Cec Mountford: Rugby league stand-off who led Wigan to glory then enjoyed great success as coach of Warrington

Cec Mountford was as influential a player and coach as rugby league in New Zealand has ever produced. Although he never played for his country he was a towering figure on the other side of the world as a player with Wigan and a highly successful coach of Warrington. Back in his homeland, he did much of the groundwork for the Kiwis' dramatic improvement on the international scene in the 1980s.

Born in the village of Blackball, near Greymouth, in the rugby league hotbed of the West Coast of the South Island, Mountford was one of 10 children. He was one of five brothers who went on to represent their island; two of them, Bill and Keith, also played for New Zealand.

Cec, as he was always called, was initially told that he was too small to play the game among the coal-miners and the equally tough lumber mill workers of the local area. Once he picked up a ball for his hometown club, however, his pace and incisiveness at stand-off soon earned him the nickname of "The Blackball Bullet", which stuck with him for the rest of his career.

In 1946, he game to England to play for Wigan and to continue his studies as a mining engineer. Over the next five years, Wigan won two Challenge Cups, two Championship finals and five Lancashire Cups, one of which he missed with a poisoned arm. Mountford's own contribution over his 210-game stay at Central Park amounted to 70 tries and 55 goals, as well as the numerous tries he created for others with passing skills that were as eye-catching as his ability to make a solo break. He brought those same skills to the star-studded Other Nationalities side when it was established in 1949 – the closest he was destined to get to international rugby.

There are two matches which stand out as leading contenders for his finest hour in Wigan colours. The first was when he led the side in the 1950 Championship final against Huddersfield at Maine Road. He was standing in as captain for Joe Egan, who was one of eight Wigan players who had already left on the Lions' Australian tour. Despite being without more than half of their first-choice line-up, they beat the then powerful Huddersfield 20-2, with Mountford recognised as producing one of the great displays of captaincy and stand-off play.

The other clear highlight was the following season, when he was the key player in the 10-0 defeat of Barrow in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley. He landed a goal but it was his darting midfield runs that lit up an otherwise drab affair and made him the first overseas player to win the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match in the season's showpiece. He was the oldest surviving recipient of that prestigious award.

It was his last match for Wigan, because later that summer he signed an unprecedented 10-year contract as player-coach at Warrington. At first, his former club were reluctant to release his playing registration, so he was not able to take the field for his new employers until 1952, and he played only 37 games before a knee injury ended that aspect of his career the following year.

As the Wire's non-playing coach, however, his shrewd guidance and gift for strategy were to usher in one of the most successful periods in the club's history. In his decade in charge at Wilderspool, Warrington won seven major trophies, including the Challenge Cup in 1954 and the Championship that year and the year after. The 1954 Cup final was the famous tie initially drawn with Halifax at Wembley and then won 8-4 in front of a world-record crowd of over 102,000 in the replay at Odsal. The Championship victory of 1955, by 7-3 over Oldham at Maine Road, remains the last time that Warrington won the League under any of the various formats which have decided it.

Contemporaries believed that it was being a stickler for the basics of the game that made Mountford such an effective coach. He was insistent that the nuts and bolts of the code – the passing, catching and tackling – had to be correctly in place before you could even begin to think about tactics.

"He was before his time on plenty of things, but for the most part he was timeless because it was just always about the football, and always very simple," the general manager of the NZRL, Peter Cordtz, said.

From 1960 to 1970, he took those principles back home to New Zealand, where he spent a decade as their director of coaching, returning to England in 1972 for a single season as coach of humble Blackpool Borough.

There were still career highlights to come, including a spell from 1979 to 1982 as manager-coach of the Kiwi national side. During his tenure, New Zealand drew the 1980 Test series in England and, although Graham Lowe had replaced him as coach by the time of the celebrated 1983 victory over Australia, Mountford's spade-work was acknowledged as a major factor underlying the achievement.

He remained a revered elder statesman of the code, although always one with a younger man's pioneering spirit. Among his many enthusiasms was the Student World Cup, behind which he was the great driving force. He was awarded the MBE in 1987 for services to sport and was made an inaugural member of the New Zealand Sporting Hall of Fame.

Although his decision to take his talents to the northern hemisphere for 15 years made him almost certainly the best New Zealand player never to play for his country, Cec Mountford made his mark on rugby league around the world in a wider range of other ways than almost anyone of his generation.

Dave Hadfield

Cecil Mountford, rugby league player and coach: born Blackball, New Zealand 16 June 1919; married; died Gold Coast, Australia 19 July 2009.

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