Aberfan! The village in South Wales that was so tragically plunged into mourning, and the whole nation with it, that dread Friday in 1966, when the local school, children, teachers, and all, perished under a remorseless tidal wave of pit-heap slurry. There it was, in Aberfan, that Con Murphy first saw the light of day on 3rd September 1908, and became a miner, playing with Cross Keys at Pandy Park, until a Welsh cap opened up new horizons in 1935 and gave him his biggest thrill in sport, as he recalled so graphically in an interview some twelve years later.
‘I’d been chosen for the first two Trials and was naturally disappointed to be named as reserve for the all-important final one at Swansea, preference being given to Bryn Evans and Jack Tarr, who appropriately enough was in the Merchant Navy. As I sat on the line, however, I heard that the team would not be finalised until the following Thursday evening, immediately after the Monmouthshire v Glamorgan match at Neath. So I decided, there and then, to have a real go.
‘Thursday couldn’t come soon enough! I was at work down the pit the night before the match, and set off for The Gnoll without going to bed. The other lads in the Monmouthshire team were made aware of my intention as we stripped, the captain urging them to pull out a little extra to help me achieve my ambition. I don’t think I have ever had such support. Everyone pulled his weight and played up to me so much that I couldn’t help playing well.
‘But was it well enough? After the match, as we were changing in a public house near the Neath ground, the Big Five went upstairs to decide on the XV for Twickenham. Short of sleep, and physically drained by the strenuous game, I suffered agonies in an eternity of suspense, before they eventually came down and read out the team very deliberately for the benefit of the Press. Jenkins, Cowey, Davey, Wooller, Bassett, C. Jones, Powell, Jones, MURPHY… I was so thrilled, I scarcely heard the rest. As if by magic, the tiredness fell away from me. I travelled home, put on my pit clothes, and worked another night shift.’ Times were hard!
Yet they were no less exciting for that, for no sooner had he shown his mettle in all three Championship matches than an offer to turn professional with Acton & Willesden, one of the two newly-formed pioneering clubs in the Metropolis, was too tempting to reject, seen as it was against a backcloth of dereliction and neglect in the valleys. One can well imagine his dismay, therefore, when the highway of opportunity threatened to become nothing more than a cul-de-sac of frustration, for quickly as he divined the mysteries of 13-a-side scrummaging, to merit a debut for Wales against France at Llanelly in November ’35, Acton & Willesden sold up after just one season because of lack of support, and he was transferred to neighbouring Streatham & Mitcham for the start of the 1936-37 campaign, only to find the shutters beginning to go up there, too, even as the carol singers were giving voice nightly to their tidings of comfort and joy. A Happy Christmas, indeed!
Ring out the old, ring in the new! Came New Year’s Day, and there he was at Thrum Hall, heeling the Loiners to winning pay with fifteen points to spare, having been whisked north a couple of days earlier by Secretary-Manager George lbbetson, along with Dai Jenkins, for a joint bargain-basement fee of £600. No wonder Con was smiling! After all the insecurity and uncertainty, he finally settled at twenty-eight, made Leeds his home, and straight away became wedded to the blue-and-amber cause.
For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health! From his very first game, he gave unstintingly of his best, foraging tirelessly in the loose and asserting ever-increasing authority in the tight, as the Loiners’ star alternately waxed and waned. The triumph over Huddersfield in the 1937 Yorkshire Cup Final, the disappointing anticlimax in the 1938 Championship Final at Elland Road, where he sadly missed the support of Ken Jubb and Alf Watson, who were both under suspension, a rare birthday try in that same year, to help put paid to the visitors from Central Park by 10 points to 2, the unique Christmas Eve encounter with Salford on the Cricket Field, the Wembley dream rudely shattered by Halifax in the 1939 R.L. Cup Semi-Final at Odsal. Good days and bad alike, he kept the pledge and more than earned his couple of Yorkshire League Championship medals.
A member of the Police Reserve during the emergency, Con’s availability, subject to the exigencies of the service, proved a godsend to a Headingley management hard-pressed to raise a team on occasions, his experience and expertise being vital factors in the 1941 and 1942 R.L. Cup Final victories over Halifax, not to mention that valiant one-point reverse in the ’43 Final at the hands of Dewsbury.
What matter he was in his 37th year by the time Adolf and all his minions had done their worst? His enthusiasm for the game was as great as ever, as the Loiners set about the daunting task of trying to regain their pre-war eminence.
Indeed, had it not been for a fractured leg, sustained against Keighley on 1st December 1945, he would surely have been selected to accompany Dai Jenkins and Ike Owens on the 1946 Tour. Not that he was prepared to call it a day even then! Back he came the following November, and was soon playing well enough to represent Wales at Marseilles in his eleventh, and final R.L. international. Nor was that all, for there he was in 1947, playing his heart out in successive rounds of the R.L. Cup, Barrow, Hunslet, Wigan, Wakefield Trinity, and then Wembley, sadly without the winner’s medal he had set his heart on. Even so, he battled on regardless to the end of the season, and made his bow at Central Park on 7th June.
One-time Licensee of the Nag’s Head in Vicar Lane, as well as the Lloyds Arms, Con died on 13th July 1964, in his 56th year. Con Murphy: international hooker, and one of Leeds Rugby’s very best; John, his son: prop with Headingley R.U. and Yorkshire County; Adam Machell, his grandson: prop with Headingley R. U. and Yorkshire County!
Front row forwards are born not made!