Memories of ‘Toowoomba Ghost’ sparked by milestone anniversary

Officials prepare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the game in the city of Leeds.
Officials prepare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the game in the city of Leeds.
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WHEN people think of Leeds rugby players of yesteryear, they will invariably include, among others, the likes of Lewis Jones, Arthur Clues and Mick Shoebottom.

All legends of different eras: Jones being the brilliant Welsh maestro who led the Loiners to their first league title in 1961; Clues, the magnificent Kangaroos second-row, who became such a formidable player for them after World War II, and Shoebottom, another superbly gifted half-back whose blossoming career was cruelly cut short by injury in 1971.

For those with longer memories, there are other famous blue and amber icons to recollect, too.

Indeed, my granddad, who celebrated his 90th birthday on New Year’s Day, can still vividly recount tales of 1930s wingman Eric Harris – and certainly with more clarity and detail than that aforementioned party in January.

A smile always emerges when telling how Harris, his teacher at the time, would “sort it” with the headmaster so he could leave early from lessons to go training with Leeds schoolboys.

Harris would actually give him a lift at times, too, and, after helping beat Warrington at Wembley, brought in his 1936 Challenge Cup winner’s medal to show his pupils, much to their obvious delight.

Yet, it is remarkable to think that rugby – of some variety – had actually been played in the city of Leeds for fully 66 years before the Toowoomba Ghost, as he was universally known, even whirled into Headingley in 1930.

There are very few records detailing the original stars of their day who flourished ever since Henry Jenkinson, a railway clerk, decided to place an advertisement in the Leeds Mercury in 1864 stating: “FOOTBALL. – WANTED, a number of persons to FORM a FOOTBALL CLUB for playing on Woodhouse Moor a few days a week, from seven to eight am.”

But from that seed some mighty oaks – particularly looking at the modern-day rugby player – have certainly grown.

Thursday officially marked the anniversary of rugby first being played in the city, the date of the first game played by the original Leeds club versus Sheffield in 1865.

Leeds Rugby Foundation, which is the charity of Leeds Rugby aimed at delivering projects in the heart of the community, hosted a Champagne breakfast at John Charles Centre for Sport, the home of Hunslet Hawks, to mark the occasion and continue their ongoing celebrations.

Hunslet, of course, have played such a significant role in Leeds rugby history, too, even if the myrtle and flame – founded later in 1883 – are often classed as the poor neighbours.

It was fitting that those attending last week also celebrated the 1938 Rugby League Championship final between the famous rivals.

Hunslet, who had lifted the Challenge Cup at Wembley in 1934, prospered 8-2 in the first and only all-Leeds final.

More than 54,000 fans witnessed it at Elland Road and it has always been deemed as the biggest sporting event staged in the city, though a certain bicycle race from across the Channel may lay claim to that accolade early next month.

Hunslet had been the first team to win “all four cups” – the Challenge Cup, Rugby Football League Championship, Yorkshire League and Yorkshire Cup – in 1908 with the luminary Albert Goldthorpe as captain.

Though their fortunes have clearly diminished in recent decades, they remain one of the most evocative names in the sport.

Though rugby union currently struggles to compete with its league variation in the city, there is still a mass of 15-man heritage entwined in Leeds.

In 1893, for instance, Scotland actually played England in the only rugby union international to be staged at Headingley, the visitors from north of the border emerging 8-0 victors.

The previous year, Headingley FC was founded, one of the north’s leading rugby union clubs and a forerunner of the current Leeds Carnegie side, but also one that would unearth such great players as Ian McGeechan and, later, England and British Lions openside Peter Winterbottom.

Roundhay, who merged with Headingley to form Leeds RUFC, did not arrive until 1924.

In the professional era, Leeds Tykes (Carnegie) have undoubtedly witnessed mixed fortunes.

Granted, there have been highs such as the unforgettable shock Powergen Cup final win over a pre-eminent Bath club at Twickenham in 2005.

Likewise, playing among the cream of Europe’s finest teams in the Heineken Cup was a notable feat, too, and I, for one, have fond memories of covering Phil Davies’s side in Toulouse when that star-studded French club was near the peak of its powers.

But the yo-yo nature of their relationship between the Premiership and Championship has, understandably, had a destabilising effect.

For all the union club have added to the rich tapestry of rugby in the city, it will be interesting to see how the two marry in a few months when they are re-branded Yorkshire Carnegie in a bid to make them a more consistent entity.

Meanwhile, a raft of events have already taken place to commemorate this 150th anniversary.

For example, in April there was the launch of a celebratory exhibition at the Leeds Central Library which held a display of 150 images of all facets of rugby across the city in the 15 decades since its inception.

There were talks, too, from the likes of Professor Tony Collins, the doyen with regards to this subject who discussed the origins and history of the game in Leeds, painting a picture of the day when, among other what would now be classed as surreal occurrences, players would turn out wearing glasses, schools teams would play adult sides and ‘soccer’ was unheard of in West Yorkshire.

McGeechan, Leeds Rhinos president Harry Jepson OBE and Garry Schofield OBE have also shared their memories.

Next month, there will be a children’s open day at Headingley and also a special dinner celebrating the 10th anniversary of Leeds Rhinos’ first Grand Final win.

Having started in yesteryear, it would be remiss not to refer to the current side.

Without doubt, it is the most successful in the club’s long history, with six titles in 10 years a truly astonishing feat.

It could be argued their captain Kevin Sinfield, last week awarded an MBE for his services to rugby league, is the greatest Leeds rugby player of all time, but that is for another column.

Nevertheless, the likes of Danny McGuire, Rob Burrow and Jamie Peacock are firmly established as legends.

Who will flourish in the next 150 years?