Obituary: John Stopford

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The Independent Culture
JOHN STOPFORD was one of the finest rugby league wingers of the 1960s, his impact only limited by injuries and by comparisons with all- time greats who played the same role at the same time.

In a golden age for wing play, only Billy Boston at Wigan and Tom Van Vollenhoven at St Helens were consistently more effective and eye-catching than was Stopford on the left flank for Swinton.

He was the cutting edge of the evocatively named three-quarter line of Speed, Fleet, Buckley and Stopford that took his club to the First Division Championship in 1962-3 and 1963-4, and he also played 12 Tests for Great Britain between 1961 and 1966.

Originally from Wigan, he was rejected by his home-town club after trials in their second team, but was signed by Swinton, for a mere pounds 250, whilst performing his National Service as an army physical training instructor.

Once he found his natural position on the left wing, Stopford became a prolific try-scorer in a side renowned for its expansive play. His combination with his centre, Alan Buckley, was arguably the best in the game and by his final game for the club in 1969 he had scored 195 tries in 297 appearances. Neither as physically powerful as Boston, nor as rangy as Van Vollenhoven, he combined raw speed with considerable trickery and was a danger from anywhere on the field.

His tally of tries would have been even greater but for persistent ill- luck with his fitness. He had the unenviable record of missing four Lancashire Cup finals in five years, thanks to various injuries. In what reads like a sporting equivalent of "Groundhog Day", Swinton played St Helens on each occasion and, with their potential match-winner on the sidelines, lost all four finals.

Stopford scored 16 tries in 15 games on the 1966 Great Britain tour of Australia, but ran into further injury problems on his return and was rarely seen at his best after that. When he left Swinton, he played a dozen games for Blackpool Borough before retiring.

He had a short spell as coach of Swinton and emigrated to work as a coach, first in Wellington, New Zealand, and then for five years in New South Wales before returning to run a pub in Wigan. His death, two days short of his 62nd birthday, removes one of the links with an era when every side seemed to have a devastating winger. In John Stopford, Swinton had one of the very best.

John Stopford, rugby league player: born Wigan 23 August 1936; married 1958 Margaret Heywood (one son); died Wigan 21 August 1998.

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