LEEDS RHINOS’ players were wearing black armbands during today’s pre-season opener at Wakefield Trinity in memory of club legend John Atkinson, who died on Saturday, aged 71.
A minute’s silence was also to be held before kick-off as both clubs mourned one of rugby league’s greatest wingers.
Atkinson touched down 340 times for Leeds from 1966-1982 and is the club’s second-highest try scorer, behind Eric Harris (391).
His tally of 1,020 points is the 13th-best in Leeds’ history and only three players have made more than his 518 appearances.
Leeds-born Atkinson won every available honour and was a regular big-game try scorer, touching down in Leeds’ Challenge Cup victories at Wembley in 1968, 1977 and 1978, the Championship finals of 1969 and 1972, the 1975 Premiership decider, John Player final in 1973 and numerous Yorkshire Cups.
His international career spanned 12 years from 1968-80 and he played in four World Cups.
Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington played alongside Atkinson at Leeds and paid tribute to a “legendary player and a very special player”.
He said: “There’s been a lot of players who have played a lot of games and scored a lot of tries, but when you look at John Atkinson’s career, he was special. He was one of those players who could win a game with a special piece of magic or athleticism.
“He was also a terrific defensive player and his pace, athleticism and anticipation could cover up some dangerous defensive situations.
“He was such a great asset to a team, he was a terrific athlete and a big-match player as well – and he was a winner.
“He wanted to do everything he could to make a contribution to win the game.
“He was a very emotional player and pride in performance was top of his agenda.”
Hetherington added: “In big matches throughout the ’60s and ’70s, he was always there.
“He was a part of Great Britain’s successful Ashes-winning team in 1970 and played in World Cup finals.”
A nephew of former Leeds player George Broughton, Atkinson dabbled in athletics and boxing as a youngster and played rugby union for Roundhay before joining Leeds in May, 1965.
A policeman during his playing days, he had a stint with Carlisle at the end of his career, which included 20 finals for Leeds (16 of them won) and 26 Great Britain appearances.
Additionally, Atkinson made 11 appearances for England and 15 with Yorkshire.
Later involvement in the game included a spell on the Rugby Football League’s disciplinary panel.
But, more recently, the former Leeds player struggled with ill health and his wife Carol this year revealed he was suffering from dementia.
Hetherington said: “It is such a sad passing.
“We all knew his time was coming to an end, but it is still such a shock and so sad that he should be lost to us at a relatively young age.”
Today’s minute’s silence was also to remember Trinity fan John Metcalfe who died at then end of Wakefield’s final home game of last season, against Wigan.