David Watkins, dual-code rugby player who captained the Lions and went on to be one of Salford’s greatest players – obituary

His record of scoring in 92 consecutive rugby league matches remains unbroken, and in 1972-73 he scored a still unmatched 221 goals

David Watkins in action for Salford in 1974
David Watkins in action for Salford in 1974 Credit: Mike Brett/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

David “Dai” Watkins, who has died aged 81, was a dual-code rugby international who captained the Lions at rugby union and Great Britain at rugby league; he received a club-record signing-on fee of £16,000 when he left Newport to turn professional for Salford in 1967, when rugby union was still an amateur sport.

He made such an impact in his adopted sport that he is widely regarded as Salford’s finest postwar player and one of their greatest of all time, with a club-record 2,960 points from 147 tries and 1,241 goals in 407 appearances over 12 years. Despite standing only 5ft 6in and weighing just over 10 stones, Watkins was a fearless and courageous competitor in a sport renowned for its toughness.

Watkins still holds the rugby league record of playing and scoring in 92 consecutive matches, which he did for Salford between August 1972 and April 1974. He also scored a world-record 221 goals for Salford in 1972-73, with what was then a unique style of sidefooting the ball instead of the traditional kick with the toe end of the boot.

Watkins also earned himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records, scoring three tries in five minutes against Barrow in 1972 – the fastest hat-trick in rugby league history.

With his prodigious talent and film-star looks he was often referred to as “the George Best of rugby league”. But it was a tough baptism, he recalled: “In one of my first matches I missed a few tackles and I heard a shout from the terraces, ‘For f---- sake Watkins, hit him with your wallet!’

Watkins clears the ball from the Welsh line during his final union international, a 34-21 win against England at Cardiff Arms Park in 1967 Credit: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

“Then in another game a burly opponent deliberately stamped on my hand, looked down at me and said: ‘Twinkle twinkle now, little star!’

“In my first two seasons I broke my nose four times, fractured my ribs and broke my jaw, and they were all off-the-ball incidents. I remember being poleaxed in a game against Leigh and when I got up I asked the ref what he was going to do about it. He replied: ‘Hey son, you’ve been paid enough to look after yourself!’”

With his electrifying pace and dazzling sidestep Watkins soon won over any doubters and earned the respect of opponents dazzled by his skills.

David Watkins was born on March 5 1942 in Blaina, Monmouthshire, to Jack, a coalminer, and Doreen. One of three boys, he was educated at Glanyrafon School in Blaina.

There was no sporting pedigree in the family but Watkins soon made an impact with the Cwmcelyn youth side, with brief stints at Abertillery, Ebbw Vale and Pontypool earning him Welsh youth representation.

A move to Newport as a teenager in 1961 brought him to the attention of the Welsh selectors with an international debut at the age of 20, partnering Clive Rowlands at half-back against England.

He played a monumental role in Newport’s famous win over the All Blacks in 1963 – the only match the New Zealanders lost on the tour – and captained his club for three seasons.

Watkins kicking for Salford in 1976 Credit: Mike Brett/Popperfoto

His skills were particularly potent in sevens rugby and he never played on a losing side for Newport in the abridged version of the sport, later continuing his success with Salford.

He won 21 caps for Wales, including a Triple Crown triumph in 1965, and played six times at fly-half for the British and Irish Lions on the 1966 tour to Australia and New Zealand, kicking a crucial penalty in a draw against Australia. He captained Wales on three occasions and the Lions twice.

His switch to rugby league came in 1967 after he had played in a 34-21 win over England. He was nervous about signing the contract with Salford at a hotel in Tewkesbury.

“I sat at the table in the dining room with an empty plate while the others ate their lunch, I was that tense.

“I met [Salford chairman] Brian Snape at Knutsford services before going to the ground for the first time. He drove an Aston Martin and looked like James Bond, and I had a little Ford Anglia with red plastic seats.”

Watkins, who scored a 70-yard try and dropped two goals on a memorable debut against Oldham, recalled: “Joining Salford was the best rugby experience of my life, but the pressure was on to deliver the goods after the club spent such a huge amount of money. Salford made me very welcome but I was particularly indebted to my new half-back partner Jackie Brennan for helping me settle in a new environment.

Watkins took charge of the Wales team for the 1975 Rugby League World Cup Credit: Antony Matheus Linsen/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

“My only experience of rugby league had been watching Richard Harris in This Sporting Life, but we played a brilliant brand of rugby at Salford and became known as the Quality Street gang. It was the place to be on match nights when the ground buzzed and even soccer stars from Manchester United and City came to watch the action.”

There was no resentment from teammates about Watkins’s signing-on fee. As one of them, Peter Smethurst, said at the time: “We don’t care what he’s been paid. It looks as though he will help me and the boys make money so we are all happy.”

Watkins was Salford’s captain in their 1969 Challenge Cup final defeat by Castleford at Wembley and his scoring prowess was a key factor in their Division One title successes in 1974 and 1976 after he had been switched from stand-off to centre.

They also won the Lancashire Cup in 1973 and the BBC2 Floodlit Trophy in 1975 with a star-studded side that also included other former union internationals, Keith Fielding, Maurice Richards and Mike Coulman.

Watkins made 16 appearances for Wales and six for Great Britain, and played his final game for Salford aged 37, before spending a farewell season with neighbouring Swinton. He captained Wales in the 8-3 Test defeat by Australia at Swansea in 1978.

Watkins during his time with Cardiff in the 1980s Credit: Mike Brett/Popperfoto

He later helped to set up the fledgling Cardiff Blue Dragons, who signed former Welsh union internationals Steve Fenwick, Tom David and Paul Ringer and coached the team, even making four appearances.

He also had two spells as coach of the Wales rugby league side, and was in charge of Great Britain in 1977 when they lost 13-12 to Australia in the World Cup final at Sydney Cricket Ground.

Eloquent and articulate, he later worked as a broadcaster for television and radio. He had worked as a banking finance manager during his playing career, when rugby league players were part-time.

Watkins returned to Newport as team manager in 1992-93 after leading a consortium to take over the club. He later became chairman and president of Newport Gwent Dragons. He was appointed MBE in 1986 and was installed in the Rugby League Hall of Fame last year.

David Watkins, who had been suffering from dementia, is survived by his wife Jane and by a daughter and son.

David Watkins, born March 5 1942, died September 3 2023