John Holmes: Rugby league player celebrated as Leeds' greatest

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In the eyes of many who watched his long career with the club, John Holmes was quite simply the best player Leeds have ever had. He was unarguably the most durable, with a career spanning 21 years and a club-record 625 appearances. He was synonymous with all Leeds' successes of the 1970s and early '80s, playing for them in no less than 19 finals and winning 14.

The bald statistics of his achievements fail, however, to do him justice, because the abiding memory of him on the rugby field is of the style and class he brought to the game. At full-back, centre, stand-off and even, at the end of his career, in the back row of the pack, Holmes was pure quality, his imperious skills matched by his unassuming personality off the pitch.

Signed from Kirkstall Boys' Club in 1968, he gave notice of what was to come with 23 points, including 10 goals, in a pre-season match against neighbours Hunslet when he was still only 16. Although he stood down from regular goal-kicking early in his career, believing that it, like the captaincy, inhibited his overall contribution, his total of 159 goals in his second full season shows how adept he was at that aspect of the game.

It is with the ball in his hands, though, that he made an indelible impression on Headingley folklore. Established at full-back following the retirement of Bev Risman, he scored a hat-trick of tries in the Yorkshire Cup final in 1972 – a mark of the pace he had at his disposal at that stage of his development.

It is as a creator of tries for others, however, that John Holmes was peerless, with a rare gift for getting exactly the right weight on a pass to put a team-mate through a gap that others had not even seen. That was never better illustrated than in the 1978 Challenge Cup final against St Helens, when his ball-handling skills brought Leeds back to win from 10 points down. His passes set up three tries and, just for good measure, he landed a drop goal, with his "wrong" left foot as he fell backwards.

Had the votes for the Lance Todd Trophy as man of the match not already been counted, he would have certainly won the award that day, rather than Saints' George Nicholls. As it was, several of the voting journalists approached him in the dressing room afterwards to apologise. Typically, he was able to say, in all honesty, that their oversight hardly mattered to him. The final had been won and that was overwhelmingly the main thing.

Holmes was still a dominant figure in his last final in 1984, engineering Leeds' 18-10 victory over Widnes in the John Player Special Trophy by scoring one try and setting up another. He played on to good effect until 1988, his skills educating those around him even as he wound down by player-coaching the reserve team from loose forward. In a statement the day after his death from cancer, Leeds called him the greatest servant the club had ever had.

Holmes also had a distinguished international career, playing 20 times for Great Britain and seven for England. His first Great Britain cap was against New Zealand in 1971, when he kicked two goals and two drop-goals, followed by two appearances against France the season after. Also in 1972, he was a key member of the team that won the World Cup in France, scoring 26 points in a big win over New Zealand and playing stand-off again in the 10-all draw with Australia in Lyons that clinched the trophy, thanks to an earlier group-game victory, in which he had played as a substitute. He also played in the unsuccessful World Cup campaign in Australia in 1977 and was a substitute in all three Tests against the touring Kangaroos the following year.

In 1979, he played in all six Tests on the Lions' tour to the antipodes – one of the few pillars of stability at a time of flux for the national team – and was recalled in 1982 as Great Britain looked in vain for a winning formula against the Australian tourists who were to become known as The Invincibles. The second-Test defeat at Wigan was to be his last appearance in a Great Britain shirt, although most Leeds supporters would argue that he should have been seen wearing it more often than he was.

One contribution to a website set up this week to receive tributes to him said: "Rugby league has lost its Leonardo di Vinci – a true artist among the artisans."

Another, from Stuart Duffy, now football manager of their rivals at Bradford, called him "simply the greatest player to have played for Leeds. His skill and endeavour were without parallel."

John Holmes, rugby league player: born Leeds 21 March 1952; married twice; died Leeds 26 September 2009.