Sporting Bygones: Emerging from the ranks as Yorkshire county rugby enjoys fabulous golden era

ONE of the enduring strengths of Yorkshire sport across the spectrum of disciplines has been the constant flow of talented performers from youth level into the senior game ensuring that the county can be confident of representation whenever national teams are selected.

Cricket, golf, squash, athletics, both codes of rugby, football, swimming and equestrianism are just a few of the sports in which Yorkshire provide quality performers and those who follow each will have their own thoughts of which crop of youngsters was the best of their time.

Rugby union in Yorkshire has enjoyed a tradition of being doubly blessed with two channels for promising lads to take on their way to the higher levels of the game, the schools system and the colts organisation, a body set up in the early Sixties to ensure that youngsters leaving school at 16 did not miss out on the opportunity of rugby progress.

Both have enjoyed huge success in producing players of the highest quality and have been fortunate to have had administrators and coaches with the ability and commitment to develop raw talent into young men ready to graduate into open-age rugby and fulfil their potential.

The group of boys pictured on a snow-covered pitch at Otley's Cross Green ground in 1979 before facing Northumberland Schools would be among the contenders should any vote be taken on which Yorkshire

18-Group squad was the best, certainly over the past 50 or so years.

Two of the squad – scrum-half Nigel Melville and hooker Brian Moore – would play for the British Lions and England; another, centre Bryan Barley, would win eight caps for his country and also represent the Barbarians.

Melville, a product of Aireborough Grammar School, became England's youngest captain when he made his debut against Australia at Twickenham in November, 1984 at the age of 23, having previously led the England 18-Group Schools on their tour of Australia, a squad in which Barley also figured.

Injury blighted Melville's career and restricted him to 13 England appearances, seven as captain, and it was typical of his ill luck that when he was called on to join the 1983 Lions in New Zealand as replacement for Terry Holmes, he was injured in his second match and ruled out of the rest of the tour.

After retiring early, he became a successful coach, first with Wasps, who he had joined after playing for Otley and Wakefield, then with Gloucester, and he is now chief executive officer of USA Rugby.

Moore would enjoy a career which brought 64 England appearances, during which he shared in three grand slams, and five Tests for the Lions. Never lacking in aggression, even in his schoolboy days with Crossley and Porter GS in Halifax and the Old Crossleyans club, Moore made an impact on the national scene first with Nottingham then with Harlequins when he moved to London to take up a career in the law.

Never reluctant to give an opinion on anything, Moore became famous for reading Shakespeare to his team-mates in the dressing room before matches and his exhortations on the field occasionally brought embarrassment when caught by TV microphones.

He carried his forthright attitude into his entrepreneurial career after ceasing to practice as a solicitor in 2003 and is now a fixture in the BBC rugby commentary team as well as writing a twice-weekly newspaper column.

Bryan Barley was never drawn by the lure of London, preferring to stay in Yorkshire after studying at Leeds University, playing his club rugby mainly with Wakefield and latterly with Sandal while making a career in insurance.

From his earliest days at Normanton GS, he had a reputation as a fearsome tackler – hence the nickname "Buffer" – but he was much more than that, a sublime centre with soft hands, a precise sense of timing and deceptive pace; he was also a fine kicker of the ball – in short, a brilliant all-round footballer who could make, take and prevent tries with equal facility. He should have earned far more than his seven England caps, the first of which came against Ireland in 1984.

But it would be wrong to suggest that the 1979 Yorkshire Schools squad had only three stars. Many of the players would enjoy lengthy careers in the club game and three more in particular made an impact outside the county.

John Ellison, a rangy No 8 who earned two Blues for Cambridge, played for Yorkshire in the County Championship as a member of Wasps when the London club seemed to provide a haven for players from the North who moved to the capital, while prop Martin Whitcombe enjoyed his rugby with the RAF, the Combined Services, Sale, Leicester, Leeds and Yorkshire, earning selection for England A. He now coaches Skipton.

Peter Buckton, a Hull-born back-row forward did not play for Yorkshire Schools in their match against Northumberland at Otley because of injury but he became a hugely influential player for Yorkshire and Liverpool St Helens before becoming a successful coach with Waterloo.

Buckton, whose younger brother John played for England at centre while with Saracens, was a brilliant, audacious footballer, always looking to keep the ball alive and never shirking the chance to try something different. Only a lack of bulk – and the unfailing excellence of Headingley's Peter Winterbottom at open-side – denied Buckton the chance to play for his country.

He, perhaps more than any other player, summed up the "Yorkshire style" which brought so much pleasure to so many – on and off the field – in a period when county rugby in the region enjoyed a golden era, a period when those who came through the ranks of schools and colts were encouraged to play the game.