Rugby League Expert & Columnist
The game of rugby league owes a huge debt to Ray Unsworth, says Phil Clarke
Last Updated: 02/04/14 4:04pm
If you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet ten great people in your lifetime. Not just ones that impress you momentarily, but people who earn your respect by what they do over a longer time frame.
Sadly, one of my ten died this week and I want to tell you a little bit about the role he played in rugby league in this country.
Most of you will have never heard of him, let alone had the pleasure of meeting him, but if you’ve followed the game in this country for the last 40 years or so then you’ll have seen the results of his selfless effort over many years.
His name was Ray Unsworth and he spent most of his working life as a school teacher in the Wigan area.
Throughout the 60s and 70s he was one of the teachers who spent hours and hours of his spare time organising, coaching, refereeing and promoting rugby league throughout the schools of Wigan.
He was the leader and brains behind a small group of teachers who would eventually help Wigan to win the World Club Challenge three times in a ten-year period between 1987–1994.
He was the Chairman of the English Schools Rugby League Association for over 30 years and had a hand in the development of so many of the best players in the game.
His honesty, integrity, work ethic and attitude to life had a positive influence on so many people who did not go on to be professional players, but, more importantly, people who their schools and teachers were proud of.
Ray had a visionary outlook on the game and sport in general.
Prior to the 1990s most junior rugby league took place in the school, not in the community clubs like today. Professional clubs didn’t have the links that they do now with the community game and it was the schools town teams which were often the stepping stones for the most talented young players. Wigan schools were usually one of the strongest teams, and much of this was due to the culture and environment that Ray set as the Chairman.
I’ll never forget the schoolboy’s trip to play at Wembley in 1982 as the curtain raiser to the Widnes v Hull final. I was fortunate to return with the Wigan first team and also with Great Britain in the 1990s but can honestly say that the professionalism (I hate to use the word, but you know what I mean here) was as high for the Wigan schools set up as it was the either of the big teams.
Ray set the tone for the other school teachers who became the coaches of the teams when he puts his boots away and took on more of an administrative role. He became the Chairman of English Schools Rugby League for over 30 years and provided the disciplined culture which is essential in youth sport. He also had a visionary outlook on the game and sport in general.
You might find this hard to believe, but many of the advancements in the game came from the schools teams. It was a hotbed for young coaches to experiment with moves and tactics without the fear of being sacked if their team lost the game. I often wonder how rugby league might have developed if some of these teachers had moved into coaching in the 1980s.
For a long time, the ‘brains trust’ of the rugby league coaches sat within the English schools rugby league coaching department. Changes within the teaching profession, allied to the investment that’s been made into community and junior rugby league over the last 20 years, has seen a massive decline in the role played by English Schools Rugby League.
Some might say it’s been better for the young players, others that it was inevitable with changes in education and the money from Sport England. What I do know is that the decrease in the number of male teachers in primary schools is a massive challenge for the game.
More recently the RFL have attempted a new strategy to interest and engage teachers and children at the primary level.
We all know that most kids get their first interest in a sport between the ages of 7-11 and that the competition from other sports is now at a level never previously seen. Almost every sport and pastime is now promoting and advertising itself to kids and parents. They seem to have a bigger marketing budget than the supermarkets!
In my opinion, we’ve made a huge mistake over the last ten or 20 years of under-investing in primary rugby league. If I had to point the finger of blame, I would say that the RFL have really missed a trick by not focussing on this target area. However, we have just woken up to the potential available and I know that Ray was one of the thought leaders who helped to shape the direction for the future.
The RFL now provide more tools and resource packs to help people deliver some early experiences in the best way for youngsters. Ray had used his lifetime of learning in a practical way to ensure that kids are allowed what educationalists call ‘Guided Discovery’. Learn by doing it.
Back in 2009 I attended a reunion dinner in Wigan to celebrate 100 years of schools rugby league in the town. It was an incredible night and the past players in attendance were proof that the foundations of the game were built in schools rugby league.
As a youngster in the team you never really notice or appreciate the effort and time given by the volunteers who organise the matches, referee the games or even coach the teams. It was only when I sat there and listened to Ray speak about the history and success of Wigan schools rugby league that I realised what he and his colleagues had achieved.
Imagine the best public speaker in the world, sounding perhaps like Kenneth Brannagh in his speech at the start of the Olympic Games. Throw in the passion for a sport that saw him live the game every minute of every day, and then you can appreciate how Ray reflected on what had been achieved. Every single person in the room sat in silent awe of a man who has helped the game of rugby league more than most will ever know.
Sat all around me were some of the players who had represented Wigan against Manly, Penrith and the Brisbane Broncos when the club had been crowned World Club Champions.
The media reported that the coaches of those teams were from Australia or New Zealand (Lowe, Monie and West) but the real coaches who shaped and influenced these players were the teachers of the town teams, headed up by Ray Unsworth.
Thank you Ray. R.I.P.