Peter Smith’s Inside Rugby League - New generation ready to write next thrilling chapter in Leeds Rhinos’ history
THE LATE Harry Jepson OBE described October 10, 2015 – when Rhinos beat Wigan Warriors at Old Trafford to complete the treble – as the greatest day in Leeds Rugby League Club’s history.
It’s doubtful if anyone had a longer involvement with or greater knowledge of rugby league in Leeds than Jepson, who died, aged 96, in August, 2016, so that is as near a definitive assessment as it’s possible to get.
What he would rank in second place is unknown, but May 20, 1961 would probably be very high on the list.
That afternoon, at Odsal Stadium in Bradford, Leeds defeated Warrington 25-10 to win the Rugby League Championship for the first time, after 66 years of trying and five previous defeats in the final.
Derek Hallas, still a regular at Headingley, when there isn’t a pandemic, scored two tries that day and Lewis Jones also crossed the whitewash and booted five goals.
Known as the Golden Boy when he switched codes to join Leeds in 1952, Jones celebrated his 90th birthday last Sunday and is now one of the club’s elder statesmen.
Every Leeds fan will have his or her own opinion on the club’s greatest player, but Jones would surely be in the top-five of anyone with a true sense of the club’s history.
From Gorseinon, near Swansea, Jones made his debut for Wales’ rugby union side against England at Twickenham in January, 1950 and became a British Lion later the same year.
In November, 1952, Leeds received a message to say he was willing to turn professional and, armed with a £6,000 signing on fee, a delegation from Headingley headed to ‘the Valleys’ to secure his signature, stopping en-route to see if another Wales star – and later broadcasting legend – Cliff Morgan could be persuaded to join him.
That was a no, but Jones did put pen to paper and 17,000 watched the Golden Boy’s debut, against Keighley at Headingley two days later, on November 8, when he kicked seven goals in a 56-7 win.
By the time Jones pulled off a Leeds jumper for the final time, after a game against Halifax at Headingley on March 30, 1964, he had amassed 1,244 goals, 144 tries and 2,920 points in 385 games. Until Kevin Sinfield came along, his points record was considered unbreakable. He still holds the club record for points in a season, with 431 in 1956-57.
To anyone supporting Leeds at the time, Jones will probably remain No 1. When this reporter compiled a top-10 a year ago, he was third, behind only John Holmes and Sinfield, though that final decision was agonised over and, on alternate mornings, it would be Sinfield and Holmes.
Jones probably suffered by playing during a relatively unsuccessful period in the club’s history, though he was also a Challenge Cup winner in 1957, featured in the following year’s triumphant Yorkshire Cup side and was a Yorkshire League Champion three times. Jonathan Davies, who followed a similar path from Welsh union to league three decades later, was among those passing on birthday wishes, describing Jones as a “legend”.
A centre and later stand-off with unrivalled passing skills and an outstanding kicking game, Jones moved to Australia after leaving the Loiners, but returned to his adopted city in 1972 to work as a maths teacher. He is still a regular at Headingley, when fans are allowed into the ground and has a hospitality suite there named after him.
The days of Leeds spending big money to persuade Welsh players to ‘come north’ are long over, but the day before Jones turned 90, Morgan Gannon – just 73 years younger – made his debut and who knows what will be achieved during his career at Rhinos?
Maybe in 20 years’ time he, or another of Leeds’ current young crop, will be at the top of the next era of fans’ all-time greats list. Gannon, fellow teenager Jarrod O’Connor and another couple of rookies, Jack Broadbent and Sam Walters, all flew the flag for injury-hit Rhinos in their gutsy Cup exit at St Helens and, six years after the club’s greatest day and the beginning of the end for the Golden Generation, perhaps the shoots of another champion team are beginning to push through.
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