*Originally printed in 2017*
Each weekend, players across the country take to the field and throw themselves into each collision, attacking move and chase every kick with no reward other than the chance to play the game they love.
Amateur rugby league is a mix of some players hoping to catch the eye of a professional club, some who have known nothing else for years and just love the sport and some who find it the best way to enjoy a craic with mates.
The ingredients often make for a good way to spend an afternoon, and on the sidelines one ex-professional in particular takes his spot to enjoy the humble spectacle.
Rugby league has been a constant heartbeat in Bill Ashurst’s life since he was 10 years old, and despite having scaled the heights of international rugby and Australia’s top competition, he is drawn back to the playing fields to absorb the atmosphere provided by those at grassroots level.
“I just love amateur rugby league - it's the best game in the world,” said Ashurst.
“I mostly go to St Pat's. I was a Rose Bridge lad but I will watch anything - the excitement of rugby league is better than anything.
“You see a lot of kids play exciting rugby, off the cuff rugby and they try something different.”
Ashurst is regarded by many as Wigan’s outstanding talent of the 1970s.
In an otherwise barren period for the famous Central Park club, his unusual handling skills and knack for tactical kicking for a big player complimented his strength and no-nonsense style of play.
His Wigan debut came in August 1968 in a straightforward 43-7 win over Huyton and his first medal came the following December when Wigan beat St Helens 7-4 in the Floodlit Trophy Final.
“Playing St Helens was always a highlight,” explained Ashurst.
“I was only 18 when I made my Wigan debut and I was very fortunate to have been able to get into the team.
“I did five years the first time and then I went to Penrith for four years and did a year when I came back in 1977.”
Before the high-profile move to Penrith in July 1973, for a then Australian record of £15,000, Ashurst had played in Wigan’s Challenge Cup Final loss to Castleford in 1970 and a losing Championship Final in 1971.
Wigan had finished top of the table but Ashurst’s try in the final couldn’t prevent a 16-12 defeat to St Helens.
At Penrith, Ashurst played alongside former Sky pundit Mike Stephenson who, although they reportedly did not get on, couldn’t hide his admiration for the Ince man.
“Ashurst is the best second row forward I have played with or against,” he wrote.
“He is magnificently equipped with just about every attribute a footballer could have.”
Ashurst has fond memories of his time in Australia.
“I loved it at Penrith and I loved challenging myself against great players,” he said.
He moved back to Wigan in 1977 for a more modest £6,250, and managed 21 games before making his final appearance in a 22-10 loss to Bradford in 1978’s Challenge Cup second round.
Edging towards the end of his career, he moved to Wakefield.
“Wakefield came for me and I and I went there to stay in the top division,” Ashurst explained.
“I started getting bad knee injuries and then had to pack it in.”
But finishing as a player couldn’t keep Ashurst, away from the game, and he coached at Wakefield before moving back to Wigan to work alongside Alex Murphy in 1981.
“I did a year coaching at Wigan with Alex Murphy - it was the year we won our first trophy for a long time - the John Player trophy (a 15-4 win over Leeds) before I moved on to Runcorn Highfield (where a players’ strike forced him out of retirement for a a game against Wigan at the age of 40 - he was sent off) and then retired,” he said.
But his influence would still be felt, as he took-up coaching at Ince Rose Bridge to see through future generations of players before moving on to a new chapter.
“I concentrated on coaching young people for a while,” he said.
“Now I do a lot of work with churches, speaking at churches and sportsmans' dinners.”
Despite keeping tabs on all levels of the sport from amateur to NRL, Ashurst admits he is always drawn back to watch Wigan.
“Once a Wiganer, always a Wiganer, rugby has been my life since I was 10,” he said.
“That was when I fell in love with Wigan and I was fortunate enough to one day play for the most famous club in the world.”