Talking Rugby League: Memories of David Oxley, the man who saved Rugby League

DAVID OXLEY was appointed to the position of Secretary of the Rugby Football League in 1974 at the age of 37.

Shortly afterwards David Howes, who was a journalist from Hull in his early twenties, was appointed as Rugby League’s first Public Relations Officer.

At the time they were both operating from the RFL’s old premises at 180 Chapeltown Road and they had very few members of staff to work with.

I remember that Geoff Keith worked with the two Davids and they had quite a formidable secretary called Renee Grant.

And that, as far as I can remember, was just about it.

The two Davids joined the RFL when Rugby League was perhaps at the lowest point in its history.

Their job was to revive the governing body and to revive the game itself and they did that with no little success.

So I was tremendously sad to learn of David Oxley’s death at the weekend after a long illness.

It may not have been entirely unexpected, but nonetheless it was like the passing of an era.

During my days with the Student Rugby League in the 1980s, I had many dealings with David, heading to Chapeltown Road every year to request an annual grant to support the student game.

And David, perhaps because of his academic background, or perhaps because he simply understood the importance of higher education institutions playing Rugby League, was always supportive of what we were trying to do.

In fact his own son Mark was an active student player, representing Wales in the very first student game between that country and the Scottish students.

Back in those days the Chairmanship of the RFL rotated quite frequently, but David was the person who gave stability to the organisation and it was always a pleasure to share his love of Rugby League and his optimistic outlook when we considered the game’s future.

He was a major influence in our mission to establish a Student Rugby League World Cup, which we did for the first time in 1986.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that David did save and revive Rugby League from the hole it appeared to have dug itself into in the early 1970s.

I never really understood why he was forced to retire in 1992 at the age of 55, which nowadays seems a laughable age for someone to retire.

Even after he left the RFL, I kept in touch with him on an occasional basis.

The last time I saw him was in 2013 in Workington for a World Cup game that year.

Oddly enough, David never drove a car, and on that occasion I gave him a lift back to his home in Harrogate and the journey was enlivened by a discussion of his time in the hot seat at the RFL and some of the people he had dealt with during his 18 years in that position.

I would like to extend my sincere condolences to David’s family for their very sad loss.

NRL Pre-Season Challenge

The proposed pre-season competition in the NRL, which will also include St Helens when they travel Down Under for the World Club Challenge against Penrith, is a fascinating exercise that I’ll look forward to seeing unfold.

Of course, that is assuming that it actually does take place, given the nature of the dispute between the NRL and the Rugby League Players Association in Australia, which remains unresolved, with some people suggesting that it could even disrupt the start of the season with potential strike action on the horizon.

That seems very strange to me, given that the NRL has raised the salary cap this year to A$12.7 million.

It seems that the RLPA was angry that the NRL announced the increase in the salary cap without adequately consulting the union.

I don’t know why the NRL didn’t do that and nor do I understand why the argument is so apparently difficult to resolve.

If the NRL’s Pre-Season Challenge does go ahead, many of the games will be shown on Sky Sports, as you can see on page 26 of this issue.

Points will be awarded for teams scoring five tries, five line breaks or ten offloads.

I can see some difficulty in deciding how offloads will be defined for this purpose, but it will be interesting to see whether we witness a more open game than we are used to in the NRL.

Battle of the Rovers

Pre-season matches can sometimes throw up some surprising results.

And few would be much more surprising than Featherstone Rovers’ 28-0 demolition of Hull Kingston Rovers on Friday night at the Millennium Stadium, in a match played for Craig Hall’s testimonial.

The new Hull KR coach Willie Peters was clearly shocked by the result and by his team’s performance, although that perhaps detracts a little from what must have been an outstanding performance by Featherstone.

Sean Long has certainly had a great start to his first-grade coaching career and no doubt the other clubs in the Championship who will be hoping to compete with them will have noted that performance with some trepidation.

The Championship last year turned out to be a one-horse race and I had hoped that this season we might have a closer competition.

I now wonder how realistic that hope is.

No panic on tackling

I was glad to see the RFL refuse to follow in the footsteps of rugby union by banning tackles above the waist for most levels of the game.

Clearly rugby union has been put into panic mode by the threat of legal action by players claiming compensation for brain injuries suffered during their playing careers.

Those injuries are tragic, of course, but if we are to make any changes in Rugby League, we need to be sure that they are based on adequate research and are backed up by solid data.

The RFL is wise to take its time before making far-reaching changes to the nature of the game.