1967 was not a vintage year for Wigan Rugby League. It was a year
in which they finished 17th in the league table, a position that
remains our lowest league finish ever.
Many players who had been part of success earlier in the decade
- like Ray Ashby, Trevor Lake, Laurie Gilfedder and Brian McTigue -
were drawing a close to their Wigan careers, whilst the infamous Billy Boston and
Eric Ashton partnership was now very vintage. Boston turned 33 in
1967, whilst Ashton was also over 30. The latter was actually
player coach by now and probably only his long standing service and
reputation at Wigan stopped him getting the sack because Wigan were
competing way below the standards they had aspired to throughout
their then history.
Their was one highlight though in 1967 and that was the visit of
the touring Australia team to Wigan on a blustery showery Friday
Night in October. The match would have been played on the usual,
then traditional, Saturday Afternoon slot but Wigan had recently
installed floodlights at Central Park costing £17,500, so cashing in
on the new novelty of floodlight rugby league, they played under
Hard to imagine Rugby League without floodlights but prior to
the mid 60s, floodlit matches were a huge novelty. They first
floodlit match of Rugby League involved Wigan back in December 1932,
when they faced Leeds in an exhibition match played at White City
Stadium in London. It was way outside the heartlands but over
10,000 turned up to watch and this persuaded the owners of White
City Stadium invest in a Rugby League team. They bought the
Pemberton located "Wigan
Highfield" club, who from 1922 to 1932 played alongside Wigan
in the league, and moved them to London to become "London
Highfield". In 1933-34 they played most of their home matches under
floodlit conditions at White City but they only lasted one season
before being re-located back north and floodlit rugby wouldn't be
seen again for another twenty years.
Bradford became the first club up north to try floodlit rugby
when they held a game on Halloween in 1951 against New Zealand
under lights. Almost 30,000 turned up but the concept still didn't
Wigan's next involvement in floodlit rugby was in 1955 when they
took part in a midweek floodlit competition ran, and funded, for
broadcast by the new Independent Television contractor for the
London region. Eight teams took part in matches played on Soccer
Grounds in London but the competition only lasted one season.
That idea may not have worked in London but it was resurrected
ten years later by David Attenborough who was the
programme controller of the recently launched BBC Two. He decided to
transmit the second half of Rugby League games every Tuesday from
mid October to mid December in a newly launched "BBC 2 Floodlit
Trophy". That comp was first run in 1965 but Wigan couldn't take
part until Central Park installed floodlights, so that contributed
to them being installed in 1967.
Prior to floodlights, games had to fit round the sunset. Regular
Saturday games normally kicked off at 3 or 3:30pm but as the nights
drew in, the kick offs would draw in also to 2:45, 2:30 or 2:15.
Then when the nights got lighter those kick offs would reverse back
to 3 or 3:30pm.
Similar with midweek games. In mid August you could get away
with a 7pm kick off but quickly those nights would soon get darker
and the kick offs would draw in to 6:30, 6pm, 5:30 or 5pm. Can't
imagine huge crowds for those early tea time games, particularly
away support must have been non existent.
Because of the darkness,
midweek games were very rarely seen between November and February because they had to kick
off in mid afternoon when everyone was at work. Their were some
exceptions. In 1947 Wigan met a touring Carcassonne team at 3pm on
a Wednesday Afternoon in March that
was played in Blizzard Conditions, whilst Australia's visit to
Central Park in 1962 kicked off at 2:30pm on a Monday Afternoon
because it had been postponed by fog on the Saturday. Wonder how
many bunked off work or school to take in those games? I know my
late granddad was at the Carcassonne game. He often tells the true
story about the charismatic French Full Back
Puig Aubert who was smoking a fag for the entire match and
would field balls in one hand whilst retaining the fag in the
So, floodlights allowed Wigan to play all their day games
at 3pm, regardless of the time of year, and all their night games
at 7:30pm. Seems daft now but even 7:30 kick offs were a new
experience in 1967. Like I explained, games just had never kicked
off that late because darkness would fall.
The visit of Australia was actually the fourth match played
under floodlights at Central Park. The first had been an exhibition
against Bradford two weeks earlier which had been set up
specifically to test them out. Embarrassingly for the club, the
floodlights would fail twice during a match took 98 minutes for the
two clubs to battle out a 7-7 draw in front of 12,051 fans. The
fans loved it though, even when the lights failed. The fella who
asked me to write about this game told me that it was "quite a
hoot", which perhaps highlights how exciting the new technology
In those days a touring party would face a gruelling schedule.
On this particular tour the Kangaroos played 27 matches during a
100 day trip between late September and early January. This included
three test matches each against both Great Britain and France.
Australia actually went on to win the Ashes 2-1 but fail to win any of the
three test matches against the French!!
The Kanagroos trip to Wigan was the fifth match of the tour. They had
begun by beating Warrington at Wilderspool but then they lost to
Yorkshire at Wakefield before suffering defeat at Hull KR. They had
bounced back to beat Lancashire 14-2 at Salford two days earlier
Now you have to remember that in those days, these tours were
pretty special. No TV coverage from Australia like today, this was
one of the rare chances to see the great Australian players like
Ken Irvine, Reg Gasnier and Johnny Raper. They all played in the
visit to Wigan.
I'm not sure if it was by choice, or whatever, but no Wigan
players had been involved in the Lancashire match against
Australia. This was perhaps because we'd played a league match
earlier in the midweek against Batley. The Aussies had 11 of the 13
backing up against Wigan but playing games so quickly in succession
was not unusual in those days.
Given Wigan's form, that I alluded to earlier, not many will have
given us a chance to beat a test team. But that didn't stop 22,357
ramming into Central Park for what was the
biggest attendance of the whole tour! Amazingly even bigger than
all three attendances for the Ashes Test matches played later in
the tour at Headingley, Station
Road (Swinton) and at White City Stadium.
The key on the
night would prove to be injuries to both Stand Offs. Wigan's Cliff
Hill came off injured after just 30 minutes to be replaced by his
younger brother David. Hill the younger had only joined Wigan 8
days before this match from Liverpool Rugby Union and was making
his second appearance.
Meanwhile, Australia's John Gleeson also came off injured but
this happened 14 minutes into the second half when the game was in
the balance. Australia were holding a 6-5 lead at that point after
tries from Scrum Half Billy Smith and winger Johnny King responded
to a try and a goal from Eric Ashton.
The Guardian Match Report
from the time mentions how David Hill and Peter Rowe "often tore
big holes in the Australian Defence" but Australia looked like
would go on to win the game when Johnny King was sent clear.
However referee Joe Manley called a forward pass.
Into the final
10 minutes and that 6-5 lead was still being held but Wigan's pack
was dominating scrum possession (they were contested in those days)
and the pressure finally told when Bill Francis scored with 5
minutes to go. Ashton converted to give Wigan a 10-6 lead, which
was added to by a Colin Tyrer penalty late on.
So Wigan had won
12-6 and what is the significance of this particular game? Well it
was the last time we managed to beat Australia in a tour game.
Although we did draw with them five years later in a match that
celebrated Wigan's centenary.