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David Watkins, the Welsh union wizard lured to league in 1960s

Watkins returned to Wales to coach the Cardiff City Blue Dragons. He is pictured during a training session at Ninian Park in 1982. Western Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Holding onto its best players was just as much a worry for Wales 50 years ago as it is today, with the difference that back in 1967 those concerns focused on rugby league -- and players being lost forever -- rather than the French and English union plutocrats of today.

For Rhys Webb today, read David Watkins in the same week -- perhaps the most eventful, momentous few days of a brilliant career -- in October 1967. Then 25, Watkins was the brightest star in British rugby union.

He was the incumbent outside-half and captain of Newport and Wales and had played in all four Tests -- two as captain -- in the previous year's British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

David Smith and Gareth Williams have described him as "one of the most prodigiously equipped of all Welsh outside-halves. Apart from his tireless covering, the acceleration off the mark that made him so dangerous as an attacking force had been allied to a judgement that saw greater concern for his centres."

He had played more than 200 matches for Newport -- including the defeat of the All Blacks in 1963. With 21 caps, he looked to be within a couple of seasons of overtaking Cliff Morgan's record of 29 for a Welsh outside-half, with Ken Jones' all-time all-positions mark of 44 far from out of reach.

These qualities had long been of interest to rugby league in a time when Welsh players still regularly 'went North'. Nine Welsh internationals had switched code, incurring the lifetime ban imposed for any serious contact with league.

Fullback Terry Price -- Watkins' nearest rival for glamour -- had gone earlier in the year. Watkins, a miner's son from Blaina, received his first league offer from Halifax when still a teenager.

Subsequent bids had come from Leeds and St Helens, but Watkins had both been alarmed by what he read of potential sanctions in the Welsh Rugby Union handbook and sure, as he recalled in his memoirs, that "the union game as it was being run in Wales could give me all I wanted from life."

That resolution had stayed even when St Helens director Harry Cook unloaded £5,000 in notes on to his parents' table . As he remembered: "We had never seen a tenth of that amount all of at one time."

But events over time, "gradually crystallised my attitude to professionalism". He was frustrated by the penny-pinching attitude of the WRU over expenses, which he remembers leading him and many contemporaries to under claim on their costs.

Being dropped for debutant Barry John when Wales played Australia in late 1966, then rapidly recalled and almost immediately made captain underlined the selectorial capriciousness to which he was subjected.

The last straw, he recorded, came when the training squad was announced for Wales's match against the 1967 All Blacks, but no captain was named.

When Watkins played in the charitable Glengarth Sevens tournament he was sought out by former Newport and Wales club-mate John Mantle, who told him that Salford were anxious to speak to him.

By the following morning Salford chairman Brian Snape was on the phone to him. An offer of £6,000 was turned down flat, and rapidly raised to £10,000, more than seven times the average annual wage in 1967.

Watkins agreed to meet Snape to discuss signing. By this time news had leaked out from northern sources, and one innocent call to his brother from a phone booth after a match at Rodney Parade led to reports he had been "completing final negotiations with a big northern club."

The climax came in the middle week of October 1967, which began with Welsh boxing idol Howard Winstone losing his third world title challenge to Vicente Saldivar in Mexico City and ended with Brian Lochore's All Blacks landing at Heathrow and promising to "use our backs more than we have in the last few years".

By then Watkins had been reassured by his boss at Forward Trust bank, international referee Gwynne Walters, that they would certainly agree a transfer to the Manchester area if he moved to Salford.

On Saturday, Oct. 14 Watkins led Newport at Blackheath where, in spite of his 55th drop-goal for the club and the presence of Lions Brian Price and Stuart Watkins and shooting star Keith Jarrett in the team, they went down 18-8.

On Monday, he attended a Welsh national squad session at Bridgend where he was quizzed by reporters whom he told "there is absolutely no truth in the rumour." While he was uncomfortable with the deception, any other answer would -- under the regulations of 1967 -- have brooked disciplinary action.

Sitting down that evening with the Newport committee to pick their team for Wednesday night's visit to Abertillery, he experienced "acute pangs of disloyalty." On Wednesday, physical discomfort followed when he injured his hand in a match and the Newport South Wales Argus reported Watkins "showed flashes of his individuality, but could never get his backs going."

The following day Watkins and his solicitor drove to Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire where they met Salford's representatives and took part in a meeting which Salford's solicitor remembered as "like buying a bloody house. And the money involved was the same."

"I have no doubt that, had I remained a union player, I and not Gareth Edwards would have been first to the half century milestone."

David Watkins

If anything the solicitor was understating the case. Watkins' final fee was £10,000, another £1,000 in moving expenses, and £1,000 at the beginning of each of the next five seasons -- a total of £16,000.

Not long after, Watkins and his wife bought a flat in Wilmslow, on the toniest fringes of Manchester, for £5,000. The record transfer fee paid between league clubs was still the £11,000 paid for Ike Southward -- an established international winger -- six years earlier.

Watkins rang JBG Thomas and Brian Wall of the Western Mail to give them the news, which reached the Welsh selectors as they were sitting down to pick the teams for the final trial ahead of the All Blacks match. The coverage was remarkably low-key in the Newport's evening paper, the Argus on the Friday.

There was speculation that another Newport player, the Oxford University captain Bob Phillips, might take his place for Wales but a preview of Saturday's Wales vs. England soccer match commanded vastly more space.

The Saturday Football Argus referred to it only in terms of Newport having 'lost David Watkins' for their 13-13 draw with Gloucester. By then Watkins had completed his eventful week with his rugby league debut.

Salford rushed him into the team for their Friday night match against Oldham and Saturday afternoon's Argus recorded: "The latest recruit from Welsh rugby, Watkins looked well worth his record signing fee of £13,000 as he tore apart the Oldham defence, scoring a try and two dropped goals in Salford's 12-6 victory."

Watkins himself has made copious use of the anecdote of his later being advised by spectators to "hit him with your wallet" after being brushed off in a tackle. But few union-league transfers have been as successful.

Smith and Williams may be slightly overstating the case when they call him "perhaps the most successful Welshman ever to play rugby league," given that Jim Sullivan and Gus Risman between them dominated the game for 30 years.

But they both went north as teenagers. Watkins, who became a League Lion, scored more than 3,000 points -- 1,407 in a three-year burst between 1971 and 1974 when he recorded three of the 11 highest season tallies ever -- played on into his late 30s.

He has a very strong case to be the most successful of the 150-plus Welsh internationals who went north. His 1960s generation, also including Kel Coslett, record points scorer for St Helens, and Maurice Richards, who set both try and appearance records for Salford, was also the last to make the Welsh en masse a real force in league.

The success and prosperity of the '70s, with players finding jobs which enabled them to stay in Wales, halted a flow which only really resumed in the final few years before union accepted professionalism.

Watkins is on record as having regretted his abandoned union career only once -- on the day in 1978 when Gareth Edwards became the first Welshman to win 50 caps, since "I have no doubt that, had I remained a union player, I and not he would have been first to the half century milestone."

As a statement it speaks volumes for his self-confidence as a player, creating an intriguing counterfactual world in which Barry John and Phil Bennett are reduced to the ranks of local heroes -- playing Roy Burnett and Carwyn James and Roy Burnett to his Cliff Morgan -- rather than the giants they became.

It is one of the great unknowables, but his record in both codes makes it far from implausible.