Everyone at Salford Red Devils is so greatly saddened at the news of the passing of one of its greatest icons in the history of the club, David Watkins MBE, aged 81. Frequently as superlatives are often attributed, David fully warranted every single one ever used about him, rising to become a dual international in both rugby league and rugby union.
Heralding from South Wales, he quickly developed, to play 202 top-flight union matches with Newport, going on to gain his first representative honours with Wales, for whom he played on twenty-one occasions, together with a further six for the British Lions, all in his recognised position of fly-half.
His move to join Salford in 1967 absolutely transformed what, at the time, was an up-and-coming team into one of the top sides in the league, certainly in the entertainment stakes, if not in the winning of trophies. Such was the esteem in which he was held throughout the country that, upon his signing, the attendance of 3,500 at The Willows, for the previous week’s game v Castleford, rose to an incredible 10,500 for his home debut against Oldham, the following Friday, as sports fans travelled from all around the north-west, to witness it, and he did not disappoint, turning in a try-scoring performance after only two training sessions with the team.
Within eighteen months of joining Salford, he was leading the team out at Wembley, as captain, in the 1969 Challenge Cup Final v Castleford, having defeated Batley, Workington Town, Widnes, and Warrington, along the way. Although the trophy was eventually lifted by their Yorkshire opponents, Salford’s very presence on that great stage was evidence of the significant development, of which David had been a catalyst, within the team, in the interim.
Successes in other finals, such as the Lancashire Cup Final over Swinton in 1972 and the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy Final replay over Warrington, in 1975, eventually came as some tangible reward. Sandwiched in between those two was the winning of the club’s first major post-war trophy, the First Division Championship for the 1973/4 season, under his captaincy, which they then repeated two seasons later in 1975/6, after he had relinquished the captaincy to Chris Hesketh, but with his then becoming the league’s leading points scorer for that season.
Such was his talent on a rugby field that it superseded anything required for any one position so that over his ten-year tenure, in 1971 he moved from his initial stand-off half berth to centre, and then in 1974 to fullback. It was in the centre, however, where he made his greatest contribution, revelling in the greater spaces that the position afforded him, and he repaid the club by notching a total of 30 tries in his very first season, ‘71/2, in that position.
It was in a match against Barrow, in December 1972, that he came on at centre from the substitute’s bench, ten minutes from time, to score the fastest hat-trick of tries – within 5 minutes – in any game, to that time. His first international representation came against England in November 1968 at The Willows, and he went on to be selected for international duty with Great Britain on 6 occasions, and Wales 16 times, both of whom he later coached.
Individual records needed to be rewritten for him, as one after another was broken. In the 1972/3, he kicked a world record of 221 goals in a single season and during the period from 19th August 1972 to 25th April 1974, he established the longest running record of scoring in every one of 92 consecutive club matches with 41 tries and 403 goals bringing him 929 points.
In 1979, after making his final appearance for Salford, in an away match at Rochdale Hornets on 1st April, he transferred to Swinton, where he spent a further season, before retiring having amassed a total of 2907 points.. In 1986 he was awarded the MBE for services to rugby league, and more recently, in December 2022, he was inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame.
Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends at this really sad time.