Scot who held rugby league World Cup aloft

Shortly after his appointment, SRU chief executive Mark Dodson created a stir when he stated that his ultimate aim for Scottish rugby was to win the World Cup in 2015, something no Scottish team had done.

David Valentine, who captained Great Britain to World Cup glory, breaks a French tackle in the 1954 final.  Picture: Empics
David Valentine, who captained Great Britain to World Cup glory, breaks a French tackle in the 1954 final. Picture: Empics

The vast majority of sensible observers tucked that notion away in the ‘pipe dream’ category. In contrast, rugby league’s World Cup has been held aloft in triumph by a Scot as captain of the winning team.

Hawick man David Valentine’s proud moment came as captain of Great Britain, rather than Scotland, when he led his team to glory in the inaugural tournament in Paris in 1954. As the Rugby League World Cup kicks off in the Millennium Stadium today, it is fitting to recall the career of the Scot who truly shone on the game’s world stage.

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The British squad in 1954 were considered no-hopers. The team had just returned from a gruelling tour of Australasia where Valentine had excelled, playing in five out of six Tests. He was rated by the press Down Under as one of the greatest forwards to visit their shores. “Val leaves them all for dead – he is a champion player,” read one report.

After that tour, many players were not interested in going to the World Cup due to a combination of fatigue and discontent over financial terms. Valentine was at the core of a few experienced players supplemented by others untried at this level. Funding did not extend to appointing a coach, far less holding a team photoshoot prior to departure. Against all the odds, but inspired by Valentine’s leadership, they beat France 16-12 in the final at Parc des Princes before a large French crowd. Each player was given a £25 bonus and a commemorative penknife.

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According to David Rose, the former Jed-Forest and Scotland winger, the only other Scot in the team, the secret of success was the team spirit created by Valentine repeatedly cajoling the squad to sing lusty renditions of an old Scottish folk song The Massacre of Macpherson! Scotland has never been synonymous with rugby league, making it seem incongruous that a Scot should captain the British team. The game is rooted in the north of England, where it had split from the Union game at a meeting in Huddersfield’s George Hotel in 1895. Although it had never taken root in Scotland, the Borders, being a real rugby hotbed, was fertile territory for league scouts to recruit players. The market was particularly active after the second World War when money was in short supply.

In October 1947, after a brief but brilliant career in rugby union, Valentine signed for Huddersfield, where he joined another five ex-Hawick players. His sporting genes no doubt derived from his father Paddy, who was an accomplished sportsman and at one time trainer/groundsman at Hawick rugby club. After the war, Valentine made his debut for the famous Greens at wing forward and first came to wider prominence playing for the British Army against a Scottish XV. Other honours soon followed – Combined Services, South of Scotland and Barbarians – before he gained his first cap against Ireland in 1947 aged 20, quickly followed by his second and last cap against England, both at wing forward. By then, he was firmly on the radar of the league scouts and it was only a matter of time till he went south.

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Valentine adapted quickly to his new code. His athleticism, speed and powerful physique eased his transition to league where he played mostly as a loose forward. His good form was noted by the selectors, who picked him for the British team to play Australia in three Tests in 1948-49. That same season, Huddersfield won the league. He seemed a shoo-in for the British team to tour Australasia in 1949/50 but, to the surprise of many, was not selected. An Australian player was quoted as saying: “I felt like going down on my knees to offer up thanks when I heard Dave Valentine had been omitted from the British team.”

Valentine was philosophical about this setback and continued to play with distinction for Huddersfield, the highlight being a win in the Challenge Cup at Wembley.

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In the early 1950s, he also took part in professional wrestling with considerable success. He fought in Germany and all over the UK, including the old Eldorado stadium in Leith, and one memorable night in Hawick Town Hall when his mother couldn’t bear to watch. Whilst in the Army, he had also been an accomplished boxer, even attracting the interest of professional promoters.

Valentine was the eldest of a trinity of sporting brothers. Middle brother Alex also represented Scotland at rugby, winning three caps at wing forward in 1953. He was also a top hammer thrower and represented Scotland in the Empire Games in 1954 and 1958. Youngest brother Rob played for South of Scotland against the All Blacks in 1963 before signing to play for Huddersfield where he enjoyed a successful career. He earned one GB cap against Australia in 1968, but a broken leg soon put paid to the prospect of more caps.

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Rob recalls: “Dave’s greatest attributes were his fearlessness, speed and his engine – he could run all day. Mind you, in the early days, players who had left Border clubs to play league were not always welcomed back with open arms because of the strength of feeling over the amateur/professional issue.

“One new year shortly after Dave went south, he was back in Hawick and attended the traditional Ne’erday game with Heriot’s.

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“Afterwards, in the clubhouse, where he was socialising with old pals, he was asked to leave by the Hawick secretary as a member had complained about his presence there.”

Thankfully, such attitudes no longer exist, as reflected in Dave Valentine’s selection at wing forward recently for the best Hawick team in history. The fact that he only played 28 games for the club, and faced extremely stiff competition for that berth, merely underlines his calibre as a player.

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‘Val’ was a magnetic figure for the Huddersfield fans. He possessed all the characteristics of an identikit sporting hero – dark and ruggedly handsome with an impressive stature and physique, powerful presence and an infectious personality. Sadly he developed a brain tumour and died just short of his 50th birthday in 1976.

Rob remembers: “To give you an idea of what Dave was like, before his final operation he told the surgeon that, if he found a stud in his ear, it would belong to Arthur Clowes [a robust Australian player of the era]. When he died, I’ve never seen such a huge funeral. People thronged the streets with police saluting as the hearse passed. It’s hard to put into words how much Dave was appreciated there.”

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At Huddersfield Rugby League club, his memory is preserved in the ‘Top Ten All Time’ players’ gallery and in the memorial stone dedicated to him in its own area near the entrance to the stadium.

While these are the physical markers of the esteem in which ‘Val’ was held there, his enduring memory in the hearts and minds, not only of Huddersfield fans, but rugby league fans everywhere, is testimony to his singular worth.