World Cup Wednesdays: Four time World Cup hero Atkinson set the benchmark for others to follow

John Atkinson scores in the 1970 World Cup Final at Headingley

Each Wednesday in the build up the 2021 Rugby League World Cups, we will have a special feature as we build up to the biggest ever World Cup in the game’s history looking at those who helped create the legacy and who will be aiming to make their own history this Autumn.

On the eve of the new Betfred Super League season, St Helens skipper James Roby could be set to break a record that has stood since 1975 and equal a landmark set by Leeds legend John Atkinson.

The Saints skipper is undoubtedly one of the great exponents of the dummy half role in the Super League era and should he make Shaun Wane’s squad this Autumn, he will feature in the fourth World Cup of his career having played at the 2008, 2013 and 2017 jamborees.

Atkinson is currently the only English player to have achieved that success having played in the 1968, 1970, 1972 and 1975 World Cups.

Beautifully balanced, graceful, with a glorious sidestep, natural speed, a wonderful runner on the outside possessing imperceptible acceleration and a mesmerising swerve, he was the archetypal ‘classic’ finisher par excellence; the complete opposite of today’s principally power-primed metre gainers.

With the advent of limited tackles, the Leeds coach Roy Francis wanted his side to be fit, fast and to exploit space from anywhere on the field and the former Roundhay rugby union flyer, courted by Oldham and Halifax, perfectly fitted the bill, especially when teamed up on the left with young centre Les Dyl who gave Atkinson terrific, regular, quick service.

‘Atky’ was destined to play for Leeds, the third generation to do so after his grandfather George Broughton Senior and uncle George Junior.

That all three played and won at Wembley – George Senior in 1934 after having moved to Hunslet, and Junior with the Loiners in 1957 – is remarkable.

A schoolboy champion at athletics and boxing, also representing his county at swimming, gymnastics and cricket, John signed for Leeds in 1965. 

Francis’s insistence on speed training in spikes was ideal for him as Atkinson was quick enough to be regarded Olympic sprint standard. 

He made a two-try debut against York in March 1966 and went on to play in an astonishing 20 finals in 16 seasons, all but four won. 

The ultimate gamebreaker, he reserved so many of his most decisive performances for big matches, scoring the winning touchdown to defeat Castleford in the 1969 Championship decider, doing the same three seasons later and in the 1975 Premiership final, and on three occasions crossed at Wembley – most controversially for the penalty try that upset Wakefield in 1968 – and again in ’77 and ’78, on both occasions thanks to the artistry of John Holmes. 

Twice he posted 36 tries in a season and on three occasions led the league’s try scoring chart in 1969-70, 1971-72 and the season after. 

He also crossed four times when Perpignan were beaten at Headingley in a one-off European Club Championship tie in November 1969. 

He made 15 appearances for the White Rose and was near-permanent in the international arena for 12 years, winning 12 England caps and 26 more for Great Britain including on the last Ashes winning tour in 1970, when he scored a brace in the deciding Sydney Test. 

That year also brought him notoriety in the infamous ‘Battle of Leeds’ World Cup final when, after the fulltime hooter sounded, he head-butted Aussie full-back Eric Simms after tempers had flared, something he was forever ashamed of. 

Subsequently a member of the Great Britain side that won the World Cup in France in 1972 and having also taken part in the 1968 tournament Down Under and again in ’75, he became the only player to appear in four World campaigns. 

In the 1972 winning campaign, Atkinson crossed for a crucial try against the Kangaroos in the pool stages that ultimately was decisive in Great Britain lifting the trophy. He scored twice in a 53-19 thrashing of the Kiwis and showed his incredible toughness in the Final, having seventeen stitches to a head wound after the game. The match finished in a 10-10 draw but, because of that earlier pool stage win over the men in green and gold, Great Britain won the World Cup.

His other tour was in 1974, injury restricting him to eight tries in as many games and he could have gone again five years later but declined; the deciding Test against the Kiwis at his beloved Headingley in November 1980 his last representative appearance. 

Fourth highest appearance maker with 518 and second most try scorer, totalling 340, he is one of only 13 Leeds players to score more than 1,000 points in a career for the club.

The lingering memories of his prowess was a stunning first half try against Wigan in the 1968 Challenge Cup semi final, bamboozling Eric Ashton and Billy Boston, and as the recipient of an audacious Holmes pass to clinch the 1973 John Player decider.

After a brief retirement following a televised Green Vigo hat trick against him, in 1982 he left to join the new Carlisle club, playing initially and then becoming coach there for three seasons. 

Most of his working life was spent as a detective and in security and he regularly served on the RFL’s disciplinary committee, but in later years he struggled with increasingly severe dementia culminating in his passing in 2017.

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