Rugby League should be paying a greater tribute to Ray French
23 February 2019 - Written by Zack Wilson
Ray French MBE, doyen of the BBC’s rugby league coverage since the 1980s, recently announced that he was finally hanging up the microphone and calling time on his media career.
Although not a regular on BBC TV anymore, French still commentated on rugby league for local stations in his native Lancashire.
Now 79 years of age, the former Great Britain back rower enjoyed a good playing career in both codes of rugby.
He won four caps for England at rugby union, before jumping codes to sign for his hometown club, St Helens, in 1961.
He later won four Great Britain caps and also played for a short spell at Widnes in the late 1960s.
But it was as a broadcaster that he would really make his name in rugby league.
To those of us who started watching rugby league in the early 1980s, it will always be French’s St Helens accent that evokes memories of TV coverage of the game.
Phrases like “former Blackbrook amateur”, with the distinctive St Helens extension of the double O sound, became part of our vocabulary.
Ray also seemed to preface every moment of excitement with involuntary “ooooh!” – a tic that contributed to the charm of his commentary.
His St Helens tones always bring back fond memories of our sport in the 1980s and 90s – an era when many rugby union greats jumped codes to rugby league.
French, of course, was able to expertly assess the abilities of these players as he had also played international rugby union for England.
A schoolteacher by trade, he also coached union at Cowley High School, where the first XV benefitted from his experience.
In typical rugby union fashion, though, some decided that French’s league links, both as a player and broadcaster, meant that he should be banned from any involvement with the 15-man code, even though coaching the game was part of his job as a teacher.
It could be argued that he then achieved a significant victory against rugby union’s institutionalised code bigotry, albeit done in a typically modest manner.
"The RFU couldn’t stop me coaching rugby at Cowley because being a salaried teacher was my bona fide profession," French told The Rugby Paper in 2013.
"But when they finally heard of my other extra-curricular coaching activities I was banned.
"I decided not to fight it, life’s too short and I had plenty on my plate anyway, but members at the club and the Lancashire Union took up my cause in the corridors of power and then one day the letter arrived.”
That letter had a brief and humorous message scrawled on it from Dudley Wood, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union in the 1980s.
It read: “Ray French 1 RFU 0!”
"It was a nice touch from Dudley,” said French.
“Sport should never be confused with real life and a sense of humour always helps ease the situation.”
French also wrote about both codes of rugby. He wrote a book about rugby union in the early 1980s, entitled ‘Running Rugby, for example, in which his league experience was used to advise union coaches.
He also wrote coaching manuals for league coaches, such was the breadth of the man’s knowledge about the oval ball game.
Some of us have been fortunate enough to meet Ray French and have had the opportunity to see him work up close.
A consummate gentleman, Ray treats all who talk to him with the same considerate charm, and his passion for our sport remains undimmed.
It would be great to see French’s contribution to the game acknowledged in some way now that he has retired from his rugby league journalism.
Seeing him present a trophy, perhaps even the Challenge Cup, would be a great way to mark his career.
French is a very modest and humble man: he will not call for any tributes to be paid to him.
But the sport as a whole should make an effort to acknowledge just what a titan of rugby league Ray French has been.