ANY lingering suspicions that rugby league remains uneasy about its own rich and colourful past were dispelled last year when the sport marked its 120-year anniversary in some style.
Two decades on from the missed opportunity of its centenary, a game forged from working class values of equality and fairness finally paid due respect to the vision of its founding fathers and gave special recognition to some of its all-time heroes.
A blue heritage plaque was installed at, or near the site of, the grounds of the 22 original clubs which formed the Northern Union in 1895, and all the venues were visited on the Founders Walk, an activity led by Nigel Wood, the Rugby Football League’s chief executive.
At Wembley last August, the sport unveiled a bronze statue featuring five all-time greats – Martin Offiah, Eric Ashton, Alec Murphy, Gus Risman and Billy Boston – to commemorate a relationship with the national stadium which goes all the way back to 1929.
The celebrations were in stark contrast to the events of 1995, when the blood-letting that ensued from the Rupert Murdoch-led battle for broadcast rights in Australia saw a significant juncture in rugby league’s history go largely unmarked.
It did not help that some members of the administrative regime at the time shared Henry Ford’s view that ‘history is bunkum’, a situation highlighted by the decision to stand down the game’s official historian, the estimable Robert Gate, from his position.
His shoddy treatment from the governing body led to Gate turning his back on the sport completely, as did many others who disagreed with the switch in seasons from winter to summer that came in 1996 and which was fated to happen with or without Murdoch’s millions.
Rugby league is nothing if not robust and the Super League era has proved to be one of growth for a sport which has finally grasped that fostering progress and cherishing heritage can not only occur simultaneously, but when done properly, are mutually beneficial.
The revival of the Rugby League Hall of Fame in 2013 after an eight-year hiatus served to demonstrate the new-found desire to acknowledge the past and in the last three years this most exclusive of clubs has grown to feature the 25 greatest players to have played the game in the UK since 1895.
Garry Schofield OBE, Martin Offiah MBE and Shaun Edwards OBE have all joined the sporting pantheon from the modern era, as have Malcolm Reilly OBE, Willie Horne, Mick Sullivan, Lewis Jones and Albert Goldthorpe.
The induction in 2013 of Sullivan, who with Schofield shares the record for Great Britain international appearances of 46 caps, righted what many had perceived to be a wrong by him not being one of the original Hall of Fame entries in 1988.
Sadly, by the time he received his Hall of Fame medal alongside Schofield, Offiah and Jones, a player widely regarded as one of the greatest wingers in either code of rugby anywhere in the world, was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s and knew little of what was going on.
That most cruel of diseases which strips away memory and humanity layer by inexorable layer finally claimed the life of the former Dewsbury, Huddersfield, York, Wigan and St Helens flier in April at the age of 82.
The game was still in mourning a month later when another legend from the Hall of Fame, the mercurial Roger Millward, passed away after a long and courageous battle against illness aged just 68.
Millward, a member of the last Great Britain team to win the rugby league Ashes in Australia in 1970, is the most talented player to don the famous red and white of Hull Kingston Rovers, the club he led to their proudest moment in 1980, a 10-5 victory over the old enemy Hull FC in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley.
‘Roger the Dodger’, as the BBC TV commentator Eddie Waring invariably called him, played much of the final with a broken jaw, an injury that never fully healed and which ultimately contributed to his death 36 years later.
In a previous era, the passing of two players who represent the best of the best would only have been marked at their funerals but in a sign of the new-found desire to honour its heroes, the careers of Millward and Sullivan will be remembered at a dinner in Hull on Tuesday evening.
Organised by Rugby League Cares, the charity which is championing the preservation and celebration of the game’s rich heritage, the ‘Roger and Sully’ dinner brings together the Millward and Sullivan families and all-time greats such as Alec Murphy OBE, Billy Boston MBE, Reilly and Schofield to put some perspective on how great the two players were.
Murphy, who was once sent off alongside Sullivan in the 1960 Championship semi-final for fighting with the winger in a heated St Helens-Wigan derby, has no doubts as to the credentials of either player.
“Sully was the best winger I played with or against, without a doubt,” said Murphy, who sat alongside Sullivan on a touchline bench to watch the rest of the semi-final after both men had showered.
“He was a lovely man off the field, quiet, gentle and as far removed from the bloke who got me sent off as it’s possible to get.”
Schofield met Sullivan for the first time immediately after he had equalled the winger’s Great Britain record in the third Test against the 1994 Kangaroos.
“I was taken aback at how pleased he was for me to have equalled his record,” recalled Schofield.
“Mick’s 46 caps meant a lot to him, as do mine to me, and it’s a mark of the man that he sincerely hoped I’d go on to take the record on my own.
“I never did, and though it was hard at the time because playing for your country is something you never want to stop doing, but in some ways I’m pleased I stayed on 46 alongside such a legend of the game.”
Reilly was a team-mate of Millward at Castleford before the stand-off’s move to Hull KR in 1966, having previously played with him in the Under-14s district schools team, a partnership they would renew in the cut and thrust of the 1970 Ashes series.
“Roger was as good a player as I’ve ever seen,” said Reilly. “Offensively there was no one better and in defence he had the heart of lion, sometimes at the expense of his own welfare.
“I feel privileged to have played alongside him and proud of the fact that Roger was my friend.”
Tickets for the Roger Millward and Mick Sullivan celebration dinner are still available and cost £40 each or £375 including VAT for a table of 10. To book contact Katie Irwin at Rugby League Cares, Katharine.Irwin@rlcares.org.uk