Plying his trade in Hull FC’s most successful ever era, David Topliss or ‘Toppo’ was a key component of Arthur Bunting’s Black and White army.
On second thought, that probably does him an injustice. Topliss was the stuff that legends are made of, yet he only played for Hull for four years, and he actually was only recruited by the club at the grand old age of 31, despite many previous attempts to sign him.
For years and years Topliss had toyed and tormented Hull and on arrival in 1981 there were questions that his best days were supposedly behind him. Doubters, mainly coming from gritted teeth in the Trinity area, couldn’t have been more wrong, as the Wakefield-born stand-off, who had spent 13 years at his hometown club, matured like a fine wine. Back then rumours of comings and goings, as they are today, were everywhere and given the Airlie Birds’ status as one of the games emerging clubs, they were linked with anyone half decent that was or became available, and make no mistake Topliss fell right into that category.
Having gained promotion to the top flight in record fashion, winning all 26 games in the 1978/79 “Invincibles” season, Hull were on the rise again but they needed some guile and organisation to match a powerful pack and skilful back-line. Topliss possessed that quality in abundance, but here came the sceptics again, doubting whether a reported £15,000 fee would get value for money for a player who had last played for Great Britain two years previously. Jokes on them as Toppo, at first alongside either Tony Dean or Kevin Harkin, played with no fear, filled all the gaps, and as captain, led the club to six finals in four years.
Following a John Player Trophy win against the Old Enemy and a draw at Wembley, it was the third of those finals which was the most prestigious; the 1982 Challenge Cup final replay. After a draw against Widnes in the ‘Big Smoke’, the sides met again at Elland Road, with Topliss inspiring a 18-9 masterclass to win Hull the grand old trophy for the second time, and the first in 68 years.
Hull outscored Widnes that night four tries to two and it was Toppo’s finest hour in a Black and White shirt. One of his two tries, a superbly executed run-around with the outstanding Kiwi centre James Leuluai, remains one the most famous and best passages of footage you’ll ever see from a Hull player. It signified the skills and qualities Topliss possessed, and showed how he could create memorable partnerships with the likes of Leuluai, Steve Norton and later the most famous Australian half back, at least in our neck of the woods, Peter Sterling. The run around too was to become infamous with Topliss. It was his play. Opposition sides knew what was coming but they didn’t have a cat in hells chance of stopping it. It actually became so recognisable that Diary man Wilf and his pals at the Half Way on Hessle Road used to call it his “rap round move”, and ultimately it was fitting that the most famous time he used it ended up in Hull winning the Challenge Cup.
Due to the nature of that replay, the Lance Todd Trophy had already gone to Eddie Cunningham in the Wembley final, but luckily it was an award Topliss had already won whilst at Wakefield in 1979 – a rare case of a player on the beaten side winning the award, but then again Hull’s Tommy Harris managed it in 1960 in defeat to who else but Topliss’ former club Wakefield. Though as captain, Toppo had received the Cup in the replay from Neil McFarlene the minister for sport and said, “I’ve devoted my whole life to Rugby League and this is the happiest moment I have ever had.” For all Hull fans in attendance that night at Elland Road, and arguably right up until the first win at Wembley in 2016, it was too.
Topliss was just an outstanding rugby league player, a real general and a nice bloke too – quoting upon his arrival at the Airlie Birds that he wanted our “great fans” on his side for a change. Such was his craft and awareness of space, Hull found it easy to reach major finals, but the task became a lot more complex once they got there.
Many supporters will maintain that despite the Bunting-era being the most adorning trophy winning spell in Hull’s history, the side then could and maybe should have won a lot more silverware. For instance, the year after the Challenge Cup triumph, Hull lost at Wembley to Featherstone in one of the biggest upsets ever and also lost the Premiership final two years running. Topliss though was still at the forefront of three Yorkshire Cup wins against Bradford, Castleford and the noisy neighbours, not to mention the infamous 1983 League Championship triumph, and whilst at Hull, he actually won back his Great Britain place in the 1982 series against Australia. Hull played the Kangaroos at the Boulevard during that “invincibles” tour and almost beat them. Topliss scored one of only seven tries that Australia conceded on the whole tour. Back then, and like Australia, Hull really were a top side. Topliss too was far from a stranger to the Kangaroos, having played Down Under for both Penrith and Balmain during the close season.
Despite advancing into his 30s, Topliss somehow managed to cling onto his pace, and that made him a more than respectable try-scorer, notching up 56 tries for Hull in 120 appearances. He scored a staggering 195 tries at Wakefield in 418 appearances, and finished his career, after a stint with Oldham, with a grand total of 270 tries in 617 appearances. He was a sensational talent.
Eventually Topliss’ time at Hull began to run out. Hull signed New Zealand half back Fred Ah Kuoi, and with Sterling also on the books, he found persistent selection difficult. Ah Kuoi was preferred to Topliss by Bunting for the infamous, and all-time greatest Challenge Cup final, as Hull lost 28-24 to Wigan. Despite managing a handful or so games alongside Sterling, time evidently swung towards a Hull exit, with the great stand-off joining Oldham for a couple of seasons. He then returned to Wakefield as player-coach, and guided them to promotion in his first season, retiring as a player at the end of the 1987-88 season. Topliss remained at Wakefield until 1994, where he found other ventures outside of rugby league.
Opportunities to tempt Topliss back into the game became sparse. Respected writer Dave Hadfield once wrote, “He was the antithesis of the embittered old pro, determinedly unimpressed by the modern game. More than any other player of his era, he was a regular at live matches, at one stage as an adviser to Hull, but mainly for his own pleasure. He was a willing volunteer for any charity connected with the game and a tireless organiser of social functions for ex-players.”
Unlike other players, Topliss never put on the pounds post-retirement. Hadfield went on. “He was also formidably fit. His playing weight never varied much from 11 stone and he maintained it even after his retirement. Apart from his passion for touch rugby, of which he remained a formidable exponent well into his fifties, he had a daily regime which consisted of a brisk walk in the morning, the gym in the afternoon and five-a-side football, usually with a crowd of former rugby league players, in the evening. It was after one of those games on Monday night that he sat down, keeled over and died. It will take a sport that he illuminated as a player and a person a long time to get used to him no longer being around.”
Passing away in 2008, it took over ten years to get a memorial trophy in place for Topliss, at least in an official capacity. Wakefield and Hull FC competed for the David Topliss Memorial Trophy during Danny Washbrook and Danny Kirmond’s Testimonial match in January 2019.
David Topliss was, and remains, a true rugby league legend. May he rest in peace.