It is sad to report the passing of one of Saints’ Welsh imports - rumbustious front-rower Roger Owen - at the age of 67.
St Helens RFC Heritage Number #947
Born: Llanelli, 13th December 1953
Died: Llanelli, 20th July 2021
The famous ‘Dad’s Army team of the 1970s was breaking up by the start of the new decade and the club embarked on a period of re-building the playing squad to eventually mount a challenge for honours once more.
A former pupil of Llanelli Secondary Modern School, Roger Owen was signed by the Saints from the New Dock Stars RUFC junior club, having established a reputation as a powerful and mobile front-rower. A miner, he had also played for Llanelli and at 5ft 10ins and just over 16 stones was a positively daunting player to nullify at club level. He had also previously turned down an offer from Hull FC to turn professional. A Welsh Youth International, he joined several Welshmen at Knowsley Road, including full-back Clive Griffiths, centre Steve Bayliss, winger Roy Mathias and fellow front rower Mel James.
Roger got off to a great start in the red vee with an impressive performance for the Reserves at Warrington and made his senior debut against Castleford at Knowsley Road on 26th October 1980, with Mel James in the front row and Dennis Nulty at hooker. Saints lost 5-8 with a try and goal from full-back Griffiths, but Roger certainly did not look out of place.
When he signed, the 26 year old was quoted as saying “I like to knock people down” and soon became a big crowd favourite as he smashed into the defensive line, his chunky, almost barrel-like appearance reminiscent of Leeds front rower Steve Pitchford. Long-time supporter Adrian Lawrenson recalls that the bearded one had “an intimidating on-field demeanor towards his opponents. He was a hard-working forward who would never shun the ‘hard yards’ whilst at the same time rousing the supporters with his aggression and never-say-die attitude.”
One of the abiding images of Roger, by cameraman Brian Peers, showed him absolutely caked in cloying mud during a match at Knowsley Road against Warrington in those challenging winter conditions. He was a real character and was also rarely seen without his trademark fishermans’ hat. “He was a powerful man for sure,” remembers his former Coach Kel Coslett. “He was a great scrummager too, coming from Union, when scrums were also well-contested in rugby league in those days.”
It was a challenging time for the club in the early 1980s, yet Roger did play in two semi-finals for the club, in the Challenge Cup during his first season [lost 5-22 against Hull KR] and a Lancashire Cup semi-final loss against Leigh on 2nd September 1981 at Hilton Park [6-20].
Roger was proud to represent his country on two occasions: against France at Narbonne on 31st January 1981 [lost 3-23] and against England at Ninian Park, Cardiff, on 8th November 1981, when they were narrowly defeated 15-20 by England. In both games Roger came on from the bench, replacing his team-mate Mel James, in France and Tommy David in Cardiff. He has the Welsh RL Heritage Number #326
Coach Kel Coslett was replaced by another club stalwart Billy Benyon and Roger was utilised in place of the injured Mel James at the start of the 1982-83 campaign. When James returned, Roger was to make just one more appearance for the Saints, on 15th September 1982 in the 9-6 win at Barrow in a Lancashire Cup second round tie. Gary Bottell and Graham Liptrot were in the front row with him that evening, with future star forward Andy Platt on the bench. By the end of October, Benyon had signed the experienced Paul Grimes, which effectively signalled the end of Roger’s career at Knowsley Road.
Roger was initially transfer-listed at £40,000 by the club and Cardiff Blue Dragons were interested, but he just called it a day after 45 appearances in the red vee and four tries.
A job with a tunnelling company saw him involved in a series of accidents. The last saw him receive numerous stitches in a wound below his left eye. “I have always been a 100% man and I have given Saints 100%,” he said shortly before returning to Wales and no-one could ever doubt his commitment on the field.”
Roger was in contact with the Saints’ Player’s Association and visited the new Saints stadium a couple of years ago, renewing acquaintances with some old friends, although he was plagued by ill-health for several years.
Everyone at St.Helens R.F.C. send their condolences to Roger’s family at this sad time, especially wife Barbara, daughters Claire and Nicola and son Gary.
Thanks to Alex Service for the words.