Gentlemanly rugby league full-back
Saturday 24 March 2007
James Ledgard, rugby league player: born Wakefield, Yorkshire 9 June 1922; married (one daughter); died Dewsbury, Yorkshire 26 January 2007.
Jimmy Ledgard was one of the great rugby league full-backs of his generation and a vital contributor to Great Britain's surprise World Cup victory in 1954. That was when a team without most of its leading players went to France for the inaugural tournament and became the first British side in any sport to be crowned as World Cup winners.
Without a host of players who had made themselves unavailable after a gruelling tour to Australia and New Zealand, Great Britain were supposed to have little chance, but, with Ledgard as full-back and reliable goal-kicker, they beat Australia and New Zealand in the qualifying rounds, as well as drawing with France.
That set up a final against the hosts in Paris, which Great Britain won 16-12, with Ledgard kicking two goals, bringing his total for the tournament to 13, plus a try against the Kiwis. It was what he regarded as the undoubted highlight of a distinguished playing career.
Ledgard was born in Wakefield and played local rugby league as well as rugby union for Sandal. He had trials for Leeds only to be told that he was too small and signed instead for Dewsbury, the first of two rugby league towns which adopted him. It was there that he emerged as a full-back of outstanding ability, not merely for his kicking, but for his safe defence and all-round ability. He was also regarded as one of the fairest and most gentlemanly of players.
He played twice for Great Britain against the touring New Zealanders in 1947 before his transfer to Leigh the following year caused a sensation within the game. The fee of £2,650 was a world record, beating the £2,000 that Wigan had paid Batley earlier that same season. No one could dispute that Leigh had value for money. In 10 years, he made 334 appearances, including two winning Lancashire Cup finals, scoring 36 tries and 1,043 goals - the latter still a club record - for 2,194 points.
He was an expert at the then standard tactic of the kicking duel, in which rival full-backs would pin each other back with long-range kicks in order to force a mistake. Few rivals got the better of Ledgard in this particular art-form.
In 1950 he toured Australia and New Zealand, playing in the defeats at Brisbane and Sydney that cost Great Britain the Ashes and a Test in New Zealand. He also played against the 1951 Kiwis, although his caps in the 1954 World Cup were the last of his 11.
After a decade in Lancashire, where he also worked as a joiner for Leigh Corporation, Ledgard re-crossed the Pennines and returned to Dewsbury in the twilight of his career. The future Great Britain coach Maurice Bamford, then a young player at the club, recalls that he was still meticulous in his preparation. One of Bamford's duties was to place newspapers near the touchline when Ledgard was practising his touch-kicking. He was so accurate that he would usually hit the improvised target and bounce the ball into touch off the paper.
After his retirement as a player, Ledgard coached briefly at Bradford Northern, but did not take to it. He remained a hero at his two clubs, as a member of the Hall of Fame at both Dewsbury and Leigh.
In the last year of his long life, the Rugby League Heritage Centre in Huddersfield discovered some film footage of his 1947 Test appearances against New Zealand and invited him and his wife, Betty, to view them. He watched fascinated and admitted that it was the first time he had ever seen himself play.
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