Time Machine: When a former Blue Peter presenter played rugby league with Castleford

Our time machine travels back to 1977 to watch legendary daredevil BBC children’s television presenter John Noakes tackling rugby league at Castleford.

HE SUSTAINED concussion and ended up with a black-and-blue backside when a white-knuckle bobsleigh ride down the Cresta Run in Switzerland ended in a crash.

He climbed Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square on a rickety wooden ladder wearing alarmingly-flapping flared jeans but no safety gear.

He entered the Guinness Book of Records after being the first civilian to make a five-mile free-fall parachute drop with the RAF.

He had his foot crushed as unruly elephant named Lulu rampaged through a television studio.

And he took part in a rugby league match at Castleford!

John Noakes’ appearance in a practice game came during the 1976-77 season, when the Yorkshire club lifted both the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy and Player’s No6 (later Regal) Trophy under the player-coaching of Mal Reilly.

It was part of episode two of series two of the famous Yorkshire-born former Blue Peter presenter’s solo children’s documentary series Go With Noakes.

‘Castleford Rules, OK?’ first aired at 5pm on BBC One on Sunday, February 27th, 1977 – in the days before the widespread use of home television recording devices, as Reilly’s side had just completed a 10-2 win at Rochdale Hornets in the second round of the Challenge Cup, meaning travelling fans would have missed out on seeing their club on the small screen.

Trailed as ‘John tackles a week of training with the Castleford rugby league team, as they prepare for a season of success’ it can still be viewed via the excellent RL Cares archive, and provides an intriguing look back to the days before kicking tees, Sky Sports and full-time players.

Great Britain back row Reilly, back at his first club following a successful stint in Australia with Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, plays a central role, as does his right-hand man and former Castleford centre, loose-forward and coach John Sheridan.

After the programmes opens with a games lesson involving a group of local school pupils to outline to basics of the game to viewers – and perhaps Noakes himself, who grew up in Halifax and was a pupil at the rugby union-playing Rishworth School, more recently attended by England 15-a-side star George Ford – the action switches to the Wheldon Road dug-out.

While watching the 16-8 Floodlit Trophy first-round win over Hull KR on Tuesday, October 5th, 1976, Sheridan talks amiably to Noakes about some of the star men in the side.

“That’s Bruce Burton,” he says, referring to the stand-off who scored one of the home team’s two tries in the tie and 29 over the season, when as well as their two trophy triumphs, Castleford finished third in the league (neighbours Featherstone Rovers were champions) and were knocked out in the second round of the Yorkshire Cup, third round of the Challenge Cup and semi-finals of the Premiership, playing 48 matches in all.

“Big-money man is Bruce, we paid £8,000 to Halifax for him (in January 1976), and he’s clicked in this side and given us a dimension we didn’t have before.

“Our fullback is Geoff Wraith. He’s a Wakefield (ex-Trinity) lad and another who has been out in Australia. Then we signed him (in September 1975) and he’s done very well for us.

“Our goal-kicker (and loose-forward) is Sammy Lloyd. He’s been here a while after playing for Fryston Juniors, just down the road.

“Then there’s Malcolm (Reilly). He came through as a junior here, then went out to Australia. Now he’s back as captain and coach.”

There’s also an appearance for unsung hero Peter Cookland, Reilly’s fellow second row forced off during the Hull KR cup-tie – “their lad just fell on me wi’ knee” – and speaking while mopping a bloodied face with the ‘magic’ sponge’.

“You’re a heavy tackler aren’t you?” asks Noakes. “I don’t know about that,” comes the reply. “I just like getting involved – and winning.”

Long-serving Lloyd, who, viewers learn, has worked as a miner since leaving school, then gives instructions in goal-kicking, using a heel to make an indent in the Wheldon Road pitch – “just sit the ball upright in the hole, then you get a really good sight of where your foot is going to come into contact with it” – before Noakes goes on a five-mile run with Burton (“who works for a deep-freeze company”) and winger Trevor Briggs (“a policeman”).

Later on in the show, Noakes and the squad are at a local leisure centre for a weights session and dip in the swimming pool, then a couple of nights later, it’s back out onto the not-so-grassy Wheldon Road surface for a training session which includes players tackling a large tractor tyre and is followed by 1970s-style refuelling – pie and peas in the clubhouse.

The programme’s finale is an internal practice match with Noakes playing in the halves, spectators in attendance and Eddie Waring providing the commentary.

Both Noakes, who died in 2017, and Waring (1986) are now gone, but the recording remains and offers an illuminating snap shot of a time when rugby league was in some ways similar to the current version, but in others, very different.

First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)

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