England caps: 16
Northampton Saints has a long-standing reputation for being the home of tough, uncompromising, and extremely talented back row forwards. Think of the likes of Don White, Bob Taylor, Wayne Shelford, Budge Pountney, Andrew Blowers, and of course the current vintage of international talent.
Traditions must start somewhere, and with this particular position there is a strong case that it can be traced back to William Henry Weston, aka Billy.
It could be argued that he had a natural advantage over his rivals, not least because he was the son of the Saints’ first England international, Harry Weston. But while this might hold water in his early career - Billy making his Saints debut as a mere 18-year-old - it becomes weaker and weaker as the years went on and the appearances racked up.
His total of 390 appearances is seventh on the club’s all-time list, and his scoring was certainly prodigious, too, with 48 tries and a healthy reputation as an accurate kicker when called upon. A precocious sportsman at Oakham School, Weston excelled at both rugby football and association football, as well as a range of athletic events.
It was not just in rugby where Weston followed his family heritage. Like his father, he took to farming in Yardley Gobion, where he continued to work at The Elms until his death in 1987, aged 82 years.
Indeed Weston’s sons also continued this career path, and according to ‘Oh When The Saints…’, the first edition of the club’s history book, ‘in the chill of winter they have been known to use their father’s rugby jerseys to keep warm, which explains why only an All Black and Lancashire shirt remain.’
Playing against New Zealand was perhaps Weston’s finest hour in an England shirt.
“No one was better than Bill Weston,” said the team’s captain, Bernard Gadney at a reunion in 1983. “No one ever got past him on the blind side.”
This defensive determination helped underpin a famous 13-0 win for England in January 1936, but such was Weston’s continually high standards that this game came a dozen years after he first played against the All Blacks, for the East Midlands at the County Ground in 1924.
1936 also saw Weston be selected for a British team that toured Argentina, playing in 11 out of the 12 games, and in between times there had been four seasons as Saints captain, with a fifth to come in his final season, 1937/38.
His election as captain drew praise from the Northampton Echo, who wrote: ‘…a popular choice for he has proved himself over and over again the best type of sportsman, as well as being a player of unusual ability.’
Having Harry as his father may have helped Weston make his debut, but it did not guarantee continual selection for the first team, as the Echo continued.
‘Until he found his position as a wing forward he was in and out of the team to a remarkable extent, and had he not been a genuine sport he would probably have found a club where he would probably have found a regular place in that first XV. But Weston’s first consideration has always been the game, and his demeanour underwent no change whether he played for the Saints or the Saints A.
‘His strong tackling is a feature of his game. The Saints can be assured of energetic, enthusiastic leadership from a captain who will never fail to set his men an excellent example in conduct on and off the field.’
The international part of Weston’s career began relatively late for those days, his first cap coming against Ireland in February 1933 at the age of 27. Nevertheless, over the subsequent five years he would be part of a Gardens triumvirate that would dominate the national team’s pack, along with prop Ray Longland and second row John Dicks.
This was truly the amateur era, when players were expected to provide their own shorts to play, and on one occasion Weston had to borrow his father’s old baggy-style pair because he could not find his own.
His final appearance for England came in 1938 - also Weston’s final year of playing for the Saints - and when he retired he had 16 caps, not a great deal compared to the present day, when England hit double figures of internationals in a calendar year, but a stunning figure for the time, representing Weston’s place as first choice for his country.
Weston also had considerable representative experience by this stage. The 1924 game for the East Midlands against New Zealand had been one of the tourists’ toughest on their 38-match trip around the country, and seven years later there would be better to come as the East Midlands combined with Leicestershire to take on South Africa at Welford Road.
The Springboks came into the game with a near-perfect record of 11 wins and a draw from their 12 matches played to date, but they came up against a ferocious combination team who relied on Saintsmen for a third of the starting XV as well as the majority of the points. Weston landed four conversions and a crucial penalty that killed off a South African comeback as the hosts went on to win 30-21.
And there was more to come in the dark green of the East Midlands, Weston one of 10 Saints that helped beat Gloucester 10-0 at Franklin’s Gardens in March 1934 and secure the County Championship for the first time. It was the crowning glory of that particular vintage of players in the area and still remains one of two such titles that the East Midlands have won.
It would be remiss to not also recognise the contributions of Eric Coley to Weston’s successes, the pair becoming partners in crime for club and region, at least as far as opposition packs and half-backs were concerned, throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s.