Tracking down the heroes of 1972
The team that won the 1972 Rugby League World Cup are a special group of people - I know this now, though a few weeks ago most of them were just names on a page. Tracking down the side was one of the most enjoyable tasks I have undertaken in a long while.
These 14 heroes (more of that later) of Great Britain remain the last group of men from these shores to win the tournament. But 36 years have elapsed since their victory in Lyon, a final played in front of less than 4,500 people. I knew next to nothing about most of the players, while the information available on the internet was sketchy. Where to start?
Well, the most high-profile member of that team (at least these days) is Sky Sports commentator Mike 'Stevo' Stephenson.
I gave Stevo a call and asked him what he knew about the 14 members of that team. Naturally, he had plenty to say about them as players, rolling out some of his trademark lines - Chris Hesketh, for example, is "one tough hombre" - as well as furnishing me with information that proved invaluable in my quest.
Two players in the team turned out for Salford back in 1972 - and thanks to City Reds media manager Kate Parkinson, I soon found myself talking to the aforementioned Hesketh. It was wonderful listening to his memories of a bygone era; they would have made a story all on its own. Not only did Chris now live near my parents but he was still in touch with Paul Charlton, who has moved to Australia. Kate also provided some background on Steve Nash, who played for Salford later in his career, even putting me in touch with him. Steve told me he had wanted to go to the World Cup this year but was a little short of funds. I felt humbled by his honesty, which really brought home to me how our sporting heroes of yesteryear often have the same issues as you and I.
Having chalked off Hesketh, Nash, Charlton and Stevo, I moved on to my next target. Castleford press man Dave Smart filled me in on Brian Lockwood, while Widnes put me in touch with George Nicholls - another great bloke. The St Helens Heritage Society website told me all about John Walsh. Just as well as he now lives in Canada. That left seven.
Skipper Clive Sullivan unfortunately died in 1985 but such was the brilliance of his career that finding information about him was a straightforward task. My father-in-law, a Hull FC fan, had already lent me a few books about him.
As for the others, my colleague Phil Harlow was busy chasing down several of the other players. He ended the process musing that it is not every day that you get offered sage advice on the property market while conducting an interview with a World Cup winner. That's just what happened when he spoke to former Hull KR star Phil Lowe, who dabbled in property investment after his playing career ended. Lowe gave Phil his take on getting through the credit crunch and selling his flat.
Every player Phil spoke to offered him their memories of the final, some crystal clear, some a touch hazy. Phil was also invited to the next meeting of the Leeds Former Players' Association with the promise the bar would open at 11 in the morning and close at 9.30am the next day. I'm not sure Phil is up to the job, to be honest.
Chatting to the likes of John Holmes, Terry Clawson and John Atkinson - genuine legends of 1970s British rugby league - it reminded Phil of everything he loves about the sport. Affable and happy to help, they spoke warmly about their love of the game, of the team spirit it generates and how they wouldn't swap their era for all the riches of the modern game.
After Phil found out about David Jeanes from a newspaper article he had tracked down, that only left the puzzle of the 14th man - Bob Irving. On every team sheet I could find there were 13 Australian players listed but 14 from Great Britain. Why? Eventually RFL historian Tony Collins delved into the record books and was able to confirm that Irving came on as a replacement for Jeanes. Unfortunately, Irving died in 2002, but there was plenty of information on the internet to provide a potted history.
Tracking the 1972 team down was a hugely satisfying task. The heroes of Lyon were humble to a man. And all had one thing in common - a desire to see England come out on top in Australia on 22 November and end the long wait for another World Cup triumph.