It was almost a surprise to see Dave Valentine featured in the RFL's "World Cup of Captains" shortlist. Not because he doesn't deserve his spot, of course, but you would expect a competition run on Twitter to skew a little younger, with those still involved with the game today to have a distinct advantage. But so iconic was his time in Rugby League, that almost 44 years after his death, he finds himself up against the more recent names of Sinfield, Sculthorpe and Hanley. If you weren't watching Northern Union in the early 50s, you'd be forgiven for not knowing much about the man himself. But make no mistake, Valentine was a legend of his time, a history-making dual-code international who achieved everything you could hope for in Rugby League, and everything a captain should be
Born in Hawick, Scotland in 1926, he began his sporting career in the world of rugby union. After establishing himself in his hometown side, aged just 20 he was called up to the Scottish national side for the 1947 Five Nations championship, playing twice and making a name for himself as one of the most gifted young players in the game. While he clearly impressed in the world of union, it would be a short lived career in the 15-a-side code, as 8 months later, he found himself seeking a brand new challenge south of the border.
Following World War 2, Huddersfield RLFC had been working tirelessly to build a competitive side, and they were no stranger to the Hawick Rugby Union scene, having signed John Anderson for the 1946 season. "Jock" made a big impact at Fartown and wasted no time becoming a fans' favourite, leading the side to a League Championship Final, which they sadly lost to Wigan 13-4.
Not content to sit back and accept second place, Huddersfield went on the hunt for some more talent around the world, bringing the likes of Lionel Cooper, Johnny Hunter and - of course - Dave Valentine into the ranks. These men would go on to become club legends, making over 1000 Huddersfield appearances between them.
Having shown his potential in union, he certainly lived up to it in league. A classic loose forward, Valentine offered the dream combination of speed, strength, and athleticism, and it didn't go unnoticed. In 1948, the year after making his debut, he was called up to the Great Britain side for their 3-0 Ashes victory over Australia, playing in all three games and scoring a crucial try in the 23-21 series opener at Headingley
Fresh off the back of his international success, Dave returned to Huddersfield for what would be an incredible, record-breaking season for the club. Johnny Hunter broke the record for tries in a season from a fullback, Lionel Cooper ended the season as top-try scorer, but most importantly, after winning the Yorkshire league, Fartown picked up their first Championship Final win in 19 years, resisting a second-half fight back from Warrington to win 13-12 in front of 75,194 fans at Maine Road - at the time the largest crowd for any Rugby League game outside of Wembley.
It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise that Dave was dropped from the Great Britain's Ashes tour of Australasia in 1949/50, a tour that would see GB lose the Ashes for the first time in 30 years.
Nevertheless Dave continued the good work he was doing with Huddersfield. With the Ashes, Yorkshire League and Championship under his belt, he set his eyes on more silverware, leading the club to three Yorkshire Cup Final victories in 51, 53 and 58. The 1952/53 season a particularly special one for Valentine. He took on the role of captain for the final against Batley, and even picked up a try. But best was yet to come.
Wem. Ber. Ley.
April 25th 1953. 4 weeks before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, 3 weeks before Edmund Hillary would reach the summit of Everest, and the day Crick & Watson announce DNA to the world. But, more importantly, the day that St Helens, Huddersfield and 89,588 Rugby League fans descended upon Wembley for the Challenge Cup Final. The Saints were the heavy favourites going into the game, and looked certain to pick up victory, leading 10-5 with Huddersfield down to 12 men, due to injury. But nobody was going to stand between Valentine and that trophy. In the dying minutes, he set up a play that sent the ball out to our young stand-off Peter Ramsden, who darted through the defence, getting the winning try and securing victory for Fartown. Despite breaking his nose six minutes into the game, Ramsden scored two tries and remains the youngest player to win the Lance Todd trophy, with the final taking place on his 19th birthday.
Conquering the world
So there we had it. Valentine had won every major team trophy on offer. That is, of course, until a new one came along.
For decades the idea of a Rugby League World Cup had been floated around, but for a variety of reasons (be it the depression, the war, or simple logistics), nothing had ever come to fruition. Unsurprisingly the very idea was met with a mixed response in the UK. Football was the only sport to have attempted such a feat, and it was dismissed by many in the English game as a step too far - in case you thought "we should grow the game in England first" was a new strategy. There was even controversy at the suggestion of inviting a North American side into the competition. I'll let you draw your own parallels.
Despite apathy in the UK, the French had spent years working tirelessly to grow the game in non-english-speaking parts of the world, and were much more passionate in championing the idea of a World Cup, with the president of French Rugby League Paul Barrière instrumental in pushing for the concept, in an attempt to rebuild the sport in the post-Vichy years. Barrière even comissioned and donated the trophy we use to this day (the story of the trophy's theft and discovery is also a good one, but a bit beyond the scope of this piece).
And so it came to be that the first Rugby League World Cup was scheduled to be held in France, 1954. It was a much simpler competition than the 2021 model we're looking forward to, just four teams took part - Australia, New Zealand, France and Great Britain. The structure was simple, a "group stage", with the top two sides facing off in the final.
The Lions had just finished a disappointing tour of Australasia, which not only saw them lose the Ashes, but left many of their senior players out of contention for the World Cup through injury or fatigue. leaving Valentine as one of the few established players in a relatively young side. With an untested, inexperienced sqaud, nobody expected Great Britain to have a chance at bringing the trophy home. Thankfully, just as he did at Wembley, Val gave little regard to people's underestimations. Great Britain finished top of the group stage and shocked the hosts France to win the final 16-12, making history as the first winners of Rugby League's World Cup. David Valentine became not only the first man to lift the famous trophy, but to this day remains the only Scottish man to ever lift a world cup.
David Rose - the man who scored the opening try in the final - credited his side's unexpected success to the team spirit fostered by Valentine in the camp. Despite the game still being firmly rooted in Northern England with only two Scotsmen in the side, Val lead repeated singalongs of The Massacre of Macpherson, an old Scottish folk song, to bring the squad together. If it works, it works!
With all that in mind, it's maybe no surprise that the captain who became the story of the first World Cup, rightfully finds himself in the World Cup of Captains
Valentine had a testimonial match in 1956 before retiring in 1957, having made 356 appearances for Huddersfield and 15 for Great Britain, lifting every major trophy he was eligible for. A brief coaching career saw him guide Huddersfield to another Championship final in 1962, before taking over Batley for 18 months in 1966.
Valentine passed away in 1976 after struggling with a brain tumour. Crowds packed the streets to show respect as the hearse passed for his funeral, and to date he is remembered as one of the true greats of the game. Since 2004, Scotland Rugby League have awarded the Dave Valentine Award to their player of the year, with Huddersfield's own Danny Brough receiving the award in 2014.
Dave was voted into the all-time Yorkshire Rugby League Dream Team in 2009, and the next time you find yourself at the John Smiths' keep an eye out for his memorial stone, at the main entrance next to Ronan Costello's.
You can follow along with the World Cup of Captains and cast your vote for Val on the RFL Twitter Page