Featherstone Rovers, a generational love affair, and the call of history a second time around
It is often difficult to appreciate when you’re living through history in the making. Only hindsight and the passage of time allows us to properly contextualise events and achievements.
It is especially hard to get your head around when you're a kid. I remember one of my first seasons watching my local rugby league club, Featherstone Rovers.
Growing up in the rugby league heartland of West Yorkshire, going to the rugby of a Sunday afternoon was what dads and lads did. I jumped at the chance to go when my dad first invited me along.
I was primary school-age, didn’t understand the rules, and wasn’t even that interested in the game. The cries of “Back him up!” and “Knock-on!” meant nothing to me.
I do remember vividly a tuck shop behind the stand, and standing impatiently on the terraces waiting until half time for my dad to take me to get some sweets.
Slowly, the sport began to grow on me like it had Dad. Of course football was important here too, but rugby was different. Rugby was our sport. This ex-mining town, population 14,000, with a stadium capacity of almost 10,000, had in its history mixed it with the big boys. It had even won some silverware.
The players were our own too, born of local stock and as passionate about the club as the supporters. Many, on part-time contracts, had day jobs through the week and you’d occasionally see them out and about. Having witnessed them score a winning try on a Sunday, you might have a first team player doing your roof on a Monday.
The sport itself was physical, where men had to be men in the very old-fashioned sense, ready to take a knock or two. The matches were fast-paced, compared to football, and rarely uneventful. The crowds appreciated players who put in a shift, as well as those with skill.
I remember one player in particular who stood out enough to catch even my untrained eye.
“Who’s that?” I asked my dad. “That’s Paul Newlove, son.”
Paul Newlove, I decided, was going to be my favourite player. He was a local lad and he scored tries for fun.
We didn’t know it then, of course, but Newlove would go on to write himself into the history books. After shattering the club record by scoring 48 tries in his final season for us, he twice broke the world record transfer fee, moving first to Bradford Northern for £245,000 and later to St. Helens for £250,000, where he won everything going.
It’s almost thirty years since my first taste of rugby league, and some things have changed.
Dad’s now in his seventies so spending eighty minutes on the terraces is a less attractive prospect for us. Besides, only a fraction of those terraces remain, having been replaced by new stands with covered seating. That’s where you’ll find my dad and I during most home matches these days.
I’m a dad myself now, and this season I decided my own kids were ready for the rite of passage. I would bring them to a few home games, give them a taste of why this sport and this club are so special.
To prepare them, I showed them YouTube videos of past glories and introduced them to Percy the Pit Pony, the club mascot who harks back to the town’s coal-mining history. I packed snacks, and drinks, and an iPad just in case.
Things went as expected. They were more interested in running along the aisles of seating, pulling them all down and laughing hysterically.
“Is it time to go home yet?” my son asked, before kick-off.
“Nearly,” I lied.
But as I focused on keeping them entertained, and making sure Dad was topped up with half-time tea, something extraordinary was unfolding.
Luke Briscoe, another local lad, had found a rich vein of form and was scoring tries for fun. That form soon saw him approach, and pass, Paul Newlove’s 30-year-old club record or scoring tries in 10 consecutive games.
🙌🏻 THE boys were delighted for Luke Briscoe, who today broke Paul Newlove's 1993 record by scoring tries in ELEVEN consecutive games - taking his tally to 20 for the season!#BeRovers pic.twitter.com/DOxmvElygs
— Featherstone Rovers (@FevRovers) April 2, 2018
Word spread, and Briscoe’s try-scoring feats garnered local and national press attention for this oft-overlooked sport.
Meanwhile, I soldiered on with my children’s rugby education.
“Who’s that?” my daughter asked after another Rovers try.
“That’s Luke Briscoe.”
Currently Briscoe has scored 26 tries this season, equalling Martin Offiah’s post-war record of scoring in 16 consecutive games.
👏🏼 LUKE Briscoe equalled @martinoffiah's modern-day record of tries in FIFTEEN consecutive games on Sunday, crossing for his 25th of 2018!
🤔 THREE more games of scoring and he'll break #rugbyleague's record of tries in 17 set by @leedsrhinos' Eric Harris, in 1937.#BeRovers pic.twitter.com/mIm0pRPegN
— Featherstone Rovers (@FevRovers) May 1, 2018
Now Eric Harris’s all time record of scoring tries in 17 consecutive games, set all the way back in 1937, looks to be in his sights as Featherstone Rovers take on holders Hull FC in the Challenge Cup tonight.
Will Luke Briscoe write himself into the rugby league history books against a strong Hull side? Will he go on to have a glittering career like that of Paul Newlove?
Whether or not he breaks the record, Briscoe has already written himself into one family’s own history, being the backdrop against three generations bonding over sport.
I wonder if my own grandkids, in time, will be regaled of stories of that local lad Luke Briscoe who broke records? Only time will tell.