FORMER Leigh prop Derek Watts, a key member of their 1971 Challenge Cup-winning team, has passed away at the age of 73.

Watts was living in Perth, Australia after moving down under in 1986 and is survived by his wife Susan and two sons.

Watts was a no-nonsense prop forward from Worcestershire who came to Leigh in unusual circumstances during the summer of 1968.

After playing rugby union for his home town club of Tenbury Wells, he answered a newspaper advert to join Leigh, who had spread their recruiting net far and wide under player-coach Alex Murphy.

Murphy's novel idea paid an ample dividend as Geordie Paul Grimes also arrived at the club on trial after seeing the same advert and went to play at Wembley in Leigh's cup-winning pack alongside Watts.

Cup final hooker Kevin Ashcroft remembers Watts well and is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of his old friend.

"Derek was a lovely lad, a real gentleman," Ashcroft said.

"In truth he was probably too nice to be a rugby league forward, especially in that era of contested scrums when there were so many 'nutters' about.

"He told me that playing rugby league gave him the biggest surprise of his life.

"He'd always watched it on television and wanted to play the game but he couldn't get over how hard the game was and how many head cases there were about.

"When we packed down the hooker was always the target for the opposition because if you could immobilise their hooker they would struggle to get the ball from the scrums. Games were often won and lost on possession and winning the scrums. I used to come off black and blue whereas Derek would walk off without a mark on him.

" 'If he hits me again I'm going to hit you,' I used to tell him during games. 'You should be wearing the number seven shirt for all the use you are, not the number eight. You're about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike.' Derek used to look back at me and say: 'You're not right in the head.' I replied: 'I won't be if this lot keep hitting me and you do nothing about it.'

"When Derek and Paul first came to Leigh they both lived with my wife Janet and me in our bungalow. They used to eat us out of house and home and I was glad when they moved out.

"I'd get up in the morning and check they hadn't eaten the three-piece suite.

"I once asked (Leigh secretary) John Stringer for some money to cover my big food bill. He gave a fiver. 'A fiver!' I said. 'That won't keep them in bread and milk for a day.' I never got any more money, though.

"I got Derek a job with me at Sutcliffe and Speakman and he worked as a setter. He quickly settled into living in the area and he loved it, as did Paul. They both married Leigh girls.

"Murph was a tough task master, as you know, and there's no way either would have played as many games as they did had they not been very good players.

"Derek was a real unsung hero of the pack and did his job uncomplainingly. He was a big, raw boned lad, about 18 stone and he took some stopping.

"If he'd had a streak of nastiness he could have made an international but he hadn't a nasty bone in his body.

"He was a dear friend and it is so sad that we have lost another member of that '71 side. We had a special bond as a group of players and that exists nowadays when the survivors of that team meet up again. Sadly, there are a declining number of us left."

Watts was an outstanding junior cricketer in his home town and represented Worcestershire schoolboys. He also reputedly once won his school sports 100 metres and shot put despite having a broken arm.

In four seasons at Hilton Park following his debut against Hull KR in October 1968 he made 113 appearances and scored 14 tries for Leigh, retrospectively earning Heritage Number #766 when the Club's heritage numbers were allocated in 2014.

Though the 24-7 Wembley victory over Leeds was the highlight of his career he was also a member of the Leigh side that won the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy after beating Wigan 11-6 in the final at Central Park just before Christmas 1969. He had to be content with a runners-up medal from Leigh's 11-2 Lancashire Cup Final defeat against Swinton at Wigan six weeks earlier.

In November 1970 Watts was an important member of the Leigh side that defeated St Helens 7-4 in the Lancashire Cup Final at Swinton in the early stages of what was to prove an historic season.

When Murphy left for Warrington in the immediate aftermath of Wembley Leigh's cup-winning side began to break up and Watts was transferred to Wigan during the summer of 1972. He made 34 appearances for Wigan in two seasons at Central Park, scoring five tries.

In 1974 Geoff Fletcher persuaded him to join Huyton, where Watts developed a new string to his bow as a goal-kicker. He kicked a total of 107 goals, including one drop-goal and scored six tries in 61 games for Huyton before he was transferred to Workington Town after he had impressed Town officials playing against their club in a cup-tie.

He played 43 games for Town and was a member of their Lancashire Cup-winning side in October 1977 when they defeated Wigan 16-13 at Wilderspool to lift the trophy for the only time in the club's history.

Watts finished his career with short spells at Blackpool Borough (12 games), Keighley (one game on loan) and Batley (12 games) playing his final game in January 1981 at the age of 36. He also represented Other Nationalities in 1975.

In total Derek Watts won four winner's medals and played 277 career games. He scored 25 tries, kicked 106 goals and one drop-goal. It was not a bad return for Murphy's newspaper advert.

Derek Watts, b Tenbury Wells, Worcs Jun 1944, d Perth, Aus Nov 2017; An obituary by Mike Latham with thanks to Kevin Ashcroft, John Watts and Joe Holliday for background.