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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

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Ralph handles rugby league’s hot seats

WEIGHING IN:  Ralph Calvin weighs some Skate in from one of the trawlersPicture: Mike McKenzie

TRAWLER owner, publican but essentially a rugby man: Ralph Calvin always stood his ground on the field of play and in the second half of an eventful career the lad from Lowca proved to be a worthy champion of rugby league at the highest level.

From the fierce, uncompromising front rower he was for Workington Town, Whitehaven and Cumbria, Ralph rose to dizzy heights as president of the Rugby Football League while in the boardroom hot seat at Whitehaven – where he was one of the men who put their hands in their pockets to keep the club alive.

He was also among the RFL chairmen who unanimously put their hands up to accept Rupert Murdoch’s big-money Sky TV deal for Super League. Later, controversially, along with the directors of Whitehaven and Workington, Mr Calvin was involved in exploring the possibility of forming one new “super” club for West Cumbria.

It was a rugby league hot potato because it almost certainly would have meant the merger of the two clubs for which he literally shed blood as a player.

There was flak flying but the Lowca lad had learned the facts of rugby life at an early age and was able to take criticism squarely on the chin, just as he had done in his rough-tough battles against Great Britain props such as Cliff Watson, Dennis Hartley and Ken Roberts in the days of one league.

“I went into a hard school, listened and did as I was told and it stood me in good stead,” said Ralph.

What else when, as a rookie forward, you step foot into a dressing room containing some of the legendary packmen of Cumberland rugby league: Brian Edgar, the Martin Brothers, Bill Kirkbride and Spanky McFarlane, not to mention the coach, Billy Ivison.

This, of course, was at Derwent Park, home of Workington Town.

But it was at Whitehaven Grammar School and The Playground, home of Whitehaven RUFC, that Ralph Calvin first cut his rugby teeth and as a teenager was already engaged in union derby battles with Egremont and hard-nosed union forwards such as Jackie Purdham, Norman Sherwen and George Crayston.

“I was only 16, playing as a wing forward and it was a great grounding. Bill Anderson was a big influence on the Whitehaven club, he’s legendary and I’ll never forget one match when WG played on the wing wearing his spectacles. I just couldn’t get over it.”

A year or two later Ralph was wearing the blue and white of Workington Town. “I’ll never forget either one of my first training nights at Town. Only one part of the training pitch was floodlit, it was like running from light into the dark. I was just about to get the ball when this big fella came for me. I couldn’t see who he was then but I thought I’d sell a dummy and run round him. Next thing I knew I was swinging on an arm, it was just touch rugby mind, but this guy said: ‘Don’t ever try and do that to me again, son. As he walked away I saw it was Brian — the great Brian Edgar, who was everybody’s hero at school.

“That’s the way it was then, competition was so fierce guys used to get laid out in training. Brian was at the end of his career, but I played a few games in the same pack and it was an honour. Big Bill Martin or Danny Gardiner were in the front row with Edgar, with ‘Smiler’ Allen hooker and me at loose forward behind the likes of Bill Kirkbride, Rodney Smith and ‘Spanky’ McFarlane who took me under his wing.

“We had some brilliant backs, including Keith Davies, a flyer on the wing, Ian Wright in the centres, the classy Eric Bell and half-backs like Jackie Newall and Harry Whitaker.

“My first team debut was against Castleford, a mighty side then. Dennis Hartley and Bill Bryant were controlling their pack and made me suffer, it was awesome stuff. You had to tackle them round the legs or you just got knocked to kingdom come.”

One of his earliest moments of rugby truth came at Halifax. Ralph came face to face with international prop Ken Roberts, a teak-tough Test prop who had dished it out to the Aussies.

“A bit of rugby union came to the fore, I pinched the ball off Roberts and scored. Bill Martin shouted ‘now just keep out of his road for 10 minutes, give him time to cool off because he will be out to get you’.

“I felt a bang and all I could remember was waking up in our changing room with one of my eyes cut and stitches all over my head.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Calvin could look after himself, an enforcer in his own right but it helped getting to know Vince Karalius.

“Weights weren’t a big thing in my day, but then I met the great Karalius through Bobby Blackwood who was playing for St Helens around the time. Whenever I met Bobby down there we used to go round to Vince’s place, he’d converted his garage into a gym at Widnes and wanted us to start muscling up in there.

“But can you imagine at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, Vinty used to say ‘come on boys get on these bikes’ — “we’d probably just got in at 3am, after coming back from the night club which Vince owned with Kurt Sorenson.

“One of the funniest moments was when I was chairman at Whitehaven, we’d signed Kurt as coach and Vince came up with him. The pair went up to Hensingham to see some of the youngsters train and Vince, being a fitness fanatic, couldn’t help taking a close look at Chem (Craig Cham-bers) and Graeme Morton.

“When Chem got home he said: ‘Hey, dad, this fella Karalius was feeling our muscles.’

“His dad said: ‘You didn’t know who that was? For goodness sake what did you say to him?’

“Chem and Graeme didn’t know him from Adam, but Vince ended up getting them on to one of his weights programmes.”

Another of the game’s charismatic characters to enter Ralph’s own colourful career was Jim Mills, the gentle giant who was sent off more than anybody else.

Mills starred for Widnes, Great Britain — and Workington Town in the front row with Calvin.

“Big Jim was a nice man as well as being a great player and we had some laughs. He was easily riled and I suppose I was on a short fuse as well.

“Once a scrum went down and a Bramley guy never got up, there was a big furore and later Tom Mitchell blamed Jim. ‘You needn’t say it was me, Tom, it was him over there’, pointing to me.

“Another time Tom came into the changing room at half time and had a go at him for not making enough tackles. ‘Well, Tom, ‘if you tell them to run at us, I’ll tackle the lot of ‘em,’ Big Jim shouted back.

Jim and Ralph became firm friends and as a reporter I recall a Sunday afternoon in the Whitehaven boardroom when Ralph handed his pal a bag with a distinctly fishy smell. What was in it? “Oh, it was full of prawns, they were meant for Jim but I heard they all got eaten by the Widnes players on the way home.

“Another daft time was when Widnes came up to Workington. I always had a boat and Jim said he liked crabs, so I got him a bag full to take back. On the bus they could hear the crabs crawling about, they were still alive.”

Calvin was unfortunate to miss Town’s 1977 Lancashire Cup triumph over Wigan (he’d already gone to the old enemy) but this front-row big hitter had played in the first of the losing finals.

“It was disappointing not to go to Wembley with Town, we hit a peak and should have done the year. Paul Charlton, Eddie Bowman, Billy Pattinson, Les and Peter Gorley were all still there, and Alan Banks hooking. We were 7-5 up at Keighley in the quarter final. Harold Henney made a break but didn’t pass and we got knocked out. Saints, who we’d already beaten twice that season, defeated Keighley in the semi and went on to win the Cup.”

When Ralph’s path crossed with Alex Murphy he was to learn a salutary lesson.

“I played against Murphy a few times, this day at Leigh he was trying to run the game as usual, there was a scrum right on our own line and Alex shaped to put the ball in. Next thing he dived over and the ref awarded a try, even though he never actually put the ball in. The ref said to me ‘look at the scoreboard’ — Billy Ivison dragged me off saying: ‘Play to the whistle in future, man.’ Murphy had worked the oracle again.”

Another “ foxy” No.7 was David Watkins, the famous Welsh scrum-half convert.

“Salford had just signed Watkins for big money, but wanted to keep him at home to play in the A team and draw a massive crowd — it so happens I was making my second team debut for Town at The Willows. Just before half time Watkins punted the ball, it went straight between the sticks and the ref must have got carried away by the occasion and signalled a drop goal. I’ll make it right for you, and he did. I took a pass from Bill Patty soon after, it was well forward but I still got a try off it.”

After 10 years at Derwent Park, and a deserved benefit cheque, it was on to Whitehaven.

“Basically, Town thought my knee was still a bit iffy and they’d signed big Harry Beverley from Dewsbury, they also had Brian Hogan (Wigan) and Derek Watts (Leigh) as props at that time.

“I knew Billy Smith, the Whitehaven coach wanted me, and one night when I was meeting ‘Boxer’ (Walker) for a pint in town, Ernest McConnell, the Whitehaven secretary, popped up and practically wouldn’t let me in the Anchor Vaults until I gave an answer. ‘When are you coming, Ralph’? Ernie kept asking.

“Whitehaven weren’t as strong as Town then, but it was a decent team with a great bunch of lads, Tom Gainford, David Martin, Ian Litt, Mike Barwise and Dave Barnes, to name a few. Ray Dutton came up from Widnes along with the O’Neill brothers, Mackie and Sheridan in the pack. The big moment came when we hammered York at The Recre to win promotion to the First Division, the atmosphere was something else. Me and Paul Grimes were the cornerstones of our pack, I suppose. ‘Boxer’ came to Whitehaven after me and he was a real force behind the scrum.”

Another memorable experience was playing for Cumbria against Australia at Whitehaven and for Calvin it didn’t come harder than coming up against Artie Beetson. “Paul Charlton only lasted 10 minutes. ‘Boxer’ got carried off but we weren’t annihilated.”

Four good seasons at Whitehaven came to an end in a big clash against star-studded Leeds again at The Recre. “I was battling in the scrums and just started to feel dizzy, for well over a minute I had no idea where I was. I had a bit of a neck injury anyway and when a specialist advised me to pack it in I heeded the warning.”

So what took you into the Whitehaven boardroom? — “I was landlord of the Anchor Vaults at the time and just thought I would like to put something back into the game.

“A few of the lads I played with were still around and I had to sit down and talk terms with them. One time Billy Fisher said: ‘you’ve changed, Ralph, it wasn’t like this when you were playing, you got what you wanted.’ I said: ‘I’m on the other side of the dyke now Billy.”

Ralph’s friendship with another legend, Eric Ashton, saw Haven snap up star Saints winger Les Quirk for a mere £500 but dark clouds were forming and the club was at death’s door in 1992.

“About 10 of us got together (we’re still called the ‘92 committee) and all put money into the club, otherwise Whitehaven would have folded and probably wouldn’t be here today,” he explained.

So Haven were saved and Millennium Year saw Mr Calvin at the pinnacle of the game, he was elected president of the Rugby Football League.

“A very proud moment for me, the club and the area,” he said.

Five years earlier Ralph and the rest of the RFL chairman accepted the Sky TV deal at a momentous meeting in Huddersfield when Maurice Lindsay dangled the financial carrot.

“Fabulous money was on offer, we didn’t have much time to decide, we all said ‘yes’ and it was seen in one respect as a way of clearing debts, although we at Whitehaven were one of the few clubs in the black at the time.”

Mergers were on the Murdoch agenda and Cumbria was offered a Super League place on a plate if Haven, Town and Barrow came together.

“We had talks but there was no way it was going to happen, Workington had the whip hand anyway because they had already won promotion to go into Super League.”

Locally, came another critical time as the Whitehaven and Workington directors decided to examine the viability of forming a new West Cumbrian club strong enough to compete at the highest level of the game.

You met in private initially, do you think you could have handled things better? — “You have got to accept criticism. We saw it as a chance to form a new team and not as a merger.”

At a public meeting to thrash out the pros and cons Haven’s directors resigned en-bloc.

Did you take the huff? “No, at the end of the day we felt we had taken the club so far and we couldn’t see us being able to take it any further. I want to see both Whitehaven and Town doing well, but will they ever get into Super League?”

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