Frank Keating

Unlucky XIII

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The Windsor wedding at least, one trusts, signalled the end of some tiresome weeks for the royal family. So trying, in fact, that it would certainly not have noticed a final pesky shaft before the dissolution of Parliament which had a group of northern MPs bleating about royalty’s apparent preference for rugby union over its cousins of the league code. (A jolly good game rugby league — tough, honest, regularly thrilling — but too often insecurely fretful of its status; even the mildest censure down the years has meant reams of green-ink death threats from north of the Trent.) The Labour MP for Wakefield and secretary of the parliamentary rugby league club, David Hinchliffe, considers it ‘shameful’ that in the past five years there has been no royal family attendance at a league match compared with 35 for the rival rugby union. He said that the last senior royal at a 13-a-side game was when Prince Andrew handed over the pot at the 1995 World Cup final.

I had imagined fraternal rapprochement had been secured between the codes, helped by rugby league’s recent change of season from Eddie Waring’s muddy ee-bah-goom winters to Sky Sports’ sunny summers as well as, now that union is also professional, matey reversal of one-way players’ traffic, south-to-north, which so blighted relations all down the last century. I was reminded this week of those often poignant journeys north when they buried Trevor Foster last week. One of rugby’s all-time monarchs, a proud Trevor not only met the Queen a few times, but her parents as well: when captain of Bradford Northern at Wembley in 1948, the first Challenge Cup final graced by royalty. I last sat with the grand old oval legend two springtimes ago when his beloved Bradford (now called the Bulls, wouldn’t you know) played in the 2003 final at Cardiff. It was a homecoming for Trevor. Sixty-five years earlier, at 22 in 1938, Foster had been a strapping wing forward on the verge of a Welsh union cap. Foster père was the blind and celebrated mine host of Newport’s notorious docklands’ pub, the Church House, and Trevor still vividly remembered the evening that changed his life:

‘Running home from training at Rodney Parade, I saw awestruck neighbours surrounding a gleaming big black Buick motorcar outside the pub. I just knew it had come from the north. When other league clubs had come down, Dad had threatened to throw them into the sea, but this time he was in the parlour with Mr Hornby, the imposing Bradford chairman: florid, fur-collared and bushy-eyebrowed. I burst in and shouted, “I’m going nowhere. All I want is a cap for Wales.” Mr Hornby witheringly looked me up and down, then purposefully took from his inside pocket a huge bundle of banknotes and threw them flamboyantly on the table, saying, “Here’s 450 quid for starters, lad: go out and buy yourself a couple of dozen Welsh caps and you’ll still have £449 change.” I said, “Go to hell.” At which the eldest of us eight kids, darling Freda, threw open the door and said, “Trev, Da’s blind, Ma’s desperate, we’re all hungry, and you selfishly dream on about playing for Wales for nothing. Pick up that fortune, Trevor, and sign for the gentleman or, I swear, not one in this family will speak to you ever again.” So I took Mr Hornby’s pen and signed on his dotted line. Well, eldest sisters always ran the show in those days, didn’t they, boy?’