Black History Round: Roy Powell

This Friday’s game at St Helens is part of the Betfred Super League Black History Round and throughout this week, we will be celebrating the black players who have been central to our club’s proud history. First up is Roy Powell.

Just over ten years after he had collected his medal at Elland Road, beamed his ever-engaging smile, and waved to family and friends in the main stand, one of Leeds’s greatest forwards of the modern era tragically passed away.

There was total disbelief in the rugby league community when they heard the news in December 1998 that Roy Powell had suffered heart failure at a pre-season training session at Rochdale, who he had just joined as player/assistant coach aged 33 along with his great friend Deryck Fox.

The sport was robbed of one of its truest gentlemen, who had left an indelible mark on and off the field wherever he played. One of the hardest working, especially in defence, some fans at Leeds in the mid-80s claimed that the best player on show accolade at Headingley should have been re-named the ‘Roy Powell Man of the Match Award’, such was his consistency and excellence. Often cries of ‘good tackle, Roy’ would echo round the ground but he was also a clever and deceptive ball handler too.

Signed from St John Fisher in Dewsbury in 1983, almost as a makeweight in a deal to tie up his friend, full back David Healey, he joined a Colts side that contained some of the best up and coming talent, winning the Championship in 1983-84. Around the same time, the first team was peopled by some highly experienced Australian pack men like Test star Wally Fullerton-Smith, whose guidance and expertise he readily tapped in to. Quickly living up to the phrase ‘gentle giant’ his tireless workrate and astonishing defensive contribution saw him elevated into the first team squad.

There were some, not least the coach who took him under his wing throughout his career, Peter Fox, who claimed that with a more aggressive nature his unquestioned talents would have been wider recognised but it was as much a mark of the man that his temperament was similarly top notch. Kind, quiet, unassuming and grounded, he never missed an autograph, frequently supported events and could always be seen helping the staff take the bags off the bus whether for club or country.

When he became a senior player, he was always the first to offer advice and guidance to newcomers in the side and kept his feet on the ground by continuing in his trade as a plasterer in his native Dewsbury for most of his professional playing career. Within a year of his arrival at Headingley he had claimed a first team spot and such was his impact, uncomplainingly tackling himself to a near-standstill every week and he was selected as a substitute for Great Britain against France in 1985.

Within three years he was in imperious form, an absolute stand out in heartbreaking defeat against St Helens, 15-14, in the 1988 John Player Final. Called up for the Great Britain tour to Papua – where he was relentlessly mobbed and feted – and down under that summer under coach Malcolm Reilly, he was a fixture in the side, topping the appearances with 14 out of 18 possible games including all the Tests.

He was one of the few British forwards to command respect and he shared in the euphoria of beating the Aussies for the first time in 10 years, when Great Britain defied all expectations to triumph 26-12 at the Sydney Football Stadium in the World Cup rated Third Test. The Yorkshire Cup final later that season was to represent his only major domestic medal, playing a typically unsung but vital role in quelling the danger from a rugged Cas pack that included Ronnie ‘Rambo’ Gibbs. By then he had become the first name on the teamsheet at Leeds and was again on tour in 1990 to PNG and New Zealand where his durability once more saw him play the most games, 14 again; this time all but one in the schedule and in all five Test matches.

Later that season he played in the memorable home series against Australia – including the victory at Wembley – and made his final Test appearance, again as a substitute, against France in 1991; a total of 19 caps. A few months later, in February 1992, Peter Fox signed him for Bradford Northern for £80,000, his departure from Leeds causing a storm of protest and his efforts helped them into the final of the Regal Trophy the following season. For the third time in that competition, he was on the losing side, against Wigan, also at Elland Road. After 132 appearances for Northern, he followed Fox again for a stint with Featherstone and then helped Batley – without a trophy for over 40 years – to win the inaugural Trans-Pennine Cup.

He caused great concern in the final against Oldham when he was unconscious for 20 minutes. It was a warning sign and the big fella is still much missed.