Eric Clay

Referee known as 'Sergeant Major'
Click to follow

Eric Clay, rugby league referee: born Leeds, Yorkshire 19 May 1922; married (two daughters); died Leeds 3 October 2007.

Even though he had been retired from refereeing for 35 years by the time of his death, "Sergeant Major" Eric Clay remained the most memorable and instantly recognisable figure ever to officiate at rugby league matches in Britain.

It was the broadcaster Eddie Waring who conferred the honorary military rank upon him. In fact, Clay had been a Warrant Officer in the RAF, but his nickname captured the way he controlled a game, like a battle-hardened veteran showing the raw recruits who was in charge.

Clay began refereeing in 1947, after a wartime stint in the RAF that included crash-landing in North Africa and a stomach operation that prevented him from playing the game again. He officiated in relative obscurity until a reserve match which he was refereeing was staged as the curtain-raiser for a Challenge Cup semi-final in 1952 and his authoritative presence was noted. He was elevated rapidly from Grade 5 to Grade 2, and took charge of his first senior games in 1953-54, staying on the Rugby League's list until he had to retire at the age of 50 in 1972.

His style was all his own. A big, even heavy man, he did not race around the field like his modern successors, but he had a knack of being in the right place at the right time to defuse trouble, in a game that was much more violent then than it is now.

The now-retired referee Gerry Kershaw was a young aspirant when Clay was in his prime and he recalls him as an inexhaustible source of help and advice. "But he couldn't have refereed now, because he would never have passed the fitness test," Kershaw said.

That did not hold Clay back in the Fifties and Sixties. Among the major domestic matches he refereed were two Challenge Cup finals at Wembley, between Wakefield and Hull in 1960 and Featherstone and Barrow in 1967. By coincidence, these are the only two Cup finals to have been attended by the Queen – all adding to the sense that Clay was the man for the big occasion.

He was also kept busy in the Test match arena and was the referee when Great Britain last won the Ashes on home soil in 1959.

His most controversial match, however, was four years later when, with the Ashes already lost, the two sides set about settling scores at Wigan. It was one of the most brutal Tests ever played, with Clay sending off two Australians and one British player.

After the match, won 18-12 by Great Britain, the Australian management complained bitterly that Clay – whom they rechristened "Cassius" Clay – had been biased. It was a charge that the Australian journalist Malcolm Andrews put to him some years later. "One can't expect to please everybody and my conscience was always clear," Clay told him.

Clay could be a controversial figure on the domestic scene as well. His run-ins with Alex Murphy, the game's best and wiliest player, were a running theme throughout his refereeing career. In his 2000 autobiography Saint and Sinner, Murphy recalled that Clay had sent him off three times, as well as getting him banned for verbally abusing him after another match.

Despite that, there was a genuine and lasting respect between the two men. "I was often accused of trying to referee any game I played in, but that is an accusation that has been levelled at most scrum-halves down the years . . . But I suppose that calling the best referee in the world 'a big, fat Yorkshire bastard' was asking for trouble," Murphy wrote.

After his retirement, Clay concentrated on his other job, as company secretary of an engineering firm in Leeds. Despite his name remaining one of the best-known in the game, he was rarely seen at rugby league events. There was one exception to that. When Murphy was appointed OBE in 1999, he insisted on the man who sent him off three times accompanying him to Buckingham Palace as one of his guests.

Dave Hadfield