR: Why did you sign for Wakefield instead of joining Don at Featherstone Rovers?
NF: Wakefield were the better team at the time. It was rumoured I promised to sign for Featherstone but that wasn’t true. I came home from night school one evening and my mum told me not to go to bed. She said Wakefield were coming to sign me. I thought that I didn’t like Wakefield. We weren’t happy at first. For example, if you played ten matches in one season, you’d get £100. But sometimes a club would drop someone after nine matches. Peter and Don knew that and said they should just pay the £100 per season, irrespective of appearances. Eventually they agreed to £100 a year and I signed. Featherstone never talked to me.

RR: You enjoyed wonderful success in the Challenge Cup between 1960 and 1963. Which are the stand-out highlights?
NF: I’d been to Wembley twice before as a spectator. My friends would say how nice it would be if I was playing one day. We got a record score against Hull in 1960 and I got the individual record of 20 points. It’s been equalled in modern times, but a try was only worth three points back then. Then we beat Huddersfield in 1962 and I got three drop goals. In 1963 it was Wigan and we won 25-10. Three cups in four years wasn’t bad!

RR: You first played in an Anglo-Australian Test in 1959 – the last time Great Britain won the Ashes on home soil.
NF: I wasn’t picked for the first match, which Great Britain lost. I came in for the second and third, which we won. Playing against Australia was a thrill – the highlight of my career. Reg Gasnier, Harry Wells and Johnny Raper were the three lads I played against quite a lot and they were good players. After that I went on the 1962 Lions Tour. The 1958 squad was probably the best, but I’ve heard people say the 1962 team was the best we’ve had.

RR: Which Australian club made a bid to sign you?
NF: It was Parramatta. Wakefield said they wanted £15,000. Parramatta refused to pay that but would pay ten to the club and five to me. It fell through.

RR: Why did you leave Trinity for Bradford Northern?
NF: I got the groin injury in 1968 and spent the summer getting it right. But in the first couple of matches, they said I wasn’t pulling my weight. I said I was just coming back into form and match fitness, but they put me on the transfer list. I went to Bradford but came back to Wakefield after a year as player-coach.

RR: You also played for Hull KR, York, Bramley, Huddersfield and Bradford again.
NF: My career had become a year-by-year thing by then. Colin Hutton was the coach on the ‘62 tour and asked if I’d sign for Hull Kingston. I enjoyed the 12 months there. They’d got relegated and we managed to go straight back up. We also beat Wakefield in the Yorkshire Cup Final. That was a big lift for me because when a team get shut of you, you want to play well against them. I moved on to York then Bramley, where Peter was coaching. I helped them get promoted as well. Peter left, so I went to Huddersfield, who I’d supported as a boy, as player-coach and again got promotion in the first year.

RR: You finished off as player-coach of Underbank Rangers in Huddersfield in 1981-82 in your 40s.
NF: I’d finished at Bradford and Underbank wanted me to go and coach, so I did, rather than fall out of the game. I took David Jeanes with me. He was an international, as was Ian Brooke. So Underbank had three internationals!

RR: What are your thoughts on the game now?
NF: It’s different obviously. There are lots of substitutions. If we were injured, we’d continue and hobble about on the wing! Now they play in short spells. You don’t have proper hookers either. The ball doesn’t go in straight in the scrums. I preferred our game. But I do still enjoy going down to watch Trinity.

See next Monday’s League Express for an in-depth interview with Jim Mills.