Eric Ashton

Rugby league legend Eric Ashton was the most aristocratic of centres.

A tall, commanding figure, he strode through the 1950s and 1960s with a distinguished style that set him apart from his contemporaries.

A gentleman, on and off the field, the working class lad from St Helens became the first rugby league player to be honoured by the Queen when he was made an MBE in 1966.

Ashton, who died aged 73 last week after a long battle against cancer, wanted to play for his home town club. But after joining the St Helens B team he became disillusioned with their apparent lack of interest and quit playing while still only 16.

It was not until he was doing his National Service two years later that he came out of pre-mature retirement and began playing rugby union for the Royal Artillery.

Word soon reached Wigan that here was a promising player with a touch of class and after he left the Army in 1955 they persuaded the naive youngster to sign for just 150. It was to prove the famous club's greatest bargain as he played for no other in a 14-year career that amassed 497 appearances and brought him 1,589 points from 231 tries and 448 goals.

Although a great player in his own right, Ashton was also one half of probably the best centre-wing partnerships of all time, along with Billy Boston, at club and international level. They totalled over 700 tries for Wigan and both were inducted into the RFL's Hall of Fame.

Ashton was destined to be a great captain and led Wigan a record six times in RL Challenge Cup finals at Wembley, lifting the trophy three times.

Captaincy of Great Britain was inevitable and in a 26-match Test career he led them 15 times, including on the 1962 tour of Australasia when they won the Ashes and in 1960 when he lifted the World Cup.

Ashton's leadership qualities also brought him success as a coach, taking over at Wigan in 1963 while still playing. He remains one of the few player-coaches to carry off the Cup at Wembley, following their defeat of Hunslet in the classic 1965 final.

His long association with Wigan ended in 1973 and he had one season at Leeds, earning the rare distinction as a coach of adding the Yorkshire Cup to a Lancashire Cup success. The following year he finally went home to the club who had turned him down as a youngster and in a six-year spell as coach steered St Helens to the championship and Challenge Cup success. In 1977 he was named coach of the year and two years later he was in charge of the Great Britain squad that toured Australia and New Zealand.

Ashton later joined the board at St Helens and went on to become the only person to captain, coach and be the chairman of a winning team at Wembley. Five years ago St Helens made him a life president of the club.

He leaves his wife, Doreen, and daughters Michelle and Beverley.