Former Bradford Northern, Leeds and Great Britain hooker Tony Fisher’s pride as 1970 legends finally get due recognition

Former GB hooker Tony Fisher and RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer
Former GB hooker Tony Fisher and RFL chief executive Ralph Rimmer
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ONE of rugby league’s most remarkable stories could so easily never have happened.

The achievements of the most successful Great Britain team in the sport’s history was celebrated at the RL Lions Association’s reunion luncheon on Saturday.

Fifty years after their Ashes-winning success, the 1970 Lions were guests of honour at the sold-out event at the Cedar Court Hotel, Bradford.

Of the 24 matches they played on the long, arduous tour of Australia and New Zealand, the Lions won 22, drew one and lost just one; it is no surprise the room of more than 450 people rose to give them a standing ovation as – half a century on – they finally received their medals for the truly iconic feat.

Great Britain have still not beaten the Kangaroos over an Ashes series since.

In 1970, the solitary defeat was a 37-15 loss against the Kangaroos at Lang Park in Brisbane, the first of a three Test series.

Given the sizeable reverse, played out in front of a 42,807 attendance, few could have expected the tourists to turn things around quite like they did.

However, coach Johnny Whiteley made a raft of bold changes to his side a fortnight later and the result was emphatic as the Lions – despite seeing Leeds centre Syd Hynes sent-off – eased to a 28-7 success at the Sydney Cricket Ground, stunning the majority of a 60,000 crowd to level the series.

Among the seven alterations to the side, the brilliant Roger Millward came in at stand-off for Castleford’s Alan Hardisty, scoring two tries and kicking six goals from as many attempts.

But Tony Fisher, the Bradford Northern and Wales hooker who had proved such a hit following his code switch from Swansea in 1964, was also one of those who benefited.

He, too, scored after taking Peter Flanagan’s spot and he retained his place for the third and final Test, a 21-17 victory back at the SCG in which the Kangaroos were outscored five tries to one.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post, Fisher recalled: “There was a lot of people selected like myself who a lot of people thought would go on tour and not really feature in the Tests.

“When we got over there, obviously they had to start somewhere and they selected the stars who they thought would be good.

“But they lost the first Test so they brought us understudies in like Dennis Hartley, myself and Jimmy Thompson in the pack.

“We were grafters weren’t we? We weren’t ball players just real grafters.

“But it was proved we could be picked with the best of them. It was great.”

Fisher, 76, hailed the impact of Whiteley, the former Hull loose-forward who had helped the Lions win Down Under in 1962 before moving into coaching.

“I do have to mention one thing; a lot of it was down to Johnny,” he said.

“There was no slander, no boot throwing and nothing at all like that with him.

“He just treated us like men. He was a proper gentleman and knew his football; he knew what was what.

“I think with the other management, on that first Test, you have to find out who can do what but afterwards they changed it.

“And personally, not just because I was picked, Johnny got some good combinations and got the best out of us.

“He looked after us, too. There were no threats flying around, he just treated us like men and we went out and did what we did.”

It was the hosts who saw a player dismissed in the third Test, the great Arthur Beetson getting his marching orders as the Ashes slipped away from Australia who had won the previous three series.

Fisher admitted: “They were a star-studded side. But it was marvellous playing alongside the likes of Dennis Hartley and Jimmy Thompson.

“We’d do the graft and all that with people like Cliff Watson and it allowed Dougie Laughton to do his stuff out wide. He had a great change of pace.

“There was Malcolm (Reilly), too, although he could play both style of games; Mal was hard but could play with the football as well and had pace.

“Roger (Millward) came to the fore and not only that, you then had Mick Shoebottom play at full-back, something you wouldn’t have thought of.

“But (Castleford’s) Derek Edwards got injured and Mick went in there and he just starred.”

It emerged Shoebottom, the graceful Leeds player whose career was ended the following year in tragic circumstances, played a part in bringing Fisher to Headingley.

“I was still at Bradford when we were on tour but apparently – when we got back – I was led to believe that Syd, Mick and one or two Leeds players said they wanted to sign me,” he explained.

“They told Leeds they wanted me to play with them; to be quite frank, I don’t think they wanted to play against me!”

Fisher joined Leeds and spent six years there before moving on to Castleford to join the likes of prop Hartley, his Lions colleague who sadly died last year.

Recollecting that Lions tour, Fisher admitted: “It’s just like yesterday.

“I’ve very good memories of it all and personally I was always disappointed that rugby league never recognised just how good a side we were and how well we did on that tour.

“When we were on tour the locals – the Australians – started to appreciate us with the rugby we provided.

“We got tremendous crowds all over on that tour right throughout and even against the country teams. It was a marvellous trip.

“I managed to score in that second Test, intercepting a pass and sprinting about 25 yards.”

Fisher joined ten of the 14 surviving members of the 26-man squad as well as Whiteley at the reunion lunch on Saturday to receive their commemorative medal.

Ray Dutton, Hardisty, Keith Hepworth, Laughton, Hull KR legend Phil Lowe, Reilly, Dave Robinson, Barry Seabourne, Alan Smith and former Featherstone forward Thompson were the others.

In addition, the families of Millward, Chris Hesketh, Hartley and Clive Sullivan were all there to accept their medals, too, in front of a star-studded gathering.

Fisher, who went on to coach Keighley, Bramley and Doncaster as well as union side Otley once his playing days were over, said: “It is really nice to be appreciated for what we did.

“When you do think about it, to do what we did to them on their own patch as well, it was a great achievement, especially knowing how they were playing their football at the time.

“Everybody thought they’d be all over us but Johnny Whiteley took over and picked the players who were able to do the job .

“It was great to see so many old friends, too, and spend time with them again.”