Dave Craven: Legends statue is fitting tribute to rugby league’s landmark year

IT is hard knowing just where to begin encapsulating 120 years of history into a 1,000-word article.

(From left to right) Doreen Ashton (widow of Eric Ashton), Gus Risman, Billy Boston, Alex Murphy and Martin Offiah as  "The Legends" statue of Rugby League legends Martin Offiah, Alex Murphy, Billy Boston, Eric Ashton and Gus Risman is unveiled at Wembley Stadium before the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, London. (Picture: Paul Harding).
(From left to right) Doreen Ashton (widow of Eric Ashton), Gus Risman, Billy Boston, Alex Murphy and Martin Offiah as "The Legends" statue of Rugby League legends Martin Offiah, Alex Murphy, Billy Boston, Eric Ashton and Gus Risman is unveiled at Wembley Stadium before the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, London. (Picture: Paul Harding).

Rugby league celebrated that notable milestone on Saturday when it marked its anniversary on the same day Yorkshire clubs Leeds Rhinos and Hull KR did battle for its most famous trophy – the Challenge Cup.

It was on August 29, 1895, that 22 clubs met at the George Hotel in Huddersfield and voted to break away from the Rugby Football Union in order to set up their own competition – the Northern Union.

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Few then could realistically foresee that the new sport, as it would eventually become with a reduction from 15 players to 13 and removal of line-outs among other changes, would still be going a third different century later.

Yet so it is as this weekend gloriously displayed once more, Leeds rampantly defeating Rovers in front of more than 80,000 fans at Wembley in a game beamed to millions via the BBC.

It was fitting that on the sport’s birthday, a statue immortalising the exploits of five rugby league legends that will stand the test of time, was unveiled at Wembley.

I had the honour of being invited along by the Rugby Football League to see that occur and, as these pictures show, it is clearly a wonderful piece of work.

Eric Ashton MBE, Martin Offiah MBE, Alex Murphy OBE, Gus Risman and Billy Boston MBE are the past players chosen as part of the statue and, with Doreen Ashton representing her late husband and Bev Risman likewise for his father, they were all there to see it displayed.

Ray French, as ever, delivered a brilliant speech describing each of the individuals, particularly poignant for him as he had played with or against Ashton, Murphy and Boston.

There was anecdotes aplenty, not least on the former St Helens and Great Britain scrum-half Murphy, one of only two players to win the Challenge Cup at Wembley with three different clubs.

“He was stood just minutes before a game looking in a mirror combing his hair into that parting of his,” recalled French.

“He was getting it all perfect and I said to him: ‘Murph, we’re about to go out, what you doing that for?’

“His reply was: “Frenchie, your mam and dad might come to watch you but there’ll be 20,000 here to see me.”

Stephen Winterburn is the sculptor of the bronzed statue having already created sculptures of Hull FC and Hull Kingston Rovers icons Clive Sullivan and Peter Flanagan.

The five legends were voted for by a panel of journalists, coaches, players, MPs, national newspaper editors and fans.

Winterburn admitted he had some obstacles during the process but is delighted with the end result and its reception by the public.

“We had a few issues,” he admitted. “Problems with the fabrication of the construction of it as it’s quite a difficult piece to do.

“The design, and the way it was working with the mouldings of the legends etcetera were troubling, too. There’s been a few issues which has made it challenging.

“But to do it in the time that we’ve done it has worked out quite well, to be fair. Working with Alex, Billy and Martin, who came to the studios quite a few times, and the Ashton family and the Rismans has been great.

“They’ve been coming up to the studio a lot to take a look at it and Martin is just blown away by his own sculpture, as are Billy and Alex and the families of Eric and Gus.

“In 20 or 30 years’ time, the statue will still be there as a monument to rugby league for everyone to see how important these legends are to the great game.”

Certainly, from speaking to fans at the game on Saturday, it is being well-received and it is excellent news that it has such a prominent position near to the Sir Bobby Moore statue at the national stadium.

There was, understandably, some gripes that there was no Yorkshire representation on the statue.

You would think Neil Fox, the sport’s greatest points scorer who lifted the Challenge Cup three times with Wakefield Trinity in 1960, 1962 and 1963 as well as being a Lance Todd Trophy winner, would have warranted some recognition.

Nevertheless, the work itself is wonderful.

Offiah, the former Great Britain winger who scored one of the most iconic Challenge Cup final tries for Wigan versus Leeds at Wembley in 1994, said: “This is the pinnacle of my career, without a doubt. I was having a conversation with the sculptor Stephen and we were in agreement that this is the greatest honour any sportsman in any sport could have.

“To have it at the national stadium, too, is beyond anything you could ever dream of.

“When you’re young, you dream about representing your country or playing at Wembley, but whatever your desire is, you never imagine anything like this will be achieved.”

Ironically, after his remarkable record-breaking feat of scoring five tries for Leeds against Rovers on Saturday, Tom Briscoe has already put himself down in Wembley folklore – if a little late for this sort of acknowledgement.

Melvyn Benn, chairman of Wembley National Stadium Limited and a Hull KR fan, had asked Leeds to “be kind” to his side when he addressed the audience.

Clearly, they didn’t heed that but he spoke plenty of truths when saying: “Rugby league has always been a game of the people and that so many thousands had a say on who should make the final selection is testament to the popularity of the sport, but also of these ambassadors that represented both club and country with such distinction.

“The Challenge Cup is often referred to as the ‘friendly final’ and signals a great pilgrimage from all four corners of the country.

“Bank Holiday weekend has become synonymous with sunshine and as a Hull KR supporter, it is a very proud day for me personally to be here for the unveiling of this statue.

“Wembley Stadium, both old and new, has been linked with this great game since 1929, and our shared histories, with some amazing encounters down the years makes it very apt to have a lasting tribute at the stadium.”

RFL chief executive Nigel Wood has been the driving force behind the statue.

He said: “Stephen Winterburn was asked to create an image capturing what is great about rugby league and he has done just that. The statue is exceptional.

“The statue will become a focal point for generations of fans who will come to Wembley and meet ‘at the Rugby League legends statue’.

“Everyone in the game should feel extremely proud.”