215 appearances between 1951-58 Inducted into Hall of Fame in 2017 Injury-ravaged over the Christmas 1951 matches, of which there were three in five days, there was a sigh of relief around Headingley when Australian centre Keith McLellan arrived early in the New Year. Recommended by compatriot star with Leeds in the late 1920s and his teacher, Frank O’Rourke, the first fans knew of their impending new arrival was when it was reported on the London wires that the Loiners had signed the Eastern Suburbs rugby union player to a ‘life contract’ for a princely £4,000.
The 22-year-old PE teacher from Sydney and his wife, Gwen Maston – sister of sprinter June, who had won a silver medal in the London Olympics with the Australian relay team – arrived at Leeds Central railway station after sailing to Tilbury, to be met with their first glimpses of snow. According to the Australian press, he was, “the strength of the Easts backline. He has the reputation in the club of never having missed a tackle.
But his clever, unostentatious work has been overlooked by State and Australian selectors, who have preferred more glamorous types of player.” A proficient long jumper – having been ranked best in NSW – and triple jumper, he made a try scoring debut in a surprise home defeat to Doncaster in mid-January ’52 but subsequently cemented his reputation as a no-nonsense, unyielding defender, the perfect provider for prolific winger Drew Turnbull. Posting two other tries in his debut campaign, both away defeats, at York and Wakefield, he settled on the staff at Brudnell Secondary Modern School.
He suffered a broken jaw in the 1952-53 pre-season Lazenby Cup match which took two months to heal, returning just before Leeds signed Lewis Jones to partner him in the middle and the pair acted as the perfect foil, McLellan the defensive, driving force to the Welshman’s laid-back grace and finesse. Fiercely determined in all aspects of his life, he was seen as ideal captain’s material in an improving side, earning a cap for the Combined Nationalities who lost 19-15 against France in January 1954.
That season, when he crossed for 12 tries, saw Leeds make the Challenge Cup semi final against Warrington at Swinton but McLellan, crucially, broke down in training in the lead up to the game and his side went down 8-4. The following campaign saw him collect the Yorkshire League trophy, a feat repeated in 1956-7, the year that the he became the first Australian to lead the side out at Wembley.
Without him, it is unlikely Leeds would have made it to the Twin Towers. Scorer of the winning try in a first round epic at home to Wigan, he did likewise at Halifax in the quarter final where his display of leadership – and an audible tongue-lashing of his team mates as his side fell behind early – was exemplary. He had also scored one of the tries as Leeds memorably beat the Australian tourists in October 1956, their only post-War success against the Kangaroos, in front of over 25,000 fans.
His contract finished in December 1958 and his Leeds career ended in prolific fashion, with three tries in consecutive games, finishing in total with 217 points from 215 appearances including a long-range goal, one of five in blue and amber, against the 1955 Kiwis. He also played for an English League XIII in a 19-8 win over France at Headingley in April ’58.