The sport, particularly in West Yorkshire, was thrown into mourning on December 27, 1998, when Roy Powell collapsed and died of a massive heart attack following a training session at Rochdale Hornets.
Powell, who was just 33, had a nine-year stint with Leeds before a shock £80,000 transfer to Bradford Northern in 1992.
He later played for Featherstone Rovers and Batley Bulldogs and was player/assistant-coach at Rochdale when his life was cut short tragically.
John Bentley played alongside Powell, a prop or second-rower, at Leeds and remained friends with the good-natured giant afterwards.
Two decades on, he remembers fondly a player he describes as “Mr Reliable” and “the nicest forward in the world”.
He said: “Roy was lovely, he was a 100 per center and was reliable on and off the field.
“You knew what you were going to get and he always delivered. I never saw him punch anybody, which was unusual for a forward. He was great, I had great fun with him.”
Christmas celebrations were extinguished across West Yorkshire’s rugby league heartland when news of Powell’s death came through on the afternoon after Boxing Day.
There had been scares before, most recently earlier that year when he had collapsed during Batley’s Trans-Pennine Cup win over Oldham at Mount Pleasant, but nobody was prepared for his sudden loss.
“I was devastated,” Bentley recalled. “He had collapsed in a game I played in for Leeds, in back play, against Wigan I think. He just went down, but I don’t think there was anything discovered that was a big issue.”
Paul Medley played alongside Powell for both Leeds and Bradford and is also remembering his friend this holiday season.
“My mum died the previous Christmas, so it is always pretty poignant for me,” Medley explained.
“Roy was a sad loss to the game and to his family. I remember coming home to my dad’s, where I was staying over Christmas and Brian Noble [who had played with Powell and Medley at Bradford] rang me to say Roy had passed away that afternoon at training.
“It was a shock and a half. Roy was such a fit bloke, he was a plasterer and he did my house – the ceiling and walls. I remember he was there with his arms above his head all day, then we went training together in the evening!
“For him to go in such circumstances was such a shock for everyone.”
Of Powell as a player, Medley recalled: “When I made my debut he had gone through a year or two earlier and I looked up to him as a young kid who had pushed through and made his mark.
“He had a great work ethic. I was known as a wide-runner and he would get stuck in down the middle and do all the tough stuff. We played second-row together and both ended up at Bradford, which was quite unusual in those days – it wasn’t like today with freedom of movement.
“He was one of the nicest guys going and he is not forgotten. We all miss him and wish he was here today.”
Garry Schofield was a teammate during Powell’s time at Leeds and Great Britain. He said: “Every team needs a Roy Powell. He was sensational, everything you’d want from a rugby league player he had and he would put his body on the line at times when nobody else would.”
Remembering the 1990 Lions tour to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, Schofield added: “He wanted to play every game, he always made himself available. You would never see him in the physio’ room, all he wanted to do was train and play.”
Powell was capped 19 times by Great Britain and played in Leeds’ 1988 Yorkshire Cup final win over Castleford.
His funeral was held in January, 1999. Coaches, players and officials mingled with fans at a packed church in Birkenshaw, with hundreds more standing outside in the snow to listen to the service on loudspeakers.
Dewsbury-born, he was being remembered at today’s pre-season derby between Batley Bulldogs and his hometown club, when the Roy Powell Trophy will be up for grabs.