David Topliss: Sparkling rugby international
Thursday 19 June 2008
David Topliss was a sparkling attacking stand-off who had his best years in rugby league when he was supposedly over the hill. His Indian summer began when he was recruited by Hull in 1981, 13 years after signing for his hometown club, Wakefield.
Hull were on the rise, but needed an experienced general. There was no doubt about Topliss's quality, but at 31 and with the last of his three Great Britain caps two years previously, there was some scepticism over whether they would get value for a £15,000 fee.
There need have been no fears over that. The veteran Topliss provided what had been missing and, appointed captain, led Hull to six finals in his four years at the club. The first and in some ways most memorable was the 1982 Challenge Cup final, in which they drew with Widnes at Wembley before beating them in the replay at Elland Road to take the trophy for the first time in 68 years.
Topliss scored two tries and was man of the match in the replay. He had already won the Lance Todd Trophy with Wakefield when they lost to Widnes in 1979 – a rare case of a player from a beaten side winning the vote. Topliss, with his range of skills and elusiveness, formed memorable partnerships with the equally gifted loose forward Steve Norton, and, in his two short stays with the club, the great Australian half-back, Peter Sterling.
With talent like that, Hull found it easy to reach major finals – although not always as simple to win once they got there. In 1983, they lost to Featherstone Rovers at Wembley in one of the great Cup final upsets and they also lost the Premiership final two years running.
He was at the helm, however, when they won two Yorkshire Cups and he even won back his Great Britain place at the age of almost 33 in the third Test against Australia in 1982. He was far from unknown to the tourists, having guested successfully for two Sydney clubs, Penrith and Balmain.
Having preserved his pace well into his fourth decade, Topliss was a prolific try-scorer for Hull, managing 56 during his time there at an average of almost one every other game.
Overall, he was the fifth-highest try-scorer among all British half-backs, but his time with Hull began to run out when the New Zealander, Fred Ah Kuoi, was preferred for the classic 1985 Challenge Cup final against Wigan. It was time to move on and Topliss had two good seasons with Oldham, directing a young team effectively, even though some of his old incisiveness was gone.
From there he returned to Wakefield as player-coach, almost 20 years after first joining them from his amateur side at nearby Normanton. In his first season, 1987-88, he guided them to promotion back into the old First Division, retiring as a player after the final match of the campaign.
He remained at Wakefield purely as a coach until 1994 and was the last at the top level to combine that role with another job in the outside world. He stepped down to recharge his batteries and to concentrate on his business, but never found an opportunity tempting enough to draw him back into coaching.
That is not to say that Dave Topliss stopped putting something back into rugby league. He was the antithesis of the embittered old pro, determinedly unimpressed by the modern game. More than any other player of his era, he was a regular at live matches, at one stage as an adviser to Hull, but mainly for his own pleasure. He was a willing volunteer for any charity connected with the game and a tireless organiser of social functions for ex-players.
He was also formidably fit. His playing weight never varied much from 11 stone and he maintained it even after his retirement. Apart from his passion for touch rugby, of which he remained a formidable exponent well into his fifties, he had a daily regime which consisted of a brisk walk in the morning, the gym in the afternoon and five-a-side football, usually with a crowd of former rugby league players, in the evening.
It was after one of those games on Monday night that he sat down, keeled over and died. It will take a sport that he illuminated as a player and a person a long time to get used to him no longer being around.
David Topliss, rugby league player and coach: born Wakefield, West Yorkshire 29 December 1949; twice married (two daughters); died Wakefield 16 June 2008.
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