While I cannot profess to being the greatest fan of British royalty, the passing of Her Majesty The Queen (and HRH Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, in 2021) bear comment given the support for rugby league they both demonstrated during their lifetimes.
In an Australian context, The Queen and Prince Philip attended two major rugby league games in Australia during visits in 1970 and 1977 respectively.
The first was the regular season Round 6 match between Balmain and Souths played at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1970. Almost 38,000 fans at the ground shared the experience of British royalty at play with everyday Australians as Souths won 14-5.
The next Australian occasion in 1977 saw The Queen and Prince Philip attend the Wills Cup Final, again held at rugby league headquarters at the SCG. This time they witnessed Easts beat Norths 13-9. On both occasions, they were said to have enjoyed the experience (the Prince in particular had been a strong advocate for the game for many years and was Patron of the Australian Rugby League for an extended period). The Queen herself was the Patron of the English Rugby Football League for 64 years.
Their most visible contact with rugby league was, however, evidenced through the presentation of the trophy and/or attendance at four different Challenge Cup Finals at Wembley in London – 1949, 1955, 1960 and 1967. The Duke of Edinburgh’s first attendance at a Challenge Cup Final saw him present the Cup to Bradford Northern at the 1949 Final; his second in 1955 saw him present the trophy to Cumberland’s Barrow.
The 1960 and 1967 games were attended by both Prince Philip and The Queen – with The Queen presenting the Cup in The Prince’s stead to outstanding forward Derek Turner of Wakefield Trinity in the former match and miner Malcolm Dixon from the tiny Featherstone Rovers club in the latter game.
The presentation ceremony following the Challenge Cup Final has long been an opportunity for different celebrities to embrace the rugby league code in England.
His Royal Highness was announced as Patron of the Rugby Football League in December 2016, succeeding Her Majesty who held the role for 64 years.
Here The Queen presents the Rugby League Challenge Cup to Derek Turner, captain of Wakefield Trinity at Wembley, in 1960. pic.twitter.com/uZvASGtVIt
— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) January 16, 2020
From cricketer Don Bradman’s presentation of the Cup to Lions skipper Gus Risman of Salford in 1938 to Margaret Thatcher’s (pre-Prime Ministership) presentation of the trophy to the St Helens team in 1976, the list of figures involved is impressive and, at times, intriguing (the choice of Viscount Bernard Montgomery in 1963 – Erwin Rommel’s old WWII nemesis – definitely one example of the latter!).
Between 1933 and 1986, British royalty presented the Cup to the winning team at Wembley on no less than fourteen occasions. The most regular visitors were Prince Philip (4 visits), HRH Princess Alexandra (3) and The Queen (2 visits).
Few who saw them will forget the BBC images of the great Roger Millward bravely managing a slight grin through his broken jaw after collecting the Cup for Hull KR from HRH The Queen Mother in 1980 following the epic all-Humberside derby Final of that year – this was only the second time The Queen Mother had graced the occasion, having also accompanied King George VI to the 1948 Final (the first attended by British royalty), and the only time the great Millward played in a Wembley Final.
Both The Queen and Prince Philip were fortunate in their selection of games – all four of the Finals they attended were either close games or grandly exhibited the skill of one of the great rugby league sides of the period (in some cases, both).
Bradford Northern (12) d. Halifax (0)
The 1949 Challenge Cup Final saw Bradford Northern under captain Ernest Ward defeat Halifax before a capacity crowd of 95,000. The Halifax side was severely hampered by an outbreak of influenza in the lead-up to the match and did not play at their best. Nevertheless, a formidable Bradford side saw them clinch their second title in three years at the national stadium, to confirm their position as one of the dominant sides in the game following WWII.
Barrow (21) d. Workington Town (12)
In a remarkable Final, the two great Cumbrian sides of the era – Barrow and Workington Town – clashed under the Twin Towers. Workington Town again benefited from the extraordinary captaincy of Welshman Gus Risman, in holding off a strong challenge from Barrow, who were one of the best sides of the entire 1950s in England, prompted by the scheming brilliance of local boy Willie Horne.
Wakefield Trinity (38) d. Hull (5)
This match represented the start of the great Wakefield Trinity era of the early 1960s, with the star-studded side winning their first Challenge Cup Final of three wins (from four) between 1960 – 1963. Dominated by forwards of the quality of Derek Turner and backs such as all-time greatest point-scoring centre Neil Fox and the remarkably skilful stand-off Harold Poynton, Wakefield was a truly great side.
Featherstone (17) d. Barrow (12)
The last match attended by the Duke of Edinburgh was a contrast to the three previous ones he had graced at Wembley. A Barrow side for whom the highs of the 1950s were now gone, lost to the tiny mining village of Featherstone Rovers in a major upset; setting the scene for further upset Challenge Cup wins in 1973 and 1983 respectively by the formidable Rovers.
Royal presenters of the Cup at the British Challenge Cup Final
1933: Prince of Wales
1947: Duke of Gloucester
1948: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth
1949: Duke of Edinburgh
1951: Duke of Gloucester
1955: Duke of Edinburgh
1959: Princess Royal
1960: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip
1965: Princess Alexandra
1967: Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip
1968: Duke of Kent
1975: Princess Alexandra
1980: The Queen Mother
1986: Princess Alexandra
Other notable presenters of the Cup at the British Challenge Cup Final
1938: Don Bradman
1950: Clement Atlee (PM)
1963: Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
1966: Harold Wilson (PM)
1976: Margaret Thatcher MP