A legend on both sides of the World: Bill Ashurst

Not many players will ever be revered as Legends in their own life time, and even fewer will have had the distinction of receiving that unique accolade on both sides of the World.

But Ince-in-Makerfield born Bill Ashurst has had ‘legendary status’ bestowed upon him in both Wigan and Penrith, after a chequered career that had its ups and downs on both sides of the planet.

A superb ball handling centre or second rower, his famous lock of dark hair flicked across his forehead as he swerved, sidestepped, or chipped his opponents to the delight of his fans. He is even credited with changing the traditional toe-punt style of goal-kicking to that of the ‘round-the-corner’ kicker style of today.

Bill was outspoken and direct, and those qualities would seem to have cost him medals and Gt. Britain representation throughout a stellar career that spanned over 40 years as a player, coach, and mentor.

But in the end Ashurst landed 146 goals and six field-goals, along with 74 tries, in 185 games across two spells at Wigan. He recorded 55 goals, six field-goals and 19 tries in 46 appearances for Penrith. He then added 15 goals, ten field-goals and five tries in 32 matches with Wakefield. 

But somehow, he only managed three appearances for Gt. Britain, his debut against New Zealand in 1971 and two of them against France in 1972. But he was overlooked for the 1970 World Cup despite a magnificent season, and injury kept him out of the 1972 World Cup Final.

And once he signed for Penrith in 1973, then he was viewed as no longer being available for Gt. Britain selection. It was to prove a real loss to the Lions at a time when they needed all their stars to try and stave off the challenge of the ever-improving Australians

Twice he was the subject of record transfer deals, the first being when a then world record fee of £15,000 was paid by Penrith for him to switch to the Australian Rugby League back in 1973, and the other time was when he left Wigan for Wakefield after his second stint at his home town club in March 1978.

But throughout that career, he openly admitted that he and fellow GB and Penrith player Mick ‘Stevo’ Stephenson (of SKY Sports fame), did not see eye to eye, although he claimed in Richard De La Riviere’s excellent book “50 Wigan Legends – In their own words”, that they played it up for the press then they would “get $500 each to open a shop!”

Bill had been in love with the game since he watched the 1958 Cup Final between Wigan and Workington on TV, and although he did have trials with Blackburn Rovers football club, he was signed from Ince Amateur Rugby League following an impressive local Ken Gee Cup performance.

That was ahead of the 1968/69 season, and Ashurst made his debut in the 19-16 Lancashire Cup first-round defeat at St Helens.

Wigan forward Bill Ashurst in possession backed up by Keiron O’Loughlin against Swinton in a league match at Central Park on Friday 30th of March 1973. Wigan won the game 10-9.

In his autobiography, ‘Tries and Prayers – A Rugby League Journey,’ Ashurst tells an interesting tale, seemingly typical of the way he was to go on.

The Wigan were coached by Eric Ashton, who put Bill on the wing and Bill Francis at centre

Traiing16-4 at half-time, and Bill had received just two passes, and he told the legendary Ashton “You’ve got it wrong”.

Eric was not too pleased at Bill’s approach, but the youngster carried on. “Look, I am a centre, Bill (Francis) is a winger. You have got us in the wrong positions. Put me in the centre and him on the wing.”

Eric listened, as the dressing room stood silent, but made the switch.

“He swapped us over, and I had a great second half. We still lost, but by three points, 19-16.”

Bill played 26 games that season, and had successes as a winner of the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in 1969/70, and the very last Lancashire League title in 1969/70. He was also a member of the Wigan side that set a club record of 31 successive league wins between February 1970 and February 1971.

But he had his disappointments, as Wigan lost the Challenge Cup final of 1969/70, when Castleford were 7-2 Wembley winners, and the Championship Final of 1970/71 when, they lost 16-12 to St. Helens. Bill won the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match and scored a try and kicked two goals but that was scant consolation.

In Penrith he was revered to such a degree that when they marked their 40th year anniversary, that they named Bill as centre in their “Team of Legends” alongside such as Frad Fittler, Tim Sheens and John Cartwright, to name but a few. Initially it looked like he would head to Cronulla, “but Penrith offered a car and a swimming pool. “Recounted Bill many a time. “I didn’t drive or swim, but it sounded a good offer, so I took it.”

His Penrith debut was against St. George and after being down 19-0 at half time, Ashurst inspired a 25-point second half revival and a win.

After two years, when refused permission to return home to visit his wife Sheila and his kids who had returned to England, he packed his bags and left for good.

When at Wigan for his second spell, the then coach Vince Karalius asked Bill to play a certain way! Bill said it was not for him, and left.

He went to Wakefield, and played in the 1979 defeat to Widnes. Some two years later he retired through a knee injury. He then coached at Wakefield, had a spell with Alex Murphy at Wigan and finished his professional coaching stint at Runcorn Highfield. He even played when there was a player strike, and they were set to play Wigan. He came on as a sub in a 92-2 Challenge Cup defeat, but did not finish the game! He head-butted Andy Goodway and got sent off.

With Community sides Ince Rose Bridge and Hindley, he offered his advice on rugby and life, until his sad passing in June 2022, leaving wife Sheila, his seven children, 31 grand children and 8 great grandchildren behind – and so many, many more memories for so many people across the world.


In 2006, the Penrith Panthers celebrated its 40th season by selecting the inaugural Team of Legends. The team consisted of 17 players who were considered the all-time Penrith best in 40 years of competition in the NRL. The team was selected by a committee of local experts and rugby league pundit. The Penrith Team of Legends was:

  1. Rhys Wesser
  2. Bob Landers
  3. Grahame Moran
  4. Ryan Girdler
  5. Alan McIndoe
  6. Brad Fittler
  7. Greg Alexander
  8. Terry Geary
  9. Royce Simmons
  10. Tim Sheens
  11. John Cartwright
  12. Bill Ashurst
  13. Colin Van Der Voort
  14. Craig Gower
  15. Brad Izzard
  16. Mark Geyer
  17. Tony Puletua

By Trevor Hunt of BBC Radio Manchester and Vice President of the RFL

Thursday 22 February 2024