Tomorrow’s first Test in East Yorkshire will be poignant moment for an 87-year-old who was part of the original battle for an international shirt. Dave Craven reports.
REMEMBER when Great Britain had two colossal loose forwards – Andy Farrell and Paul Sculthorpe – both vying for the same No13 jersey?
There was a couple of pretty talented youngsters behind them in the pecking order, too, in the shape of a certain Kevin Sinfield and Sean O’Loughlin.
However, around 50 years before any of that, the national side was fortunate enough to have not two, but three legendary loose forwards fiercely battling it out to claim that pivotal role.
Indeed, the triumvirate of Johnny Whiteley, Derek ‘Rocky’ Turner, and Vince ‘ The Wild Bull of the Pampas’ Karalius was so good that, following an announcement earlier this week, all three will now sit together in the Rugby League Hall Of Fame.
The late Karalius, of course, was inducted in 2000 – the first forward to be elevated.
I’m delighted Derek is going to be inducted. I’m sure he’d have been really proud. He used to say how when he started at Hull KR he used to look up to me and never thought he’d ever play alongside me.Johnny Whiteley
However, he will be joined in that exalted company next month by both Whiteley, the iconic Hull player, and Turner, who famously captained the great Wakefield Trinity side of the early 1960s.
Whiteley debuted for hometown Hull in 1950 and played more than 400 games for them, and is still regarded now unquestionably as the greatest servant in the club’s history.
Player, captain, coach and president, he has done it all, and is one of the unique few – like the great Clive Sullivan – to earn respect on both sides of the city having coached Hull KR for two years from 1970, the year he led Great Britain to their last Ashes series victory over Australia.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post about being informed he will be inducted at a celebratory dinner in Leeds next month, Whiteley insisted: “I was quite shocked really. I never expected it.
“When you get to my age – I’m 87 – you think time is running out. But when you get any accolade, I always say rugby is a team game and every dedication isn’t just for me but all those I’ve played with and coached.
“And I’ve been fortunate and privileged to have played with and coached some of the very best in what has been a wonderful journey.”
Wakefield-born Turner, an Ashes-winning vice-captain in 1962 who coached Leeds to the Championship 10 years later, died three years ago.
Whiteley added: “I’m delighted Derek is going to be inducted. I’m sure he’d have been really proud. He used to say how when he started at Hull KR he used to look up to me and never thought he’d ever play alongside me.
“But he was a great player and became a great friend. In ‘57, we bunked up together on the World Cup tour of Australia and New Zealand. We got quite close on that trip and obviously played the same position.
“We played together and developed a real bond. We became more like brothers.
“I have to say, mind, I was the thinker and he was the doer!
“With me, Vincy and Rocky, we had a tight-knit community going. I was the elder statesmen of the three but I do feel privileged to be associated with that era when there was an abundance of quality loose forwards.
“What happened was it motivated all of us from really early on.
“Vincy and Rocky both said if they saw I’d got a good write-up in the paper they’d go out and try and play that bit better the following week.
“I’d be the same. We had to reach new heights and quality even though we weren’t playing together and were in opposition.
“It was a great time to play. You could be big enemies during a game when things could get quite naughty with all the little things happening – jealousies, petty arguments – but then step off it and suddenly be best friends. That’s what rugby league is like.
“Take Vincy. As hard a man as you’ll ever see on the field. Off it, he was a pussy cat. A lovely man.”
Whiteley remains an avid follower of Hull and Hull KR. Fittingly, he will be at KCOM Stadium tomorrow to watch England kick-off a three-Test series against New Zealand.
Whiteley was unused in Great Britain’s victorious squad at the first World Cup in 1954 but played every Test on the successful ‘58 Ashes tour, including the Battle of Brisbane.
He scored in the third Test decider as they clinched victory and also featured in Great Britain’s last home Ashes series win in 1959, scoring a crucial try in the second Test at Headingley.
“I scored in the last few minutes and Neil Fox kicked the goal to win it,” he recalled.
“Every time I go to Headingley there’s a big photo of that up in the directors room. It always makes me quite proud seeing that. It’s nice to play a part in history.
“But along with my family, rugby league has been my life – is my life – right up to this very minute. I’ve met some wonderful people and, though there’s ups and downs, I’ve been fortunate to have more ups than downs. I’m very grateful.”