Behind the numbers – Hugh Waddell – heritage number 1190

To mark the 130th anniversary of the first ever game at Headingley, we recently launched a new celebration shirt which includes the names of every player that has played for the club since the establishment of the Northern Union in 1895.

The Leeds Rhinos Foundation Heritage Group traced every player who has made an appearance for the first team, and allocated them a chronological number going back to 1895. That has unearthed some fascinating stories and we are going to share some of those stories with you so you can look for the names on your shirt and realise the sacrifices those who came before us made to establish our great club.

He was probably the most unlikely rugby league hero, a chance trialist from Stafford who went on to appear in the NRL and for his country in one of the most memorable Test matches of the modern era.

Hugh Wadell came to rugby league for a bet when, on holiday with a girlfriend, he walked into Blackpool Borough and asked for a trial after she had dared him. He took to the sport instantly and it to him. He wore the tangerine for over three years, winning an England cap against Wales in 1984, Oldham then snapping him up after he almost beat them single-handedly in a Lancashire Cup tie, before he came to Leeds.

He arrived as an established international, called into the 1988 Lions squad by Malcolm Reilly after initially playing in the home and away Tests against France earlier that year. Predominantly in the midweek side, he was called up for the World Cup-rated third encounter with the green and gold’s, the series having been lost by then and was part of a sensational performance that culminated in a 26-12 triumph in Sydney, to end a run of 15 consecutive defeats.

Retained for the game against New Zealand in mud-splattered Auckland, speculation began on his return home of a move away from the Watersheddings, although it was initially denied. In early September, though, he came to Headingley, making his debut in a home defeat to Widnes.

Nicknamed ‘ten bellies’,  he almost immediately attained cult status with the Headingley faithful who relished his no-nonsense, ‘take it to ‘em’ style redolent of another era. He said on reflection in later years, “We won the Yorkshire Cup when I was there! But that was about it. It was a funny place – I loved it there, don’t get me wrong. The mind boggles because there were so many talented players that just couldn’t gel as a team. Virtually every shirt was an international player, like [Garry] Schofield and [Lee] Crooks. Wigan had the best team and we couldn’t knock them off their perch but we tried our best.”

The Yorkshire Cup final triumph was his eighth match in a Leeds shirt and he was a virtual ever-present thereafter, making 31 appearances in his debut campaign but not crossing the whitewash. He had to wait until February 1990 for his first try for the club in a big home win over next employers Sheffield – who he joined in March that year – and, having waited so long, went over the following week at Leigh.

In all, he played 53 times for Leeds, adding a further Test cap at home to France together with an appearance against the Rest of the World at Headingley in a match to commemorate the opening of the new Whitbread Hall of Fame. In the off season between his two years at Leeds, he teamed up again with White Rose winner Cliff Lyons at Manly, making 13 consecutive appearances for the Sea Eagles, a team in transition, which applied to virtually all the other clubs he subsequently graced. At Sheffield, there was major satisfaction in being part of their first silverware sides, winning the Second Division title and Premiership at Old Trafford in 1992, where Oldham were defeated, and playing in the last ever Yorkshire Cup final the following season.

After Gary Hetherington’s Eagles, there were brief spells with Wakefield, Rochdale, Swinton and Carlisle, where he was player/coach. He appeared for Scotland in the 1995 Emerging Nations World Cup when with Egremont, joining newcomers South Wales on their professional bow in 1996, his 15 games yielding a try at Prescot Panthers.

Their disbanding saw him finish his professional career with a couple of seasons at Barrow until a disagreement over substitutions. He then turned his attention and experience to the fledgling amateur game north of the border, leading the Border Eagles to the Scotland Conference title in 1998 and into a Challenge Cup tie with Wath Brow, aged 40, the first Scottish side to appear in the oldest competition. A runner with the ball more than a tackler, the man fans loved to endearingly call ‘Huge’ still knew how to scatter all comers in his wake. He came into the sport unexpectedly, captured hearts and remains one of its most fondly remembered characters, especially here.