Welcome Lol Connor, our centenary captain and Waterloo’s second-best number 8

Who’s the first?

Gill Burns of course (as you said the opposite of that to her at the Burnage lunch in February 2020)

I’ll let you away with that one

Where did your rugby journey begin?

I passed the 11-plus and went to Cardinal Allen Grammar School where they only played rugby.  I don’t think that I had even heard of it when I was 11.  The mighty Pat Quinn was our coach and people like Peter Maloney and latterly Phil Mahon all taught rugby there, so it reluctantly was a whole new thing for me at 11 years of age. 

Did you play football before?

Yes, I was at St Nicholas School on Brownlow Hill behind the Adelphi and they only played football, so from the age of 7 to 11 we only played football.

So what did you make of rugby?

When I first went to the School I thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to me and the way things turned out, it became one of the best.

Why was it the worst?

I didn’t understand what the bloody game was all about.  It was very confusing for the first year or so.  None of us had ever played rugby before – we were townies, as were most of the people who went to Cardinal Allen, so it was just a learning process. 

Did you play for school teams?

We had full seasons then – I think we were beaten in the first season by St Eddie’s and after that I don’t think that we were beaten again for three years - all the chicks and the bantams as they used to call them then.  We became a very good side.

So how did you end up at Waterloo?

It is a really convoluted story.  When I left school, I stopped playing rugby altogether as I was mad about football and an Everton season ticket holder, so from 17 until I was 21 I had given it up – I don’t think I even watched it.  Then Everton sold Alan Ball to Arsenal, which absolutely disgusted me so I started playing football again.  And then I was working in Prescott in April 1971 and I went out to get some dinner and I met a lad, John Griffiths who was the school captain and he had just come back from University and started working for ICI.  He said “There is an Old Boys game this Friday at Cardinal Allen, why don’t you come along?”  So I did, and met up with a lad called John Romano and John Griffiths.  Phil Mahon was the coach of Cardinal Allen then who said to me “Why don’t you start playing again?” I was thinking about it, because I had been playing football for the G.P.O. and John Romano who had finished University wanted a lift down to Waterloo – that’s the only reason he asked me, I think.  So I went down to pre-season training in July 1971 and got into the first team and never really got out of it until 20 years later.

So straight into the first team?

I had actually played at Waterloo when they had a Schools’ XV.  There was me and a lad called Paddy Conroy and John Griffiths who all played for the School XV and I think we played three games at Waterloo at the end of the School season.  So I did know the place and was used to it.  We also used to play our final game of the season there and have a dinner in the last two years that I was at Cardinal Allen and the likes of Neddy Ashcroft would come along and try to encourage us to carry on playing at Waterloo.

In those days, didn’t we have six teams?

At times there were seven teams

And you went straight into the first team?

At that time Waterloo were not the side that they became a few years later.  Billy French was captain and I think the year before they had won nine games.  With Billy French in the following season we actually won 17 games I was a bit disappointed in, seeing that we lost 23, but apparently it was the best season that they had had for a while. 

So you made a big contribution to changing those fortunes?

A combination of circumstances really, because at the time Steve Christopherson came along and Geoff Jackson and we all got into the first team almost straight away (Christo was maybe a little later).  Me, Jacko, Gareth Hopkin, Roger Hughes, who is on the radio now were there.  We already had a nucleus of a good side Mal Billingham, Dennis Bowman, Colin Fisher, Phil Mahon was the fly half and we had some good players like Mel Smage Dick Greenwood, Eric Lyon played a few games.  It was like two sides, because we would train twice a week and then play on Saturdays and the likes of Dennis and Dick Greenwood they would turn up for the Saturday game and you wouldn’t see them for two or three weeks.  So it was a strange combination really.

You played a very full season back in the day – was it 40 games?

Actually it was 42, we used to start, well really it was the first day of September and we’d play right through until the end of April.  We played right through, as there were no ‘free’ weekends then, even at Christmas.

What is your highlight from playing?

In many ways, I suppose it is the Barbarians.  I never lost either playing for or against them.  I played twice for them and won both games and Waterloo played them in the Centenary year and beat them.

And that side contained New Zealanders?

Yes, three All Blacks, Graham Mourie, Murray Mexted and prop Gary Knight – all international BaaBaas.

That is some record then to never be on the losing side in a BaaBaas’ game

Yes, I’m quite happy with that.

And you had silverware with Waterloo?

Yes, but the BaaBaas’ game was one of the best nights in the club’s long history I think.  It was made clear in the programme that we were representing those who had played 100 years before.

So how long did the night go on?

There was a dinner afterwards with all the Barbarian players and officials.  It was a five o’clock kick off, so by seven o’clock we were in the bar and onto the dinner.  The Barbarians stayed all night . . . we had around 440 people at the dinner.

How did we fit them all in?

We had a massive marquee at the club.  The President of the RFU was there, John Smith, the chairman of selectors, Budge Rogers and all the local dignitaries.

You were known as quite an uncompromising player

Hard but fair I believe they called it.

But who was the toughest player you played against?

To be honest it was Jimmy Siddall when he played for Broughton Park before he joined us.  But then, you try to single out one player from the Pontypool pack and you can’t.  I mean John Perkins was renowned but you had to take them all on.  And they had a scrum half, David Bishop who was absolutely fantastic and as hard as nails.

Did you play against anyone who had a reputation for being a hard man but turned out not to be so?

Not so much on the field as most reputations were well deserved but off the pitch there was a guy from Northampton, Piggy Powell [David Powell] who was the England prop but he was the best fellow off the field.  Northampton would give you free beer after the game but Piggy would take you there and look after you the whole time that you were there.  We had our own ‘softie’, Mal Billingham who was one of the most uncompromising players that you could come across, but he was the most genial off the pitch.

Isn’t that just how rugby should be played?

Oh I think so – give or take on the pitch and after that, enjoy yourself.

So crossing the whitewash after the game is just the time to shake hands

And 999 times out of a thousand you would do that, just the odd occasion when you might not . . . straight after the game, anyway, but as time goes on, you get over things.

So what do you see as any differences between playing the game in your day and the current professional game?

Oh, I would just have loved to train every day.  I mean we did train ourselves most days, just going for a run and doing sit ups and press ups.  And in those days if you didn’t train, you didn’t play.  But the thought of being able to train everyday and bulk up and be looked after so well, as they are, that would be fantastic.

So, you had a busy job, training twice a week and playing every Saturday through the long season, how did you fit it all in?

Work always had to come first, but Waterloo was a family club and my wife and kids would come along to the home games and that was our Saturday night out really.  We used to fill the bath up after we got out – get as much muck out as we could and then let the kids play in it for an hour.  They absolutely loved it.

I hope you didn’t lose any kids.

We tried to, but there were times when they hid behind bushes when we were ready to go home.  That gave us a few shocks, but generally it all turned out well.

Let’s move on. If you were to start playing rugby again, what advice would you now give to your young self?

One thing that I would do – we were all so loyal to Waterloo that I turned down chances to do other things.  I was asked to go to Leicester and Sale, but at the time I thought that we were as good as them.  If had taken that extra step to get a cap, perhaps I should have gone somewhere else, maybe for a season or three and then come back to Waterloo but I should have done while I had the chance.  I had done everything – Lancashire and The North – won the divisional title with The North when they were the England trials, but then again there were some good number 8s around at the time.

Well you were described in the press as a versatile forward, not just a number 8.

Well I never played number 8 unit I was 25.  I was second row at School and when I went to Waterloo – me and Mal Billingham.  I was 6ft 1 and a half, Mal was 6ft 2.  We were the tallest at the club.  But as time went on players started getting bigger and bigger.  Phil Mahon put me at number 8 and I had an easy first game at 8, Leicester away.

And you took to it like a duck to water?

Well, some would say like a duck to concrete at the time.  After a year or so, once you got used to the ins and outs, such as, as soon as the scrum moved you were off and away.  It took me a little while to get used to that.

But you did

And then I enjoyed it even more.

So you were captain in the Centenary year and we’ve got another Centenary coming up next year -  100 years at The Memorial Ground.

I was captain from 1979 to 1985 – I was the first one to do six years.  Jack Heaton had the record before that.  It was an unbelievable difference from when we started up to that Centenary year. We had a good couple of years 1977, 1978 but we had to rebuild as we lost so many players who were poached by other clubs.  One the highlights for me, in Mal Billingham’s year. 1972-73 the highlight of the season was that we won ten games, and we achieved that on the last game of the season.  We had been beaten 55-0 at home to Northampton.  And this was in the day when I think it was three points for a try, so goodness knows how many tries they got.  Conversely one of the highlights in 1982-83 we went to Northampton and beat them . . I’m not sure . . 10 or 16 nil.  It was the first time Waterloo had beaten them in 45 years.  One hell of a turn around achieved by a lot of hard work at the club.

When you had achieved all you could achieve at Waterloo did that prompt you to move into coaching?

I only moved into coaching because Waterloo had decided to go down a different route player-wise.  I didn’t understand as I was only 40!  I would have played right down the teams to be honest, but I had an altercation with Ray Wilson and one or two others and New Brighton had phoned me to ask me to go as player – coach.  It was made clear to me that Peter Buckton was coming in and I was not part of their plans as they wanted a younger side, which was fair enough.  So I went to New Brighton to start coaching and continue playing.  Gareth Hopkin came with me and he was the original innovator at Waterloo I must say in those early years.  He transformed the club with his professionalism and vision.

Did you ever get frustrated coaching from the touchline and not playing?

I still do – I’d love to carry on playing but even I’m not that stupid these days although I know some pole would say that I was.

Have you still got a pair of boots?

No, my ‘Timpson’s Tonkers’ died the death the other week as I was doing what most people are doing in the lockdown, sorting out the garage.

Shame – we could have put them on display at the club.

I don’t think Timpson’s made many boots.  I got them in the sale – I think they were 7s 6d [37.5p in decimal currency!] and lasted a good few years.  There was a lad called John Tappin, who nicknamed them ‘Timpson’s Tonkers’ – they all had their Nikes and Adidas and he said “What have you got on?”  “Timpson’s best,” I replied.

So what are you looking forward to most when we finally start playing again?

I think we had a bit of hard luck last season.  Stuart [Turner] had got the team playing really well.  Let’s face it, if we had got the Bowdon result we would probably have gone up, so we have a lot to look forward to.  I thought we played some cracking rugby last season, especially after Christmas.

I think the lads have played some of the best rugby in quite a few years.

Stuart took some stick in the early days.  When Jan [de Venter] left he lost quite a lot of the first team and some of the second, so Stuart had to start from scratch.  Not enough people have given him credit for keeping us in that division and improved them year on year.

And playing attractive rugby at the same time.

Yes – that is not something I could be accused of . . . we played effective rugby.  People forget that to play attractive rugby you have to have the players.  In the John Player Cup Final season we probably had the best set of backs in the country.  And then six or seven years later we had probably the best pack in the country so it was a question of playing to your strengths at the time.

There must be some stories that you can now divulge . . .

The problem is, most of them I can’t repeat.  But one of my all time favourites . . . we used to play Harlequins and if you played them before Christmas, you played at Twickenham.  They a few props, real London lads which was unusual for Quins, they had Bosco Tikoisuva from Fiji at Fly Half and Terry Claxton from Clapham in the front row.  We had had a few drinks in the Long Bar and the Claxtons came up and said “We want a belly barging contest”.  I couldn’t take them on, but we had a lad called Micky Cain who was a great prop and great lad.  I thought it was going to turn into a fight, but Cainy was right up for it.  So one of theirs was at one end of the bar and we had one at the other end.  What they did was run at each other and smack bellies and see who was the last man standing.  Anyway, Cainy wiped them out.  And that is still one of the best memories, both teams cheering away; it was just magic.  One thing that I will never forget - at the time it was the most frightening, but afterwards it was one of the most funny things – the first time I ever got into a flying car.  We were playing Fylde away.  We normally stayed for a couple of hours after the game.  Dennis Bowman had given me, Geoff Jackson and Mal Billingham a lift up there.  Coming back we went through Rufford and Burscough where there are two big hills.  Dennis went over the first hill – he was late getting back for something or other – and the car took off.  We got bounced all around the place . . . and then we hit the second hill and Dennis went even quicker.  I remember the car crashing down, hitting my head on the roof, the boot shot open  and all our kit fell out.  So Dennis pulls over and says “You had better go and get your kit”.  It was 200 yards back up the road.  Me and Geoff went and got it, got back in the car and we carried on as if nothing had happened.   But as we were picking our kit up this old fella said “You were lucky there weren’t you lads.  What was he doing?  Does he think he’s in the Flying Squad?”

Was the kit ok?

Luckily, yes as those were the days when we had to pay for our own kit.  I was more worried about the kit that Dennis’s car.

Lol Connor – thank you.

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