Rugby League Heroes: Tommy Bishop

Little big man!

Tommy Bishop was such a good scrum-half that when St Helens strolled out at Wembley in 1966, he wore the no 7 jersey, while Alex Murphy played in the centres.
Bishop’s professional career began in 1959 at Blackpool before a move to Barrow in 1964. In a momentous 1966, he signed for St Helens, won the Challenge Cup Final and Championship Final and toured with the Lions.
As player-coach, he helped Cronulla to the 1973 Grand Final. Now aged 81, he still lives in Australia.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?
Wembley 1966. We battered Wigan and I scored a try under the sticks. We celebrated for a couple of days and then got back into training for the Championship Final, in which we beat Halifax. We won the lot in 1965-66. We had a magnificent team.

You were 5 ft 4 in. Did you ever worry your size would be a problem?
Not really. People always used the word “little” before my name or nickname, but I could look after myself. I could jump with my arms swinging or I’d get the bigger blokes around the knackers!

Is it fair to say your career got off to a slow start?
Without being facetious, I was too good for Blackpool, and I jumped at the chance to go to Barrow. When I was there, I had a really good game against Saints and that’s how I ended up at Knowsley Road.

Which team-mates do you remember most from Blackpool and Barrow?
Brian Bevan at Blackpool. He couldn’t tackle, but he could score tries. He was a brilliant runner. If you gave him half a chance, he was gone. He was nearly 40 when he signed, but he was still very quick. We knew he was one of the all-time greats, and he earned the rest of us plenty of winning money!
Peter Douglas was one of the best players at Barrow – a five-eighth. I thought he’d go all the way. I also played with another great winger at Barrow in Bill Burgess, and, like Brian, he earned us some winning money.

How did Alex Murphy take the news of your signing for Saints?
Not too well! The first time I went to train, I got there earlier than anyone else. I was in the physio room having a rub down and Alex came in, not knowing I was here. “Effing hell, we’re signing midgets now, are we?” he thundered. Then he walked into the dressing room, saw me and stuttered, “Er, hello Tommy.” Alex was the greatest halfback ever, but he was put out by the signing. He went into the centres and that proved a masterstroke by our coach Joe Coan.

Joe was primarily a fitness man, less so a Rugby League tactician. Was that a problem?
Not at all. We had all the talent available in the forwards and backs and he brought in the fitness regime that made us stand out. He was ahead of his time because when I went to Cronulla, they were no fitter than we had been at Saints. And when I coached, I always worked on fitness and I learned the importance of that from Joe.

How good a centre was Murph?
Well, Alex being Alex, he moved to centre and was better than anyone else.
We were spoiled because he ended up on the same side of the field as Tom van Vollenhoven, who was the greatest winger there’s ever been. We had Len Killeen on the other wing, and he was a great goalkicker too.

You won 15 caps between 1966 and 1969. Alex famously pulled out of the 1966 tour because he wasn’t captain. Would you have played if he had gone?
Yes, because Alex was picked as a centre. We won the first Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground. With him there, we might have won the next two because we were very close. Arthur Beetson made his debut in the deciding Test, and we could see instantly how good he was. He got the nickname ‘Half a Game Artie’ because he set up two tries and went off at half-time.

How did you end up at Cronulla?
I was supposed to go to Eastern Suburbs. I got to the airport with my wife and kids and the journalist Ernie Christensen, who had arranged things, told me that Easts had dropped out. When he said Cronulla were interested, I nearly got on a plane back home because they were bottom of the competition. But I went to the hotel in Cronulla and settled in, and it turned out to be the best move I could have made.

Did you go straight in as captain-coach?
No, there were eight games left in the 1969 competition. Noel Thornton was the coach. I was then captain-coach for my first full season in 1970. I didn’t really feel the pressure because Cliff Watson was a real help. He looked after me and was a big reason the Sharks improved so much. He wasn’t a dirty player, but he was tough and strong and great to have around. Cliff remained a friend for years, living just around the corner from me in Cronulla for a long time. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple of years ago.

Did you captain a Sydney Colts team against the Lions in 1970?
Yes. I can’t remember too much about it, but it was strange playing against Great Britain, and I didn’t play particularly well. I remember Doug Laughton giving me a bit of a hiding. He was a Wiganer too, which made it worse.

You were a victim of some dirty play in Australia. Weren’t you once kicked in the head by a Newtown player?
That happened a few times! Away games at places like Henson Park weren’t always fun because there was a lot of foul play in those days. I used to be good looking before all that! I had a few concussions in my career, maybe five or six, but I could duck quickly.

Cronulla have had many British players down the years. As well as Cliff, did you play with any others?
Bobby Wear and Fred Tomlinson were from Barrow. Fred didn’t play too much, but Bobby was a terrific winger. He was like the other great wingers I’d played with – give him half a chance and he’d score.

You took Cronulla to the 1973 Grand Final, which is widely regarded as the most violent of them all. Was that down to you and your tactics?
Yes, in a lot of ways, but people like Cliff, Bobby and some of the Australian players were heavily involved. We knew what we had to do, and we came so close to pulling it off. We lost 10-7 and Bobby Fulton got Manly out of jail that day. It was Cronulla’s first time in the semi-finals, and we had a great run to the Grand Final.

As well as Cliff, who were the best players at Cronulla?
Steve Rogers. He was a local junior who had been living up in Queensland. We went for a look at him and knew straightaway we’d sign him. He was brilliant – up there with the likes of Reg Gasnier. What people didn’t realise was that his defence was outstanding too. No one went past him. Greg Pierce was a lock forward who took over the captaincy from me. He was a great player too.

Several British players made a big impact in Australia in the early 1970s. Did you socialise together?
Not particularly. But the papers spoke in glowing terms about us, which was nice. What a player Malcolm Reilly was! As a lock, he was up there with Vince Karalius and Rocky Turner. He fixed a few blokes up! Stevo really stood out as the hooker at Penrith, and Bill Ashurst was tremendous there too. John Gray revolutionised North Sydney. And there were some greats in the 1960s too like Dick Huddart, the best second rower Rugby League has ever seen.

Why did you leave Cronulla?
I’d more or less finished playing in first grade and it was time to move on. I didn’t really want to leave, but it was for the good of the team because I wasn’t as good as I had been. I wanted to leave the club in a good position. I went to coach North Sydney in 1978, but things didn’t go too well. Bob Bax then called me from Norths in Brisbane. I went up there as captain-coach and we made the finals twice.

You had more success as a captain-coach than a coach, like Alex Murphy. Is there a reason for that?
Yes, I think so. I found it easier to rev a side up when I was out there with them.

You returned to England to coach Workington and won promotion with them in 1982.
I have very fond memories of Workington. We had a player called Bill Pattinson, who was a great lock forward. The big guy who ran the place, Tom Mitchell, was amazing. He loved winning it was great to work for him.
My family and I knew we weren’t moving back to England permanently. Australia was home, but Tom got in touch and asked me to go over. Town were a second division side who had some good talent. It was just a matter of fixing the side up and keeping them fit. The influence of Joe Coan came in handy because I always knew how important fitness was. We did tackle practice with big tyres off trucks, for example. It was hard work, but we were rewarded with promotion.

Why did you leave?
I went to Leigh next. The St Helens secretary from my time there, Basil Lowe, was now at Leigh. He invited me down from Workington and talked me into going to Leigh. But things weren’t too good there. We played in the John Player Final, but we lost.

Your brother Alan played professionally, as did your sons Paul and Gary. What can you tell us about their careers?
Alan was my younger brother. We were a halfback and five-eighth pairing at Saints, but he didn’t make it there. He made his debut in 1968 and played ten games before moving to Blackpool. He also played for Widnes and Huyton. He scored some great tries, but he wasn’t the best defensively. He has passed away unfortunately.
Gary was a very quick player, but he broke his ankle and didn’t get his speed back. He was at Kent Invicta.
Paul is best known for his career in England with Warrington, St Helens and Halifax. He also played in Australia with Cronulla and Gold Coast. He was often linked with a Great Britain cap, but he got an injury and didn’t train for a while. He wasn’t the same after that. I was in Australia when he was playing, but I went over to watch the Wembley final in 1990 when he played for Warrington against Wigan.

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