On this day in 1953, the first-ever Rugby League match took place at Boothferry Park, the former home of Hull City as the Black & Whites took on Hull KR in a Hull Derby, with a Johnny Whiteley masterclass stealing the show.
Hull FC vs Hull Kingston Rovers - 3rd April 1953 (Boothferry Park)
The first Rugby League match played at Boothferry Park was a huge financial success for Hull Kingston Rovers and a playing triumph for their great rivals. Hull City had generously loaned their soccer ground to hard-up Rovers free of charge and the result was easily their biggest ever ‘home’ crowd of 27,670, with the receipts of £3,280 a record for any rugby match in the city.
Excluding the Boothferry Park match, Rovers’ average league attendance in 1952-53 was only 4,200 and Hull’s 7,750. Thus there were obviously a huge number of City fans in the big crowd on that momentous sunny Good Friday afternoon. Rovers had been struggling to survive for many years and the continued loan of City’s ground for their against Hull proved to be a life saver over the next few seasons. It did little to halt their playing decline, however, and when they met Hull at Boothferry Park for the first time they were on the way to finishing twenty-eighth of thirty clubs.
Hull were to end up in seventh place and started firm favourites to beat Rovers. But the form book could be discarded when these feuding neighbours met as Rovers had proved when beating Hull 16-9 at The Boulevard on the previous Christmas Day.
A little extra spice was added to the derby games then with the awarding of the Townend Trophy to the team that came out on top in aggregate over the season’s two league matches. So Hull needed to win by seven points to retain the trophy donated in memory of Jack Townend, who had played for both clubs about fifty years earlier. Another link with the past came when a pre-match minute’s silence was held for Laurie Osborne, a former Hull KR full-back who had died earlier in the week, With the solemnities over, a buzz of excited anticipation returned as the crowds continued to stream in right up to kick-off time. Boothferry Park was then a magnificent stadium and its packed stands and terraces provided a wonderful backdrop to a great occasion.
It was certainly a fitting stage for Johnny Whiteley to produce the sort of performance that he was to repeat many times in a long career. as one of Hull’s greatest players. The twenty-two-year-old loose forward had not yet made his first Test appearance, but he was already being tipped as a Great Britain player of the future. Whiteley showed why with a brilliant display against Rovers, scoring two tries and having a big say in the other. He strode through the game in his unmistakable athletic style, drove the opposition back with long kicks to touch and smothered their attacks with superb cover tackling.
The Hull-born hero produced a classic piece of loose forward play to open the scoring when he picked up the ball from the base of an early scrum and shot away on a swerving run to put the ball down over the line scarcely before the Rovers pack knew what was happening. That was the only try in the first half and Whiteley opened the second half scoring when Carl Turner broke a tackle before sending the loose forward clear. Whiteley then turned creator as he combined with Colln Hutton to get little winger Gerry Cox scampering in at the corner.
The future star had clearly got the better of his loose forward duel with Alec Dockar, who had played for Great Britain six years earlier. He had also outshone a promising Rovers forward, Derek Turner, who played in the second row that day but was to become a keen rival for the Great Britain loose forward jersey when he moved to Oldham and later Wakefield Trinity.
The match was also a battle of wits and tactics between the two player-coaches, Hull centre Roy Francis and Rovers stand off Bryn Knowelden. Both were former Warrington and Great Britain players then in their veteran stage with Francis set to make much the bigger impact as a coach way ahead of his time and the man behind Hull’s re-emergence as a real power in the Fifties.
There was another key duel at hooker where Sam Smith gave Rovers plenty of possession, but could not match Tommy Harris in the loose as Hull’s Welsh international stood out with his trademark ‘bomb burst’ breaks. The Hull pack was beginning to combine as a force that was to dominate for almost a decade with props Mick Scott and Bob Coverdale giving Rovers a hefty sample of the future and second row Harry Markham punishing them with his hard, straight running.
Rovers did well to restrict Hull to only three tries, but they offered little in reply. Despite spending much of the first-half in opposition territory they could not make a break through and trailed 5-0 at the interval, Colin Hutton having added the goal to Whiteley’s try. Hutton also converted Whiteley’s second try before Denis Chalkley scored Rovers’ only points with a penalty goal.
Although the exchanges were always fierce, there was none of the savagery that marred some derby battles apart from a brief skirmish near the finish. In fact, one of the few casualties of the game was Widnes referee George Phillips, who broke a finger in a collision with Rovers forward Matt Anderson. Phillips, the top referee of his era, went off to have it strapped up but soon returned to resume his duties.
Hull FC: Watkinson, Watts, Francis, Hutton, Cox, Turner, Tripp, Scott, Harris, Coverdale, Hockley, Markham, Whiteley.
Tries: Whiteley (2), Cox
Goals: Hutton (2)
Hull KR: Chalkley, Tullock, McAvoy, Rushton, Moore, Knowelden, Daddy, Palframan, Smith, Tong, Turner, Andreson, Dockar.
Goals: Chalkley (1)