Eric Ashton: Great Britain rugby captain

Eric Ashton had a number of distinctions in the world of rugby league. He was the first man to win the Challenge Cup as player, coach and chairman, as well as the first to be appointed MBE for his services to the game. He also captained the Great Britain team that won the 1960 World Cup. Perhaps most extraordinary, he was the one man who united the antagonistic sporting towns of Wigan and St Helens in admiration and gratitude for what he did for their clubs.

Brought up close to St Helens' ground at Knowsley Road, Ashton played a trial for the Saints' "B" team at the age of 15, but they showed little interest in him and for a while he became disenchanted with rugby. It took National Service in Scotland to rekindle his enthusiasm. He played rugby union for the Army and was looked at by Leigh before Wigan offered him a six-match trial. Long before that they had seen enough and offered him £150 to sign.

It was the start of a dazzling career at club level. Between his arrival in 1955 and his retirement as a player in 1969, Ashton played 497 times, scoring 231 tries and 448 goals. The statistics only tell part of the story, however, because with Ashton there was always the issue of how the points were achieved, rather than merely how many.

Ashton's style was described as classical and cultured, built on skill and timing rather than sheer force. The main beneficiary of this was another young player recently arrived from a stint in the forces, Billy Boston. If there has ever been a better combination of centre and winger for club and country than Ashton and Boston then nobody has yet made a convincing case for it. Ashton prided himself on giving the Welshman quality possession, and the scissors move they perfected was one of those sporting ploys – like Stanley Matthews' dummy or Shane Warne's "wrong 'un" – that everyone knew was coming but few could do anything about.

Despite that level of expertise, Ashton began his Wigan career on the wing, playing well enough to win selection for Lancashire after just seven first-team games, but he was far from happy in the position. It took the arrival of Joe Egan as coach to bring him his destined place in the centre and, before long, as captain – a role he took on at the age of 22. "It was a lucky day for me, Wigan and Great Britain when Ash moved to the centre spot," said Boston.

With Wigan, Ashton was captain in the Challenge Cup final at Wembley six times, leading them to victory in 1958, 1959 and 1965. By the time of the first of those victories, he was already established in the Great Britain team.

He had made his début against France in the 1957 World Cup, and his eventual total of 26 caps included the victorious 1958 and 1962 tours of Australia, the latter as captain. He also captained Great Britain when they won the World Cup in 1960. His wing partner in many of these internationals was Boston, while his combination with another great centre, Neil Fox, had that same "made in heaven" quality.

Ashton's stature in the game was recognised with his appointment as MBE in 1966. By that time, he was player-coach at Wigan, carrying on purely in a coaching capacity from 1969 to 1973; that was followed by a season in charge at Leeds, before coming home to St Helens in 1974.

Conscious of their blunder in letting such an obvious talent slip through their fingers, Saints had made attempts to sign Ashton as a player, though always baulking at what would have surely been a world-record fee. But they did bring him back as coach, a role he filled until 1980. In his first year, St Helens won the First Division Championship for the one and only time and the following season, in 1976, Ashton returned to Wembley to guide a Saints team, branded "Dad's Army" because of a supposed excess of veteran players, to victory over Widnes.

Ashton handed over the coaching reins to Kel Coslett in 1980, and became a club director in 1992. He served as chairman between 1993 and 1997. In that capacity, he led the side out at Wembley in 1996, when victory over the Bradford Bulls gave him his unique hat-trick of Challenge Cups as player, coach and chairman.

Ashton continued on the board after his stint as chairman, always an influence for decency and straight dealing, if occasionally bemused by some of the clashing egos around him. In 2005, he was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame. "The game has lost one of its greatest players," said the Saints' present chairman, Eamonn McManus. "He was one of the best during a golden era for British rugby league."

A minute's silence for Eric Ashton was held before the match between Saints and Wigan on Good Friday. Nobody else has been held in greater affection by the two rugby league tribes of south Lancashire.

Dave Hadfield

Eric Ashton, rugby player, coach and administrator: born St Helens, Lancashire 24 January 1935; MBE 1966; married (two daughters); died St Helens 20 March 2008.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music

Animal welfare charities have urged the boy band to cut the scenes

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

SENCO

£21000 - £36000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: SENCO - Benfleet - J...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you looking to work in Edu...

Nursery Manager

Negotiable: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunity for a nursery manage...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker