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Thursday, 31 July 2014

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The one that got away!

JOHN Jackson will never forget the 1970 RU Cumberland Cup Final, but not for the best of reasons! It was regarded as a travesty of rugby justice as his fine Egremont side lost to Wigton after having four tries ruled out.

John was the 23-year-old captain of Egremont and, to this day, still believes he should have been holding aloft the treasured trophy.

One of his proudest possessions remains the 1968 cup-winners medal he’d earned after one of the most brutal finals ever witnessed – against the formidable Netherhall Old Boys -– but in 1970 Egremont played some magnificent attacking rugby only to finish empty handed.

“Definitely we should have won but didn’t,” he said.

“I said to the lads at half time ‘we can’t do any more, we’ve stuffed them’ but we had four tries disallowed.

“Paul Eilbeck (father of Haven’s Derry) ran 40 yards for one of them, beat three men gloriously and touched the ball down behind the sticks only for the ref (Jack Creighton) to say he hadn’t put enough pressure on the ball.

“It was said to be one of the best ever finals but unbelievably all we got was a first half penalty. We couldn’t have played any better.

“A couple of years later I was in Les Moore’s Boonwood pub (Gosforth) when who should be standing at the bar but (bless his soul) Mr Jack Creighton. I said ‘how could we have four tries disallowed, Jack?’ – we just looked at each other!”

That bitter disappointment was enough to turn a union man to league. John Jackson resisted all temptations, although fleetingly word of an interest from St Helens made his heart flutter.

For one moment there was the mind-boggling prospect of John Jackson forming a centre partnership with Tom Van Volenhoven or Len Kileen.

He recalls: “Out of the blue I heard St Helens were interested in me. This was around 1966 when Joe Coan (from Bransty) coached Saints to a clean sweep of trophies, it wasn’t Joe himself who asked me, it was someone else.

“St Helens were my favourite team and Tom Van Volenhoven one of my heroes, but I never did anything to follow up the interest.

“I thought if they really want me they’ll come back, they never did.”

So the young hard running, tough tackling threequarter stuck to the 15-a-side code and enjoyed just about every minute of it.

Especially playing in one (or two) of Egremont’s greatest sides in a Cumberland & Westmorland RU golden era.

And particularly in the same side as some exceptional exponents of the code. Scrum-half Rodney Singleton (later to turn pro for Barrow) and Jackie Purdham (father of Garry and Rob) were good enough to win international honours, John maintains.

“Jackie could and should have played for England. Trouble was at the time England went for massive forwards in the back row, they hadn’t come across the low centre of gravity type flanker.....the No.7 getting down and scavenging for the ball. But for wanting to pick these big guys – the selectors didn’t seem to come to their senses until Neil Back came along – Jackie would have been capped without a shadow of a doubt.

“The best player I ever played with was Rodney Singleton who was a first teamer at 16. He was incredible, blessed with speed of thought, feet and hand. Rodney didn’t tackle a lot, but in attack he something else.

“Playing for the North West Counties against Australia he destroyed the Wallabies almost single handed and outplayed Ken Catchpole.

“Next day I saw a headline ‘Singleton for England’ – today, like Purdham, he would surely have got capped if he was in a Premiership side.

“Alfie Cowan, who started as a scrum-half and later moved up to prop, was also outstanding, so was the late Tom Weightman and George Crayston, both as strong as pit props in the pack.”

Jackson was also an admirer of Jeff Edgar, another former skipper.

“Jeff was the epitomy of calm, his kicking was fantastic – mind you his tackling was almost non existent at times,” he joked. “But my goodness he could read a game! It was lovely playing outside two superb half-backs in Edgar and Singleton, among others.”

In those days the club captain usually doubled as team coach.

Says John: “Harry Cook was captain of our ‘68 cup winning side, but I remember my brother Colin (ex Whitehaven RL) coming down to do some coaching – a bit controversial being an ex-league man! – and also the great Don Wilson (Barrow Wembley finalist) one of the best ball handling forwards I’ve ever seen play in union or league.”

The 1968 Twin Counties Cup win, being part of such a tremendous side, remains a great highlight although the final was a bone crusher.

“As we’d been beaten by Netherhall in the previous year’s final we went into this one as underdogs. It was a real rough, tough game. Netherhall’s hooker put himself about, our Geoff Stalker finished the game virtually a cripple. I remember one of the Sunday papers calling it “a travesty of rugby” – a travesty of a different kind compared to ‘70!

“I got kneed twice and was only playing in the backs!

“Norman Sherwen got our only try, but with goals from young Neil Thompson and Jeff Edgar it was enough to give us a 9-3 victory – and the cup.

“Up front it was left to the likes of George Crayston, Bob McLean and Neil Thompson to take them on, it paid off but there were recriminations: we stopped fixtures with Netherhall (for about five years) after that.

“That 68’ cup-winning outfit was the nucleus for ‘70. I’m not being biased (as captain) but I reckon it was even better. We had new faces like Geoff Wallace, Dick Peebles, Alf Cowan, Jim Riley, Colin Rooney and Paul Eilbeck, who later turned pro.

“Whitehaven also had one of their best ever sides, with Len Barton, Wally Leitch, Bill Anderson, Pon Smith, Bill Anderson, George Rumney, Brian Calvin and Hughie Diamond.”

Jackson began his rugby career as a 15-year-old when he was still at the old Workington Tech. At Bleach Green he followed in the footsteps of grandfather (Alex Cook), dad (Jack) and elder brother Colin.

“My first game for Egremont RUFC was in an under-18 match, the legendary Dave Robinson was in the centre opposite me. I was 15 and Dave who was captain of Cockermouth, just about pulled my head off. It was a baptism of fire but after that I got moved up into the second XV and scored a hat-trick on debut. That was in ‘62. I was barely out of school when I made my first team debut.

“It was against Vickers. “Boxer” Donaldson, who had a garage in Egremont, who was only a little guy, looked after me. Someone nearly knocked my head off. I was pole axed but looked up and heard Boxer say ‘I saw who it was’.... the other guy only lasted a few more minutes.”

Selection for Cumberland youth and senior county sides underlined Jackson’s ability in attack and later his strong defence.

“Under floodlights at Kendal I was in the county under-19 team which beat South of Scotland for the very first time. Billy Lawson, from Workington, was in charge and he was so delighted that we won that he promised us all a pint when we got back to the hotel. What Bill knew and we didn’t was that closing time in Scotland was half past nine in those days, by the time we got back Bill said ‘sorry lads, bar shut’.

“Although I didn’t play in the senior county championship, I played a couple of trial games, one was against Glasgow.

“Opposite me in the centres were Ian Robertson and Chris Rea, both Scottish internationals. Chris, a British Lion, broke his finger, so they moved the renowned Sandy Jardine from prop into the centres, now Jardine was a 17-stone even timer and (dear God), I’ve still got the stud marks to show where he ran right over me.”

Ironically, the curtain effectively came down on a long, eventful Jackson career – cartilage trouble after another clash with the old foe, Netherhall.

“I made a tackle on Frank Cueto (Mark’s dad), we had a few battles me and Frank – a smashing lad and a good centre – and my knee went again, I have never played since.

“I tried refereeing for a while but I kept getting in the line waiting for a pass, old ways die hard,” he laughed.

There was to be a new sporting challenge – forming the Egremont & District under-11 soccer league – but first setting up Thornhill Superstormers after prompting from his own sons, Adam and Ben.

“First of all I put the feelers out through The Whitehaven News and got half a dozen replies from Seascale, Egremont, Bowthorn, Hillcrest, Kells, Mirehouse, so we managed to form a league. Mick Errington (in Australia now) and Colin Rooney were also involved.

“We took Thornhill Superstormers all over the place and there was always a meal for them after a match – usually the Superstormers stew – and often in my garage. My wife Linda used to say it stunk of after-shave – 11-year-olds mind you!

“I have to mention Tommy Kelly (Egremont outfitter), we got our first strip off Tommy, a cut price tenner for 12 jerseys. We got the boys to raise money, we had a bottle collection, twopence a bottle and raised £240, so you can imagine how many bottles. I never asked where they came from.”

The ex-Marchon and Sellafield craftsman loved to climb mountains and fell walk, two heart attacks (in ‘93) stopped him in his tracks for a while but resilience prevailed.

He’s since made a notable mark in public life as a Copeland councillor and the driving force behind an enterprising Thornhill Tenants & Residents’ Association.

He is now looking forward proudly and with great gusto to tackling an active year as Copeland’s First Citizen.

Still a club member – wife Linda was on the Bleach Green ladies committee for years – John is delighted to see the great strides on and off the field, culminating in promotion for the first team.

There might be plenty of sporting talk in the Mayor’s Parlour, the ‘68 winners medal won’t be on display but it’s definitely one of John Jackson’s most treasured momentos, even if another got away!

“Being mayor is a proud moment but I’d be even prouder if we’d won that Cumberland Cup in 1970,” he quipped.

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