Leeds Rhinos nostalgia: Atkinson’s decision to quit stunned the fans

John Atkinson.
John Atkinson.
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ONE OF Leeds rugby league’s greatest servants played his final game for the club 32 years ago today.

A disappointing campaign ended on May 5, 1982, when Leeds were beaten 39-11 at Widnes in the first round of the Premiership play-offs.

Keith Rayne scored Leeds’ lone try and Kevin Dick booted four goals, but of more lasting significance was John Atkinson’s decision to leave the club following that game.

The defeat at Naughton Park – par for the course for Leeds at that time – was Atkinson’s 518th game in blue and amber.

His 340th and final try had come three months earlier, the winger scoring both Leeds’ touchdowns in a 9-1 Challenge Cup victory at Barrow.

Three decades on from his farewell appearance, Atkinson is still second – behind only Eric Harris, with 391 – on Leeds’ all-time list of try scorers and only John Holmes (625) and Fred Webster (540) have played more games for the club.

Atkinson’s greatest seasons were 1969-70, when he scored 36 tries in 42 appearances and 1972-73, when he matched that tally in 39 games.

In his 17 seasons at Leeds he broke the 30-try barrier five times and scored more than 20 on another two occasions.

Nephew of Leeds great George Broughton, Leeds-born Atkinson played rugby union for Roundhay before signing for the Loiners in May, 1965.

He scored two tries on his debut against York the following March and quickly established himself as a clinical finisher, with electric pace and the ability to leave defenders clutching at thin air.

Possibly his finest touchdown came in the 1968 Challenge Cup semi-final at Swinton’s Station Road, when he bamboozled three Wigan defenders on a thrilling sprint to the line.

Another contender was a long-range effort, from a scrum near Leeds’ line, in a quarter-final victory over Bradford Northern a decade later. Atkinson’s Leeds career saw him star in 20 finals and he was on the winning side 16 times, including tries – the first of them a controversial obstruction ruling at Wembley in the 1968, 1977 and 1978 Challenge Cup triumphs.

He also collected winners’ medals in the Championship, Premiership, BBC2 Floodlit Trophy, John Player Trophy and Yorkshire Cup, completing a clean-sweep of all available honours. A star on the world stage, he made 26 appearances for Great Britain and earned another 11 international caps with England.

Leeds fans were stunned when Atkinson, who had crossed eight times in 23 games that season, quit at the end of 1981-82 to join Carlisle, where he made 20 appearances and spent three campaigns as coach.

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