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Cliff Watson: A Tribute

Rugby League folk in Britain and Australia are mourning the passing of one of the toughest front-row forwards who ever played the game at club and international level, after a battle with oesophageal cancer.

Cliff Watson was 78.

This is the guy who was ideally suited to the rigours of the game in the 1960s and early 1970s when he made 30 appearances for Great Britain. Cliff is also a member of the 17 Greats of St.Helens R.F.C. [2010] and a Cronulla Legend [2003] and Dream Team member [2006]. He went on to win every major honour and his story is truly quite out of the ordinary.

Cliff was born in Stepney on April 26 1940, if not necessarily within the sound of Bow Bells, then certainly air raid sirens! The family were bombed out by the Luftwaffe and the family went back to his father’s birthplace in Dudley, in the West Midlands, never to return. It was there that his rugby odyssey began, as a hooker, for the local Dudley Kingswinford club. He made excellent progress in the fifteen-a-side code and played at county level for Worcester and Hereford, but wanted something different.

The search for big, powerful forwards knew no bounds during the summer of 1960, as the St. Helens Board took the unprecedented step of paying £400 for an advertising campaign in the national press, inviting top class rugby union packmen to write to Knowsley Road for trials. His prospective trade as an apprentice toolmaker at Newey Brothers, in Tipton, had stalled because of a rugby injury and he was transferred to the stores.

One of his workmates showed him the Saints’ advert from the latest edition of the Sporting Chronicle. To get paid for playing rugby clearly appealed. Cliff decided to give it a go and put pen to paper: “In reply to your advertisement in the Sporting Chronicle for Rugby Football players, I offer you my services. I play Rugby Union Football for Dudley Kingswinford as a second row forward and played open side prop for Worcestershire and Herefordshire combined counties last season. I am 20 years of age, 6⅝ tall and weigh 15st. 6lbs. I should be grateful if you would consider my application. Watson was invited for trials and duly signed for the club for an initial sum of £750!”

It was a masterstroke! He made his debut in the 17-9 home win against Liverpool City on August 15 1960, when his front-row partners were Abe Terry and hooker Bob Dagnall. Progress was swift for a somewhat disbelieving Watson – and how! He was selected for his first big match after just ten games for the seniors, in the 1961 Challenge Cup Final against Wigan at Wembley.

Although playing blind-side prop, Cliff was extremely mobile with an abundance of energy and proved to be a fine cover defender. Indeed, his part in a superb cover tackle in the corner, on Wigan’s star winger Billy Boston, at a crucial time in the match, ensured a Saints’ victory by 12-6. At one stage it looked like a nailed on try and with it, Wigan could well have lifted the trophy! Stand-off Alex Murphy later reckoned that there were very few front-rowers who could have done what he did to save the game. At just 21 years of age he had duly arrived in the big time.

The early 1960s saw the Saints crowned Cup Kings of Lancashire, three times against Swinton [1961, 1962 and 1964] and once against Leigh in 1963. Cliff played in them all, apart from the 1964 final when he was a non-playing substitute. He proved to be a dependable and durable member of a pack that contained other players imported from the union code, such as Ray French, John Warlow and John Mantle.

Watson was naturally strong and his work as a drayman for Greenall Whitley certainly helped to keep him in trim. He was a real grafter, who would take the ball up from his own line and was capable of crashing through opposing defences at the other end. The loss of a finger on his left hand meant that handling a rugby ball was never easy for him and he had to adjust the way he caught and gave a pass accordingly. Yet no-one liked being tackled by Cliff, in his all-embracing ‘bear-hug’ manner and when the going got tough, he didn’t take any prisoners, driving the ball in relentlessly – the perfect man to have by your side in the trenches!

In 1965/66 Watson and the St. Helens pack were outstanding as the club won four trophies: League Leaders, Lancashire League, Championship and Challenge Cup, the latter against deadly rivals Wigan, in front of Wembley’s first 100,000 crowd. Cliff won every major honour in the game with St. Helens, playing in 16 finals overall, including replays. He added to his collection of Lancashire Cup winner’s medals with further successes in 1967 and 1969 and captained the side to one of their greatest triumphs – a 24-12 victory over a powerful Leeds side at Odsal in 1970. A broken arm robbed him of a third Championship final success the following year. He was immensely popular amongst the Knowsley Road faithful, who rewarded the ‘Iron Man’ with a successful Testimonial cheque of more than £3,000, in the summer of 1971!

Ray French was one of Cliff’s best friends. “I used to knock around with Cliff and John Warlow and I remember that we were almost in competition on the field with each other with our running and tackling. There were shouts of encouragement and some gentle verbal put-downs, for sure. Cliff used to give me a lift to training and to get the coach at Knowsley Road for away games and he was a real character, with a superb sense of humour.

“As a player, he was extremely fit and had great enthusiasm. He was a drayman for Greenall Whitley at one stage and during the [school] summer holidays I used to go with him occasionally on deliveries. He had no problem at all lifting the heaviest barrels above his head. He was terrifically strong, for sure. I roomed with him on the World Cup tour in 1968 and I will never forget the day I signed for Widnes. Cliff rolled up at our house to get the coach for Swinton and I said ‘I’m not going with you, I’m playing at Naughton Park this afternoon.’ He didn’t believe me and was quite upset. He remained a great friend and I visited Cliff and Barbara in Australia on a number of occasions and was always made welcome.”

His physical and mental toughness were tailor-made for the rigours of Test Match football, where he never took a backward step. He made his international debut at Swinton in the Second Test against Australia on November 9 1963, a 50-12 victory for the Kangaroos, the first time the Ashes had been lost on home soil since 1911/12.

Yet Watson kept his place for the final game in the rubber at Headingley, which the British won and he was one of three players sent off in a torrid 80 minutes! Watson did become an automatic choice for his country, however, playing in 30 test matches for Great Britain – the most capped Saint in red, white and blue! He was vice-captain of the side against the Aussies at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1970, when Britain won 21-17 to win the Ashes for the last time, one of his proudest moments! He was selected for two tours ‘Down Under’ in 1966 and 1970, also taking part in two World Cup campaigns, in 1968 and 1970.

His clashes with Australians such as Arthur Beetson and Jim Morgan were definitely not for the feint-hearted, but despite his ‘hard man’ image, he could also play some memorable football, typified by his 20 yard blockbuster try in the First Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1966.

Cliff’s final appearance for his country was at Knowsley Road, on March 17 1971, when the French were defeated 24-2. He also captained England, against Wales at Salford, on November 7 1968, another occasion he remembered with great pride.

At any level, Cliff was also great for team spirit.

“The fellow was a particular favourite of mine,” recalled former Saints’ Chairman Harry Cook. “One match day he came up to the Directors’ room with his boots, socks and shorts on – no jersey. I asked him what it was all about. ‘They want to see you downstairs,’ he said in a real gruff voice. ‘And we’re not putting our jerseys on until you come down.’ So I thought – it must be money – because in those days they got so much per match, they didn’t have contracts.

“So I went downstairs and asked them what the problem was. They all started laughing. ‘We just wanted to see the look on your face when you came down!’ said Cliff with that mischievous grin.”

After 373 games for St. Helens, scoring 57 tries; two Championship finals, three Lancashire League titles, two Challenge Cups and five county cup successes, it was time to move on as a new challenge beckoned.

He joined the Australian Club Cronulla Sutherland at the start of the 1971/72 season, where his former Saints and Great Britain team-mate Tommy Bishop was Captain-Coach. The pair of them helped to galvanise the Sharks to their best campaign since their formation in 1967 and they played together in the 1973 Grand Final, when Cronulla lost to Manly 7-10 in an often torrid encounter [the ‘dirtiest final ever’ stated one exasperated correspondent] at the Sydney Cricket Ground in front of a crowd of over 50,000. Yet Cliff was rarely injury-free and played 38 matches for the Sharks in three seasons, scoring nine tries. He finished his career with a spell as Captain-Coach of the Wollongong Wolves junior club. He won the Minor Premiership with them and was also a Grand final runner up [1974].

Cliff remained in Australia for the rest of his life. He lived not too far away from Cronulla Sharks, at Miranda, in the Sutherland Shire and was associated with the Men of League organisation, raising money to help former players who have fallen on hard times. Cliff always appreciated the life-changing effect rugby league had on his life and was only too glad to give something back. On the field, he was truly uncompromising; off it – and ask anyone who knew him – he had a heart of gold!

At this sad time, we especially send our condolences to his wife, Barbara and daughters Gaynor, Tina and Kareena.

Born London 26 April 1940 – Died Miranda NSW 2 May 2018

Written by Alex Service

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