In Memoriam: Bill Francis

St.Helens R.F.C. is saddened to learn about the passing of Saint #925, Bill Francis.

Bill sadly passed away on the 17th February, at the age of 76.

His silky skills from stand-off were a feature of the Saints team’s attacking prowess for two seasons. He signed for St.Helens from local rivals Wigan for an £8,000 fee, where he made his senior debut at the tender age of 16.

He made his St.Helens bow against Hull FC at Knowsley Road on 16th October 1977 and scored a try as Saints overwhelmed their opponents to the tune of 52-14, with Bill feeding the threequarter line with some telling passes, scoring a try himself for good measure. He was a vastly experienced campaigner, of course, playing over 400 times for Wigan and at representative level with Yorkshire, Wales and Great Britain.

William Lloyd Francis was born in Featherstone and qualified for Wales courtesy of his Welsh grandfather. He came to prominence playing with the Featherstone Under 17s team in the early 1960s against opponents such as another future international ‘great’ Roger Millward, from Castleford. He had gained a reputation as a fine utility player at Central Park but was earmarked for the number 6 jersey in the red vee.

Saints were an ageing side when Bill joined, with a ‘Dad’s Army’ tag from the 1976 Challenge Cup final against Widnes that stayed with them. Yet they responded to Bill’s arrival with some superb attacking rugby. Although they just fell short of winning major honours, they were leading points scorers in the First Division with 678 [in 3rd place behind Widnes and Bradford Northern] and played a part in one of the greatest Challenge Cup finals, at the end of the 1977-78 campaign.

On 13th May 1978 Leeds and St Helens locked horns in front of over 95,000 fans at Wembley. Saints took the advantage early on with a converted try by hooker Graham Liptrot from Harry Pinner’s towering kick after just 4 minutes. They increased their lead from a scrum 5 metres from the Leeds line in the 13th minute and it was scored in classic style by Bill Francis, who took a pass from Ken Gwilliam and swerved through the Leeds defence to score under the posts. Sadly, two converted tries were not enough, as Leeds came back in the second half to win the match 14-12 but it was a microcosm of Bill’s superb rugby skills on show that afternoon that sticks in the memory.

At the end of the 1977-78 season, there was another memorable moment for Bill, when he was Captain of Wales [and joint coach with former Saint John Mantle] when they played against England at Knowsley Road. Other Saints’ players wearing the scarlet jerseys that day were Roy Mathias, Eddie Cunningham and Mel James. Geoff Pimblett and Mel James were in the England side that won rather convincingly in the late spring sunshine.

Bill made 73 appearances in the red vee, scoring 22 tries and it was quite simply a pleasure to watch such a master of his craft at work. As an attacking player, with ball in hand, he had the lot: swerve, sidestep, deft passing skills and deceptive pace. Such a pity major honours eluded him as a Saint,[he also played in two losing Floodlit trophy finals] although he remains a key member of one of the most entertaining teams in the club’s history. They were so good to watch.

Bill’s last game for the Saints was on 30th April 1979 in a 31-15 success against a powerful Bradford Northern side at Knowsley Road and signed off with a brace of tries. His scrum-half that day was Neil Holding, a teenage prodigy, who also went over for a 3 pointer. “Bill looked after me when I first signed for the club,” remembers Neil. “He gave me a lot of confidence and self-belief in my own ability. He was a true professional and will be sadly missed.”

Bill went on to join Salford and then Oldham, where he coached at the Watersheddings for a spell.

A member of the St Helens R.F.C. Players Association, everyone at St.Helens R.F.C. sends their condolences to Bill’s family at this sad time.

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