Hull footy fans still idolise the man who ran five marathons in five days

hull fc raising money

Royce Simmons is not new to marathon fund-raising efforts on the road. His first, however, thousands of kilometres away and two decades ago, was a whole lot different to the 300km walk for dementia he will undergo on familiar home territory in May this year.

And the extraordinary experience has never been forgotten in England where several of his former players from his Hull FC team of the early 1990s will ride from Hull to St Helens, the other town where Simmons coached, to raise funds for dementia just a week before Royce embarks on his epic 11-day fund-raising trek.

The Panthers legend had just broken his teeth on coaching at Hull during the 1992-93 season, at age 32 and just months after his playing career ended in grand final glory. He’d succeeded his 1986 Kangaroo tourmate Noel Cleal who took the ‘Airlie Birds’ to a premiership final win the previous season but with an ageing roster at a cash-strapped club. Cleal, who a season later elected to return to Australia, had taken over from Brian Smith who had been seen as somewhat of a saviour on Humberside during his three seasons there.

Hull were far from the super-power they were in the 1980s, although they had won the premiership final against the mighty Widnes in 1990-91 before dropping to 12th on the ladder. ‘Simmo’ had quickly gained respect after his first season as a head coach but was bemusing the financial restraints he was operating under during discussion with a sponsor one evening.

“I was talking to a sponsor and was saying I was so wrapped up in coaching that I hadn’t been doing enough training. He agreed that it looked like I’d been eating too many pork pies and drinking too many pints,” Simmons recalled last week.

“In the same conversation he asked how I was going to improve the side and I said it was a bit tough getting in new players of quality because we didn’t have the money.

“He then said, ‘How about you run that marathon and I’ll give you £1000 and will try to get other sponsors aboard’. I said, ‘Mate, if you want to big note yourself how about £5000 to make it worthwhile and I’ll run five of them’. Straight away he’s gone, ‘done’.”

And so it was. In the English summer in between seasons (their competition ran from August-April until Super League began in 1996), Royce Simmons ran 210km over five successive days in what is believed to be the only such effort by a rugby league head coach in history – gaining sponsors of an athletic feat to fund player signings.

More sponsors did get involved and the ‘punters’ of Humberside came out in their hundreds and would wave on their coach and throw coins into collection buckets along the way.

The outcome? Around £30,000 was raised and a newcomer to the black and whites’ squad in 1993-94 was none other than current Manly coach Des Hasler who played 23 games (and scored 10 tries) in his only season in England before returning to Brookvale where he played in successive grand finals for the Sea Eagles in 1995-96.

Unfortunately, Hull – who had Great Britain hooker Lee Jackson as their only international and a young Steve McNamara (current Catalans coach) as skipper – missed the finals by just one competition point. They were keen for Simmons to sign-on for another two seasons – and he was keen to stay.

However, news came through from Penrith that his restaurant business was not performing well without his presence and he reluctantly headed home after two seasons at the helm. Just over a year after his return, Royce was thrown into a controversial start to his Australian coaching career when Phil Gould departed Penrith five rounds before the end of the 1994 season to take up the role with Sydney Roosters and Simmons was rushed in as caretaker coach.

He did enough to secure the job full-time and stayed for the next seven seasons. Meanwhile, Kiwi Tony Gordon replaced him at Hull but they were relegated a year later and spent three seasons out of the main competition before another Australian, Phil Sigsworth, led them into Super League in 1998. After working as assistant coach to Tim Sheens at Wests Tigers, Royce returned to England in 2011 for a season at the helm of St Helens.

And they certainly have not forgotten him in either league-mad town.

The Hull FC ex-players association has arranged a cycle ride between the two stadiums to raise funds for dementia after hearing of the plight of Simmons his upcoming fund-raising campaign, and some other former Hull players with dementia, prompted them to spring into action.

They will set off on Thursday, May 12 – five days before Simmons departs his hometown Gooloogong en route to Bluebet Stadium at Penrith – and ride more than 160kms along the Trans Pennine Trail to Merseyside in time to attend the Super League clash between Hull and St Helens next day.

The challenge will take place just a couple of days before Dementia Awareness Week gets underway on May 15 and the money raised will be shared among local charities and groups who work alongside those suffering from dementia.

Among the former Hull players taking part will be Jon Aston, Dean Busby, Matt Schultz, Richard Fletcher, Craig O’Donnell, Steve Crooks and Keith Tindall, some of whom played under Simmons during their time at The Boulevard.

Aston was offered his first professional deal by Simmons and he has been in touch with his former coach to let him know about the ride.

“My friend Kevin Gray, who is one of the participants, signed for Hull from school and I went along to play in the academy with the hope of getting signed up,” Aston told Hull Live. “Within a couple of months, Royce had identified that I could be one for the future and he offered me a professional contract.

“So for me recognising his plight is something I can do. He does know that we’re doing it and he’s incredibly grateful and touched. He’s on the other side of the world but we still hold him in such high regard.

“Hopefully the profile of these guys can help to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s and dementia and raise more money so we can contribute to local causes and put money back into the local community.”

The Hull old boys have released a special jersey to commemorate their bike ride, with a special No. 9 version to honour Royce Simmons. To buy one, click on – Hull FC Ex Players Association Tee – Royce Special – LammySports