FAMILY, friends, former colleagues and the rugby league fraternity packed St Luke’s Church to the rafters yesterday to say farewell to former Saints packman, schoolmaster and gentleman John Mantle.

The popular Welshman, who moved north in 1965 and made St Helens his home, passed away a fortnight ago aged 76 after a long illness.

Initial tributes this past fortnight have focussed on John Mantle the rugby player; understandable given his prowess in the oval ball game which yielded international caps in both codes and a drawer full of League Championship and Challenge Cup medals.

However, Friday’s service underlined how important family was to the man who his daughter Jeanine described at the beginning of the eulogy as “the most special husband, dad, father-in- law, brother and grandad ever”.

The service was fittingly held a St Luke’s - a drop kick away from the hallowed Knowsley Road turf he graced in the 60s and 70s – but also the church he married Lorraine in August 1966.

Telling the story Jeanine explained: “It was a match day, and when they were outside having their wedding photos when a Saints fan walking past shouted out ‘Never mind about this, Mantle, get yer boots on’.

“But he didn’t do that they and he and my mum had 52 years of devotion and unconditional love.

“And me and my brother Kelvin grew up know how well-loved we were.”

John influenced many lives as a schoolmaster at Grange Park, Rivington Road, Selwyn Jones and finally Briars Hey, where he earned the respect of those he taught and there were plenty of former pupils among the congregation.

And after such a long career in rugby league, which saw him play 435 games in the red vee - including 19 major finals, there was understandably a huge turnout from past players, opponents and team-mates and supporters who cheered him from the terraces.

Saints chairman Eamonn McManus and CEO Mike Rush, former skippers Kel Coslett, Eric Chisnall, Ray French, George Nicholls, Harry Pinner, Chris Joynt and Chris Arkwright and too many past players to mention all paid their respects to one of the giants of the game.

Rugby league was a big part of his life – and he was 40 when he finally hung up his boots with Cardiff Blue Dragons in 1982 – but his contribution went beyond what he did on the sports field.

Jeanine said: “He made an impact on so many lives – he was a special person.

“My dad to many was the rugby player that you saw on the field, a strong man who achieved so many awards during his career.

“To us he was a special person who cared for everyone around him, always willing to help and nothing was too much trouble.

“He was a devoted family man who loved his family to the ends of the earth and back.

“My dad’s passing is going to leave a really big hole in our lives but there are so many memories to hold on to, so many qualities that he has nurtured into us by his example.”

John Mantle was a proud Welshman, who put down lasting roots in the town that adopted him as one of our own, and it was fitting that the final hymn was Bread of Heaven, but was carried out to strains of Oh When the Saints.

All those gathered knowing that they were not only saying farewell to a top rugby league player, but an intelligent, thoughtful gentleman who cared for his community and the people around him.