THE Rugby League world is mourning the death of a legendary Great Britain Test captain who was the first player to be honoured by the Queen.

Eric Ashton passed away at the age of 73 in the early hours of last Thursday (March 20) with his nearest and dearest at his bedside in Willowbrook Hospice, after a five-year battle against prostate cancer endured with characteristic fortitude and dignity.

St Helens-born Eric, who spent his entire playing career at arch rivals, Wigan, was a prince among centres and one of the most decorated icons in the game's history.

A devoted family man, he leaves Doreen, his wife of 49 years, daughters, Michelle and Beverley and grandchildren, Alexandra, Ryan, Victoria and Greg. A broken-hearted Beverley said: "Dad was a loving husband, fantastic father and wonderful granddad and we will treasure his memory for ever."

An impeccably-observed minute's silence was held before the Saints-Wigan fixture on Good Friday.

Standing 6ft 2ins and tipping the scale at 14 stone in his heyday, Ashton was a centre cast in classical mould, being blessed with pace, handling skills, an uncanny ability to read' a game and excellent leadership qualities.

He first played under the watchful eye of teacher Mr Byron at Rivington Road school, just a drop-kick from his Mulberry Avenue home and the Saints' ground. A town and county choice at schoolboy level, Eric trained with Saints' B team but, remarkably in view of his later achievements, was not offered professional terms by the Knowsley Road board.

However, Saints' loss was Wigan's gain.

Central Park directors, Bill Gore and Billy Woods snapped him up after he starred in a Rugby Union game at Murrayfield in 1955 while on National Service in the Royal Artillery and Ashton went on to play 497 games for the Cherry and Whites, scoring 231 tries and kicking 448 goals before a well-earned retirement in 1969.

His testimonial match was a clash between Wigan-born and St Helens-born sides - including Eric - at Central Park on Whit Monday of that year.

During that golden age at Wigan, Eric forged a lethal right-wing partnership with fellow legend, Billy Boston, that is etched indelibly into Rugby League folklore.

Gentleman Ashton was sent off just once, against Leeds in 1961, following a difference of opinion with fearsome Farmer' Jack Fairbank, who also got the early-bath treatment.

Eric skippered Wigan in a record six Wembley finals, including against Saints in 1961 and 1966. And in the latter year he was awarded the MBE and had his best-selling life-story, Glory in the Centre Spot, published.

Following a coaching stint at Wigan, Eric then held a similar role at Leeds but returned to his St Helens roots in 1974 by accepting the coach's job at Knowsley Road.

Silverware was soon on Saints' sideboard, with the Championship lifted in 1975, while the Challenge Cup, Premiership and Floodlit Trophies were all won during the next season.

A Premiership encore arrived in 1977, followed by Wembley defeat versus Leeds 12 months later, prior to Eric handing the coaching reins to Kel Coslett in 1979-80.

An invitation to join Saints' board came in 1982 and Eric, who supported the team in boyhood, became a much-respected ambassador both for the club and Rugby League in general.

He occupied the hot seat' of club chairman from 1993-7, twice leading out the side in the Wembley conquests of Bradford, thus becoming the only man to captain, coach and be chairman of Challenge Cup-winning teams.

He was also at the helm when the inaugural Super League title was lifted in 1996.

On a representative note, Ashton earned 26 test caps - 15 as captain - between 1957 and 1963. He was a member of the Ashes-winning squads in Australia in 1958 and 1962, the latter as the first St Helens-born skipper. He also figured in the Great Britain World Cup party of 1957 and was skipper of the winning 1960 squad.

Eric was later honoured with life membership of the Rugby Football League and presidency of Saints and was bestowed with the code's ultimate Hall of Fame accolade in 2005.

Former Wigan and Great Britain teammate, Billy Boston summed the feelings of many when he said: "Great player, centre and gentleman, what more can one say about Eric Ashton? He began as a winger but it was a lucky day for me, Wigan and Great Britain when Ash' moved into the centre spot."

On a personal note, I feel privileged to have known Eric since his days at Rivvy Road school, and in more recent times at Sprayhurst Social Club where the oval ball debating society had the pleasure of his company on Thursday evenings.

The funeral will take place at St Luke's Church, Knowsley Road, at 11am on Wednesday, April 2. Family flowers only are requested. Donations, if desired, to Willowbrook Hospice c/o the family.