BY BRIAN GOMM
HUNDREDS of mourners ensured a fitting send-off last Friday for Leigh rugby legend Robert ‘Bob’ Dowling.
The 71 year-old’s funeral at Leigh St Joseph’s Church attracted many friends, many of them former onfield foes of the front row forward whose connection with Leigh Miners spanned almost 50 years.
Born at 289 Plank Lane he was the grandson of William ‘Nucky’ Wilcock who played hooker for Wigan including the famous 12-8 win over the All Blacks in 1907. William later joined St Helens then served in the South Lancs Regiment during the First World War but a bullet hit him in the leg while fighting in the Dardanelles which finished his rugby career.
After learning schoolboy rugby with twin brother Paul at Plank Lane Methodists, as 18 year-olds they joined Leigh St Mary’s then when that side faded they joined Higher Fold.
In the late 1960s Robert, still registered with Higher Fold, started playing at the Miners under brother Paul’s name because the elder twin (by five minutes) was away working in Carlisle. When Paul moved back to Leigh they formed the rugged foundation of a Miners’ pack that helped the team win the North West Counties title 13 times on the trot. Robert also served as Miners’ secretary, kit washer and helped brother Paul as groundsman.
He was a member of the club’s committee at the time of his death.
“Robert was a good, honest, hard player who you could rely on, but one season I didn’t play him for 10 weeks. He got sent-off a few times and I wanted to be sure we didn’t end-up with 12 men.
"As twins there was often a case of mistaken identity and if we pleaded innocence the referee would say ‘well one of you can get off!’ Some folk used to call us ‘the Kray twins’. John Woods (Great Britain, Leigh, Warrington, Hull and Rochdale Hornets player) reckoned we were better known than him, ” recalled former Miners’ and Great Britain captain Paul with a smile.
“Robert’s proudest moment was being picked for Great Britain to play France in Corsica at the age of 34. He would also have been made-up to see so many people at his funeral including players from teams in St Helens, Warrington, Wigan and Widnes paying their respects.”
Miners and ex-Leigh player Winston Sarsfield read a fitting eulogy applauded by mourners including Miners’ founder, coach and first president Rod Raines and the RL international trio of Martyns - Mick, Tommy and Tommy junior.
Robert, who rose from apprentice weaver to mill overlooker met his wife, Valerie (Crossley) while working at Lilford Weaving Company. He also worked at Cockhedge Mills in Warrington and Courtauld’s in Leigh until it closed in 1986 when he went to work as a machine driver at Plank Lane pit a cockstride from his childhood home.
He was diagnosed with cancer in 1988 but battled through it. He died on April 11 from heart and kidney failure the day after being admitted to Wigan Infirmary.
A familiar figure around town Robert loved a bet and a day at the races, enjoyed a pint and tending his allotment behind The Nevison pub in Plank Lane.
His favourite chickens were bantams no doubt because he too shared the never-say-die attributes of a gamecock.
Robert leaves, a wife, Valerie, to whom he had been married for almost 50 years, and elder son Anthony. The couple’s younger son, David, died two years ago.
Following the St Joseph’s service he was buried at Leigh Cemetery before a wake at Leigh Miners club alongside the playing pitch which was his stamping ground.