Don Fox: Rugby league player famed for a missed kick in the Wembley mud
Tuesday 26 August 2008
Don Fox was an outstanding rugby league player, in positions as diverse as scrum-half and prop, who had the misfortune to be forever associated with the one disastrous moment of a distinguished career.
The 1968 Challenge Cup final should probably never have been played, following a torrential downpour shortly before kick-off that left parts of the Wembley pitch under water. With 87,000 packed into the stadium, however, the decision was made to go ahead only for another storm mid-way through the match to make matters worse. That reduced the latter stages of what became known as "the Watersplash Final" to a farce.
Wakefield were trailing 11-7 to Leeds, partly thanks to the rare event of an obstruction try, awarded as players skidded into each other, when in the final minute Fox kicked low into the sodden turf to restart the game after a Leeds penalty. Ken Hirst got to the loose ball first to hack it through the water twice and touch down under the sticks. With tries worth only three points at that time, the stage was set for the most famous moment in the game's folklore.
Fox, already voted winner of the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match, merely needed to put over the simplest of kicks to win the Cup for Wakefield. On the saturated pitch, however, he lost his footing slightly in his run-up and skewed it wide, sinking to his knees in despair while Leeds celebrated an 11-10 victory which seemed to have got away from them.
In an exquisite piece of televisual cruelty, David Coleman interviewed Fox on the pitch for the BBC, asking him whether it was any consolation to have won the Lance Todd. "Not really," replied the recipient with admirable restraint. The match commentator, Eddie Waring, got it right: "Poor lad," he said and left it at that.
The best explanation of how and why he came to miss came from Fox's brother, the hugely successful coach Peter Fox, in his biography The Players' Coach. "Don picked the ball up and I knew what was going through his mind. He was going to wipe the ball, but he was wet through. Also, there was no solid ground for him to place the ball. He needed a towel to dry the ball. Someone should have come on and dried the ball. And he was putting the ball in water and mud. He'd kicked goals earlier in the match, but the conditions made this one difficult."
He went on: "Neil [Fox's other brother] and I were heart-broken when he missed it. Don was also heart-broken, not so much for himself, but because he had lost a winners' medal for his team-mates. He was one of the great players of his era, winning many honours in the game. It's sad that many people only remember him because of that missed kick."
Fox was a member of a famous rugby league family. Apart from Peter, a moderate player but an eminent coach, there was Neil, one of the game's all-time greats and still its record point-scorer. He would have been taking the kicks that day at Wembley, but missed the match through injury.
Don, the middle brother, signed professional forms for Featherstone Rovers in 1953, at the age of 17, making his debut against Leeds in a Yorkshire Cup tie. Within a few games he had taken over the goal-kicking duties and went on to kick 503 in his 12 years at the club. Even more remarkable was his club record 162 tries, many of them – like the one that set up the Yorkshire Cup final victory over Hull in 1959 – made possible by the power near the try-line which he combined with his keen rugby brain. He was big for a scrum-half, which enabled him, when Featherstone unearthed another outstanding specialist in that position in Carl Dooler, to move to loose forward.
After only six games in that new role, he was selected there for Great Britain, winning his one full cap in the third Test against Australia at Headingley in 1963. It was a notoriously brutal match, but Fox played a prominent role in a face-saving 16-5 victory, scoring a try and kicking two goals. He also played twice against France, before those matches were given full Test status. He was also selected to tour Australia in 1962, but had to return home early through injury.
Fox played in three losing Challenge Cup semi-finals for Featherstone before being transferred to Wakefield Trinity in 1965 for £3000, serious money for a player who was already 32. He played there until his retirement in 1970.
Don Fox deserves to be remembered for reasons other than that one miskick. Both Peter and Neil rated him the best scrum-half they had ever seen. Even allowing for family loyalty, that is a remarkable thing to be able to say of a player who was contemporaneous with the likes of Alex Murphy.
Unlike his brothers, Don was not directly involved in rugby after his retirement. They remained and remain very public figures; by contrast, he was an intensely private man. Those close to him say that he never entirely got over the trauma of that afternoon at Wembley 40 years ago.
Don Fox, rugby league player: born Sharlston, West Yorkshire 15 October 1935; married (one son); died Wakefield, West Yorkshire 21 August 2008.
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