Rugby League Heroes: Tony Fisher

Tony Fisher won eleven Great Britain caps and 16 for Wales, the undoubted highlight being the 1970 Lions Tour of the Southern Hemisphere.

One of many Welshmen to venture north, he started at Bradford Northern with his brother Idwal before enjoying a five-year spell at Leeds that included a Championship Final victory in 1972.

The fearsome hooker also played for Castleford and Bradford again.

He moved into coaching, leading Doncaster into the top flight and taking charge of South Africa at the 1995 World Cup.

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

Winning the Ashes in Australia. We won the third Test 21-17. Johnny Whiteley, who was a wonderful coach, made several changes after the first Test, including myself, and the changes made the difference. The team for the first Test were the established stars, all really good players, but when the changes were made, we complemented each other really well. Doug Laughton complemented Mal Reilly. They were two players whose styles worked well together. Jimmy Thompson and I tackled our hearts out. Dennis Hartley and Cliff Watson were the ideal props for me. The platform was laid for Roger Millward to be able to do what he was best at. He was fantastic at backing up and he could read the game so well. Who would have thought of playing Mick Shoebottom at fullback? He couldn’t kick a ball to save his life, but Johnny made it work. It was such a good side, and more should be made of it because we haven’t won the Ashes since. The success was all down to Johnny, and I was very sad to hear of his recent passing.  

The 1970 tour was a financial success as well. What did you do with the £984 bonus each player received at the end? 

My wife probably went shopping with it! I don’t actually remember, but the money I got for signing for Bradford, I put down as a deposit on a house. My first wage was £14 for a win and £6 for a loss. You had to play hard for your money because if you got dropped, you were on nothing. There were plenty of good players in the A team who wanted to take your place. 

Why didn’t you play more for Great Britain?

As my career went on, I fell out of favour with future coaches. The selection policy became flawed. It became a case of “You pick my man and I’ll pick yours” with the selectors. David Ward was a ballplayer, so they thought we’d score more points with him at hooker, but you still have to tackle. I took David’s place after the first Test in 1978, and we beat Australia at Odsal. Our front row was so old, we were called Dad’s Army! We still lost the series though, and Great Britain just didn’t feel the same. I didn’t get back in again. We had deteriorated without Johnny Whiteley in charge. That’s why we didn’t win more in the 1970s. I didn’t have much respect for some of the coaches that followed him.

Wales stopped England winning the 1975 World Cup by beating them in Brisbane. Was that the highlight of your Welsh caps?

Definitely! English players begrudged some of us Welshmen signing for good money. My brother Idwal got £3,500 in 1964, and English players really didn’t like it, so the rivalry was based on that. A game against England was a chance to take them down a peg or two, and we did just that in 1975. We had a fearsome pack, but we also had the backs.

Idwal switched codes first. Was it inevitable you would follow suit?

No, not at all. I played rugby union for my village and senior rugby at 15 for Gowerton. I played for the forces and coal-mining services at 17, but a lot of it was overseas because I was in Malaya. I used to box as well and was the forces light-heavyweight champions. Idwal had gone to Warrington and played there for two seasons in the early 1960s. I didn’t play for Warrington despite a couple of online articles saying I did. Idwal signed for Bradford Northern when they reformed in 1964. I was in the RAF and went on leave for a fortnight and trained with them a couple of times. And then they signed me. Rugby League suited me, and we were treated very well. I even played a few games for Brighouse Rangers, and it was tough. I was doing what I wanted to do. Idwal was prop and I was in the second row at first before moving to hooker. 

How did you find the transition? 

I loved tackling and could get around the pitch well. I preferred it to rugby union, and so did Idwal. He’d had trials for the national team in union and was told he’d done really well, but he hadn’t gone to a grammar school, so his chances of playing for Wales were diminished. If you went to a secondary modern, you were seen as a bit of a roughie, and your rugby union prospects weren’t good. I didn’t get a Welsh Youth cap for the same reason. 

You moved to Leeds in late 1970. Why did the team lose to Leigh at Wembley in 1971?

I think we had a few players who thought things would just happen, but you can’t play at Wembley with an attitude like that. Alex Murphy was too good not to take advantage of that. But we knew he was pretending to be hurt to get Syd Hynes sent off. He was laughing and winking on the stretcher. 

In March 1972, you missed the team bus to Workington and were transfer listed. What was going on behind the scenes?

They were playing David [Ward] at hooker, and they wanted me to play number 10. I did a job there, but I wasn’t happy. David then got injured and I had a good game against Halifax in the Challenge Cup semi-final. We made the two big finals, losing to Saints at Wembley but beating them in the Championship Final. People ask if I wish it had been the other way around, but I’d have liked to win both! Syd [Hynes] was coach and we didn’t get on. I was very dedicated and did a lot of training on my own to make up for the fact I didn’t have the same ability or speed of others. I was doing 40-odd tackles a match. 

Keith Hepworth and Alan Hardisty are often referred to as Rugby League’s greatest halfback pairing, even though much of that is based on what they did for Castleford. How did you rate them in their 30s as Leeds players?

They were still marvellous. They were still such good players. Keith was the scrum-half when we won the Ashes in 1970. He tackled anyone, no matter how big they were, even if he had to wrap himself around their neck and pull them down! Alan was a class player, a real natural. They fitted in really well at Leeds. 

You had three years at Cas, winning the John Player, the Floodlit Trophy and Yorkshire Cup.

Cas was a down-to-earth club that suited me nicely. They had a lot of local players. The amateur system was so strong in those days. Knocker Norton was magnificent, and so was Dennis [Hartley] in the front row. Malcolm [Reilly] was incredible. He had everything. I really enjoyed Castleford.

You returned to Bradford briefly in 1978. Why did you retire?

There was a lot of sentiment with myself and Bradford, so I was happy to go back because the club had treated me so well. But I didn’t get on with Peter Fox. He took me off in one game for Brian Noble, who couldn’t lace my boots, and that was it for me. I didn’t go back and that was the end of my playing career.

You moved into coaching and took charge of Keighley, Bramley, Doncaster and Dewsbury. 

I enjoyed coaching. I tried to coach like Johnny by respecting the players. I’d actually started coaching in rugby union with Otley, but they found out I’d been a pro, so I had to go! I think I had a reputation for being able to get clubs out of the shit. Doncaster had been the joke club in the league not long before, and I got them into Division One.

What do you remember of that incredible final-day win at Batley in 1994?

I nearly went for this as my answer to your first question! It was a wonderful day with so much on the line. We trailed 5-0 with ten minutes left but came through to win 10-5, and we were promoted. Our first game in the Big League was against St Helens, and we went to Knowsley Road and beat them. We then beat Widnes to go top of the league. We’d signed Wayne Jackson for that season, and he was a fantastic player. The lads who had got us promoted adapted to the first division very quickly. They were very fit and very professional in training.

Your season collapsed after such a great start. Was it mainly down to Jamie Bloem testing positive for steroids? 

The club’s financial situation was probably the biggest problem. We’d made a great start and we were getting good crowds, but money suddenly wasn’t available and we could no longer compete.

You coached South Africa in the 1995 World Cup.

I said I had a reputation of getting teams out of the shit, and I don’t think South Africa expected to do much at the World Cup. So maybe that’s why they thought I was the man for them! It wasn’t an easy job. Most of our players were rugby union players. I was over there for about six months, preparing. BARLA beat us, which wasn’t a great start. I gave them a bit of a Johnny Whiteley-telling off, and they started training hard. They stopped the partying and the drinking, and they turned out to be a good side. In the World Cup, we did okay against England at Headingley. It was only 46-0, but considering BARLA had recently beaten us, it was a good turnaround. I loved coaching. I think it suited me, and I’ve got very happy memories of every coaching job.

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