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Thursday, 24 July 2014

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It’s Christmas time – so time for some Ike nostalgia

IKE Southward loved the derby games whether playing or watching.

Ike Southward

Even when he’d ended his distinguished playing career Ike liked nothing better than standing in the enclosure at Derwent Park or on the Kells End at The Recre to see the Town and Haven do battle.

Since his death the West Cumbrian rivals have continued to pay fitting tribute by staging the Ike Southward Memorial Match around Christmas time – it’s not to be this year, it’s name will be added instead to the Good Friday Championship clash at Derwent Park – so what better for now than to share a few memories of the great man.

On the several occasions I had the pleasure of interviewing the great man I was always by the unassuming way in which he talked about one of the greatest careers in the history of Cumbrian rugby league.

Tom Mitchell (‘The Godfather’) called him one of the all-time greats of the game – his record bears impressive testimony.

In fact at the zenith of that career, say between 1958 and 1962 when he was part of two Great Britain Ashes-winning tours of Australia, there was no finer winger in the game – in ‘58 itself he was being ranked as the best in either code, league or union.

Arguably this was the season of Ike’s finest hour most notably the Second Test known forever as The Battle of Brisbane which Britain won with only 10 (or even eight) fit players and led heroically by Alan Prescott who played most of the 80 minutes with a broken arm.

Prescott recalled: “Ike, of course, played in the Test match in which I broke my arm. We played the Australians with only 10 fit men and Ike was outstanding. As our wingman he was a powerful runner, superb in defence and a brilliant goalkicker. He was a wonderful team man. His jovial spirit before the game filtered through the dressing room and this was great for team morale. He was also a tremendous club player showing his prowess alongside the many superb players of that era. Reliable and honest he had a heart of gold and never at any time did I have cause to raise my voice to him. He was a superb tourist and showed his class both on and off the field of play. What more could a captain ask for? A great player. He was the best and I am totally proud of him.

“My only difficulty with Ike was understanding his accent.”

Precky’s glowing tribute appeared in Keith Richardson’s splendid book simply called ‘Ike’ – a biography of a rugby league legend which was published in 1995.

For those who thrilled to Ike Southward at his best nothing can dim the sight of the Ellenborough flyer in full cry for the try line especially the old film of him showing the Aussies a clean pair of heels.

As he did on the ‘58 Tour when he scorched over for tries in all three Tests – the first Great Britain player to do so for 34 years emulating the feat of Jonty Parkin in 1924.

But it was the two he scored in The Battle of Brisbane, one of the one of greatest Tests of all time, an epic encounter which Britain won to save the series, playing with those (or even eight!) fit men and captain, Prescott carrying that badly broken arm. And no subs in those days.

Asked (in the biography) whether it was the hardest game he ever played in, Ike confessed: “Oh aye, without any doubt. That Test ther was electric. They (the Aussies) thowt they were in on the kill. It was war between us and them aw the time. We had big fellas they had big fellas. The tackling was hard – head tackling, dumping and full body – it wuz war without bullets. It was unbelievable. If the camera work then had been what it is now people would have got the biggest shock of their lives. Anything went.”

Britain went on to take the Ashes in the third Test before a near 70,000 crowd on the Sydney Cricket Ground with Southward blazing in for another touchdown.

His overall ‘58 tour tally in Australia and New Zealand was 165 points – 25 tries and 45 goals.

I am often asked how Southward compared with modern day legend Martin Offiah.

In his pomp Ike was a match for Billy Boston, Tom Van Vollenhoven and Brian Bevan – so I don’t think Offiah would have fancied facing up to Southward in direct opposition.

As fast as the pigeons he used to race as a boy at Ellenborough he’d have matched ‘Chariots’ for pace and was certainly more physical and stronger in defence.

Still in doubt about the Southward prowess?

Well Ike was the first player to score 300 tries and 300 goals, reaching the milestone before Eric Ashton and Neil Fox.

And twice he broke the game’s transfer record. On his triumphant return from the ‘58 Tour Workington sold him to Oldham for £10,650 – two years later Town brought him back for £11,002 10s the £2.10s added to break the intervening £11,000 paid for one of his big rivals, Mick Sullivan.

Introduced to Prince Philip on the Wembley pitch before Town’s ‘58 Challenge Cup final against Wigan, Ike apparently said to The Duke: “Ahs fra Elbra, old lad.”

That was Ike – a true character.


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