RUGBY LEAGUE’S QUALITY STREET GANG (1) – MIKE COULMAN

In The First Of A New Series, Reliving The Halcyon Days Of The Sixties And Seventies, David Clegg Meets With Blockbusting, Second Row Forward, Mike Coulman

CONTENTS

Part 1 – HIS RUGBY UNION & BRITISH LIONS’ CAREER

Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD

Part 3 – HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES, COACHES, AND OWN COACHING CAREER

Part 4 – HIS RUGBY LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL CAREER

 

Part 1 – HIS RUGBY UNION & BRITISH LIONS CAREER

It may be fifty years ago since he first signed for Salford, part way through the 1967-8 season, but Mike Coulman still retains all the physical attributes of build and strength which made him such a powerhouse within the Salford pack all those years ago.  Powerful is the word which best described him in those days, but when you add to that the exceptional pace for someone of his size, it is not difficult to see why he was so feared by all opponents who lined up against him, and his playing colleagues.

Having grown up in the rural delights of Staffordshire, it was, unsurprisingly rugby union to which he was first introduced at the age of twelve, upon his transfer to Rising Brook Secondary School, in the centre of Stafford.  By one of those most remarkable of coincidences the school had, that very year, just changed its focus from football to rugby union, and Mike was immediately attracted to it.

“A new teacher had been appointed and he was instrumental in the change,” he explains.  “After three or four years’ coaching from him, he had turned me into a schoolboy international.”

After leaving school, he became a police cadet for three years, up to the age of nineteen, with the eventual intention of making a career in the force.  In the event, this lasted for a mere three years, up to the age of twenty-two, when rugby took over, completely.

From his very first introduction to the game, he had, because of his size, been regarded solely as a prop, both at school, and with his local club Stafford RUFC, though he admits he would dearly have loved to have been given the chance to develop in the second row –  something that eventually came his way when he changed codes to join us here, at Salford.

Despite this, he did remarkably well in the sport being selected first for Staffordshire, before making the not insignificant move to join Birmingham-based, Mosley RUFC, whilst, for convenience sake, continuing to train at Stafford.  This proved to be an inspired move, because, from there, he gained international recognition, initially with England and then later, becoming a British Lion.

“In all, I gained nine caps with England, and this led to being selected to the British Lions’ tour of South Africa in 1968,” he proudly recalls.  “That was the absolute pinnacle of my career in union, and to cap it all, I scored a couple of tries, which was most unusual for a prop forward.

“We all gelled well together as a group, which is crucial for a tour, and fundamental to being successful on the field.  It was, for me, the best thing I have ever done.”

Reports, together with film footage of the tour, ultimately fell into the hands of Salford Chairman, Brian Snape, and Mike’s performances immediately caught his eye.

 

Part 2 – HIS PLAYING CAREER WITH SALFORD

“I was at home, washing my car on a lovely sunny day, when a Jenson Interceptor Coupe, containing a person who turned out to be the Salford Chairman, drew up at my home,” he relates.   “He didn’t immediately mention signing for Salford, but instead invited me down to watch a couple of games.”

So, a few days later, Mike could have been found at The Willows, gaining his first experience of a rugby league match.  One extremely important catalyst in his willingness to agree to doing so, and consequently proceeding to sign for the Red Devils, was that he knew that the club’s captain was none other than Welsh Rugby Union International half back, David Watkins, who, it turns out, had been instrumental in shaping Brian Snape’s initial overture.

On his very first visit, Mike found that, not only was the game quite different, but so too was the whole environment in which he found himself.

“Stafford is a very rural area,” he points out, “and the club ground consists of a couple of acres of land which had been donated to the club, but it had little in the way of facilities, other than a small clubhouse and bar.  In contrast, The Willows was in a residential, urban area, with The Willows Variety Centre at the hub of everything that was happening.  It was all highly professional and impressive, and I quickly became keen to become a part of it.”

The only drawback was, of course, that as a policeman he was not able to have another job alongside that, so, having made his decision to make the move, it was also going to involve not only the end to his rugby union career, but also a complete change of lifestyle involving a move up north to live in Marple, and taking up a new career working in The Variety Centre.

His first match came immediately after making the change of code, away at the old Athletic Stadium, former home of Rochdale Hornets, in a Division 1 league fixture.

“Nowadays, you would have been required to have put in at least a week’s worth of training,” he considers, “but for me, back then, I was put straight into the team.   Although we were professional to a degree, we were not as professional as things are now.”

It was in this game that he donned, for the first time, the number eleven jersey which was to become his own, until making the move up front to openside prop, in the mid-seventies.

“I was always number eleven, because that was the second-row position on the blindside of the scrum,” he explains.  “Obviously, it was a very steep learning curve for me.  I just went through the game being told to stand here, and then there, and when the ball did eventually come to me, I just had to go forward and make as much progress as a I possibly could.

“It took around a quarter of the season for me to begin to feel settled into the game and begin holding my own in the team.”

His arrival at the club coincided with that of a player, who, not only was to become a very close personal friend, but who also, as his fellow second rower in those early days, was to become Mike’s mentor and guiding light, died-in-the-wool rugby league international, Colin Dixon.

“He was my best pal throughout my whole time with Salford,” Mike confides, and, pointing to a small tree in the middle of his lawn, continues, “I planted that in memory of him.  That is his.”

So close did the two become that Mike attributes much of his later success directly to Colin.

“He was such a great help, not so much for anything he said, but in his actions.  I always kept my eye on him and noted the things he did, and then tried them out myself.  I just owe so much to him.”

Part of the arrangements under which Mike came to Salford was that during the week he would work for Chairman, Brian Snape, in his Stanneylands restaurant in Manchester city centre, where he started to learn, in considerable detail, everything connected with the catering industry.  This was to stand him in good stead ahead of a flourishing career throughout his life, in this area.

“I went on to work for Whitbreads, for whom I managed twenty sites, some with hotels.  That carried great responsibility as there was well over a million pounds tied up in them all.  The move from union to league totally transformed my life.”

Not only that, he also found that once he had settled into the game, there were aspects of it which he much preferred to rugby union, particularly the high level of professionalism throughout the sport.

“I found rugby union far more sociable, but lacking professionalism in terms of the game, and as a player, you want to be able to progress and develop to the best you can be.  I certainly have no regrets whatsoever about having made the move, although the three months British Lions Rugby Union tour still remains my lifetime’s highlight.”

Nevertheless, there were highlights still to be gained in his newly found affection for rugby league, starting in 1969 with what was destined to be Salford’s one and only post-war visit to Wembley, which remarkably he can remember in detail.

“The game went by in a flash but I didn’t play well at all.  Certainly not as well as I think I should have done.  I didn’t do enough tackling, probably because the big strength of my game was my physical prowess in carrying the ball, but even in this I felt I lacked aggression on the day,” he ruefully reflects.  “I just would have liked to have played better than I did.”

Wembley is a hard place to go to and then to come away with nothing, as it is always going to be for fifty percent of the protagonists.

“I never liked losing any match, but you just have to be resilient, put it all in the past, and then turn your attention to the next season, which thankfully is what all the lads did,” he comments.

And indeed, with two First Division Championship successes in 1972/3 and again in 1974/5, to come, there were still successes, aplenty, awaiting him.

“The longevity of that Championship Trophy, coupled with the style with which we won it, on those two occasions, made it very special to us all.  To win it twice, and so soon after having won it the first time, was absolutely marvellous,” is his wholly justifiable assessment.

“We played with a great deal of skill and considerable guile in that period.  I scored a hundred and forty tries in my time with Salford, most of which came during that particular period of the early to mid-seventies, and which I consider was the peak of our time together.”

In sharp contrast, he readily acknowledges that they failed to do themselves justice in the one-off rugby which is the Challenge Cup.  Every year, the atmosphere around The Willows was electric with the anticipation that, that year, we would be getting to Wembley, which was not only every player’s dream, but also every fan’s -only for these hopes to be dashed by ball number twenty-three, without any variation  from season to season, being drawn out for a second or third round journey to West Yorkshire, to face might of Leeds, at Headingly, or Castleford, at Wheldon Rd.

This, however, was the only blip in what was an exceptional period of the club’s history.  And so it should have been with the star studded side which they were able to raise, week in and week out, for, as so often happens with a team brimming with talent, injuries were few and far between.

 

Part 3 – HIS SALFORD TEAMMATES, COACHES, AND OWN COACHING CAREER

Mike has already mentioned the exceptional respect he had for fellow second rower, Colin Dixon, but there was a teamful more, each of whom must have commanded the highest of regard from the others.  Mike recalls the impact one or two of them had upon the team.

“There are very few people whom I can recall who were better than Paul Charlton, our fullback.  He absolutely commanded the international number one jersey, at that time.  He was a tough, outstanding, rugged, Cumbrian, who just didn’t miss tackles, which then gave everyone of the rest of us a feeling of confidence that he inspired.

“I also have to include stand off Kenny Gill.  Lots of our successes came as a result of his skilful pair of hands.  His reading of the game, coupled with his timing of a pass used to put me, and others, in the clear as soon as the ball was with us.”

The transfer of Castleford prop, John Ward, who had done much to thwart the Red Devils in our encounter, at Wembley, was in Mike’s opinion a significant step forward in the development in the team at the start of the seventies, bringing with him a certain Yorkshire grit that bound the team together.

The attacking force out on each wing also could not be ignored.

“Maurice Richards had the widest side-step I have ever seen.  Whilst David Watkins was like a little ferret darting around, Maurice was like a swan.  With Keith Fielding it was his sheer, absolutely electric pace.”

Indeed, pace was the ingredient throughout the whole team, with Mike himself and Colin Dixon, in the second row possessing the pace of any back to score long distance tries during which they would draw further and further away from their chasing opponents before invariably grounding under the posts.

As the seasons passed, and the years started to catch up on them all, changes within the squad and around team selection understandably, took place.  For Mike, this led to a change of position, with his making the move up front to prop. In 1977.

“Throughout my rugby union career, I had always played at prop, and during my time in the second row, it had always been in the back of mind that I would one day return there, which I did for my final three seasons.”

Obviously, as certain players reached retirement age, and others moved on to join other clubs, a gradual dip in performance and results started to become apparent.  For Mike though, there were other problems with which to contend.

“It was about that time I started to develop injury problems with my knees.  I started to miss more and more games, and eventually had to undergo surgery.”

Nor was it only the playing staff which changed, as a succession of coaches, starting with Griff Jenkins, and followed by Cliff Evans and Les Bettinson each had their period in control at the wheel.  It is of former Salford centre, Bettinson, later to become Great Britain manager, whom Mike speaks most highly.

“Les was a really bright man, and that showed through his coaching.  He had the knack of how to deal with people, though he certainly was never soft.  At training we used to practise moves, which we then deployed into the various games at the most suitable moment.”

Having played under the various coaches, 1982 saw Mike, by then in his fourteenth year, appointed to the position of player coach, before eventually hanging up his boots to concentrate on the coaching element.  Not that he looks back on his coaching career with any great satisfaction, as he did not really find himself best cut out for the position.

“I simply am not an aggressive person, and I do feel that that was a problem throughout my whole rugby career.  I always felt that it was best just to play each game without ever having the desire to inflict physical harm on anyone.

“Even at the age of sixteen, when I was boxing, as a police cadet, I couldn’t bring myself to finish off, with any element of brutality, opponents who were struggling against me.  Consequently, in the role of coach, that required degree of aggression was lacking.”

 

Part 4 – HIS RUGBY LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL CAREER

That may well have been the case, but, despite it, all he achieved as a player was absolutely outstanding, with his, most remarkably, attaining an international cap, at every level from schoolboy, right through to full international level in both codes.

He even attained a most unusual international experience, alongside the rest of the squad, playing in a friendly against the French, in a Salford jersey, down in the south of France.

“We travelled down by private jet, and the whole trip down there was a most enjoyable experience, even though we were on the receiving end of a hefty defeat.”

His proudest claim to fame of all, however, came in what was the third and deciding test match against the Australians, in The Sydney Cricket Ground, when he pole-axed one of his opposing Australian forwards (thought to be the formidable Artie Beetson), who was left lying prostrate on the ground, for a number of minutes.

“The referee warned me that if he didn’t get up, I would be walking up the tunnel.”

Fortunately for Mike, the Australian medical staff were up to the challenge, and Mike duly remained on field to contribute further to the British victory, which was secured with a try under the sticks by his Salford, team mate, Kenny Gill.

It was, nevertheless, most out of character for the usually calm and compliant Coulman, who in this day and age, would have suffered a spell in the sinbin, at least, had things not been so different then.

“I was geed up purely by his stature.  Also, the fact that we were playing on an Australian cricket ground, which was rock hard, because unlike Headingley, where they are two separate pitches, this was all on the same area, and I was determined to make an impression.”

With so many of his Salford teammates in the Great Britain side – indeed the Red Devils commanded almost the whole of the backline, with Mike and Colin Dixon pairing up in the back row – playing for his country seemed little different than any away game for Salford, particularly when they found themselves staying in the same hotels used by the Red Devils.

The playing career of a professional sportsman, though, is exceptionally short, with most rugby league players managing a maximum of ten years at the top, but Mike has found that the reputation and aura he built up in the local area, during his days in the red, number eleven, jersey have followed and stayed with him throughout his life, and, now that he has had more time to return to  the club for occasional games, he has been overwhelmed by the respect and bonhomie he has received.

“The number of people who come up to me wanting to speak and shake hands is unbelievable, and it makes me feel so proud that I could almost cry.”

Those of us who know him, or have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing him play for the team, would undoubtedly respond by saying that this is merely fitting respect for a truly great man who throughout his playing days, and beyond, has been an absolute credit to rugby league, rugby union, Salford, and himself.