Almanac Rugby League – Rozzy, Coops and Bev … Easts’ Loss was Britain’s Gain

With the new NRL season literally just around the corner, one of the strongest clubs will be, as ever, the Sydney Roosters, formerly before their re-branding, the Eastern Suburbs District Rugby Football League Club, one of the foundation clubs of the NSW Rugby League in 1908. This sporting history piece focuses on three of the club’s greatest wing three-quarters who all had atypical careers with Eastern Suburbs.

The peculiar thread that connects these three is that their reputation as undeniably great players is based not on their respective careers with Eastern Suburbs, nor really on their performances at international level for their country, but on their prolonged, stellar careers in the English Rugby League (ERL) championship. They all began their senior first-class careers in League playing for Easts but circumstance, chance or opportunity dictated that Easts (and Australia) were to be denied the full fruits of the greatness of their 3/4 wing play.

The first of the three Easts flankers of yesteryear, Albert Rosenfeld, played in the inaugural 1908 season in Australia, starring for Easts alongside the pioneering League ‘immortal’ Dally Messenger). Rosenfeld played as a five-eighth, winning selection in the first ever Australian test against New Zealand. Although he initially wasn’t selected for the First Kangaroo squad to tour Britain at the end of the season (1908-09), after a public outcry he was added to the touring party. On the tour Rosenfeld, playing ‘stand-off’ (the English term for 5/8) against the powerful Great Britain team, caught the eye of several Northern Union (ERL) professional clubs. At the end of the Kangaroo tour Huddersfield secured the Easts star’s signature. Huddersfield turned the 166cm Australian 5/8 into a winger and the rest was British rugby league history.

Playing for Huddersfield Rosenfeld rewrote the record books. In the 1911-12 season he scored 78 tries, a new record for the ERL. Two seasons later, he broke his own record with 80 tries in the season – which remains the all-time record in first-class rugby league, never matched! In 287 games with Huddersfield (in a career interrupted for three seasons by war service for Britain in the Great War) Rosenfeld scored a prolific 366 tries! As his career tapered off he played a couple of seasons with Wakefield Trinity and Bradford Northern.

After his professional commitment to Huddersfield and the Northern Union, ‘Rozzy’ Rosenfeld played only four more games for the Eastern Suburbs Tri-colours in the early part of the 1909 season (overall for Easts he played about a dozen games and scored just the 6 tries and kicked 12 goals). Similarly, in his international career the speedy winger played only the four tests for Australia in 1908-09 and never again.

Rosenfeld married a local girl and stayed on in Huddersfield after his retirement from the game. When he died in 1970 he was the last surviving Kangaroo tourist from the 1908 pioneers. As well as his inclusion in both the British Rugby League Hall of Fame and the ‘100 Greatest Australian Players’ list, Rosenfeld, an Orthodox Jew, was accepted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Lionel Cooper, the second of the trio, emerged towards the end of WWII, originally coming from western NSW. Eastern Suburbs stalwart Ray Stehr spotted Cooper playing Australian Rules in Darwin during the war. After a handful of games for Easts he was selected for his state (6 tries in 4 games) and helped Easts win the 1945 Sydney premiership. He had a super year in 1946, representing Australia with distinction, 2 tries (80 to 90 yard efforts) in 3 tests against the powerful, touring Great Britain Lions and capping it off by being chosen as NSW Official Player of the Year.

In 1946-47 Cooper was lured to play professionally in England, and like Rosenfeld joined Huddersfield over bids from Leeds. In nine seasons and 333 games for the East Yorkshire club, the physically imposing, dynamic Cooper scored 420 tries on the wing or centre. A sensation in England, his achievements include 71 tries in the 1951-52 season and a all-time record 10 in one match against Keighley!

As with Rosenfeld before him, Cooper never played for Easts or Australia again after signing up with the English club. His accomplishments in the ERL sponsored internationals, playing for Other Nationalities and the British Empire teams against Great Britain and New Zealand (17 tries in 17 matches), however give testimony to how great a loss to Australia the star winger was after completing just two seasons in Australia.

Gregory’s Guide to Rugby League (1965) described the West Wyalong born Cooper as “a bullocking, bruising winger … a great finisher of back-line movements … incorporating a hip-bumping technique to brush off defenders”. After he finished with Huddersfield Cooper returned to Australia but could not be enticed to play again in the NSWRFL and retired.

Brian Bevan is the most curious member of this trio of Australian wing exiles. Waverley born Bevan left Sydney rugby league and Australia precisely because he was not successful! A contemporary of Cooper’s, he was an Eastern Suburbs junior who unlike Cooper struggled to establish himself at the club. Bevan spent four years at Easts rarely able to get out of second grade. During this time he managed only eight games in the top grade and remarkably, given his later English triumphs, no tries.

Bevan enlisted in the RAN during the war and his ship was sent to the UK for refitting. Whilst there, through the intermediary efforts of another former Easts’ winger in the UK (Bill Shankland), he approached first the Leeds Club, then Huntslet, for a trial. However he was summarily rebuffed by both clubs who thought the young Australian too frail-looking to survive in the rough and tough English competition.

Shankland advised Bevan to try Warrington. Whatever reservations they might have had about the frail Aussie winger, Warrington gave him a trial, playing him in a club reserves game. Impressed by his try-scoring performance, the South Lancashire club put him in the first XIII the next game and signed him up. In his first full season Bevan was an instant sensation, notching up 48 tries for the Wires (as Warrington rugby footballers are known), 14 to the better of any other player in the ERL comp that season.

Bevan continued the machine-like try-scoring exploits for the rest of his career with Warrington, consistency, sheer, relentless accumulation of three-pointers was his trademark feature. Five times he topped the championship try list, scoring a hat-trick (three tries) or more 98 times in his career (seven in a game twice!) With Bevan in its armoury Warrington was a very successful team in the period, both in terms of trophies won and in his crowd-pulling capacity for the club. Bevan in the starting lineup alone, could pull an extra 5,000 to a game (and not just home games) [‘Brian Eyrl Bevan: The greatest try scorer ever’, www.odeauk.fsnet.co.uk].

In all Bevan scored 796 career tries (the nearest to him all-time, Wigan and GB great Billy Boston, is a distant 534 tries). For Warrington he scored a staggering 740 tries in 620 games (a shade under 1.2 tries per game!), plus 26 tries in 16 international games (Other Nationalities). His professional rugby career ended in 1964 after two seasons with lowly Blackpool Borough as player-coach.

What made this slightly built, bald, toothless, chain-smoking winger such a phenomenon? Fellow Australian and ERL professional second rower Arthur Clues described him as “a skeleton in braces”, a physique that looked totally out of place on a football field, but Bev proved that looks can be deceiving. Firstly there was his sheer, blistering speed, he possessed an instant, rapid acceleration … he had been NSW sprint champion back home in Sydney. Allied to this amazing change of pace was a huge side-step off either foot without losing speed. The other weapon in Bevan’s attacking arsenal was his dazzling swerve, described as “a body wobble which totally debilitated (the opposition) … (Bevan was possessed seemingly of) swivel hips” [R Gate, The Great Bev: The Rugby League Career of Brian Bevan, F Keating, ‘Bald, toothless chainsmoker who staggered rugby league, The Guardian, 20 November 2000].

Another out-of-the-ordinary quality of Bevan’s was his ability to take intercepts, the “Wiz from Oz” possessed uncanny anticipation to grab passes intended for his opposite centre or wing and his extreme speed usually did the rest! Bevan’s physical appearance was certainly deceptive, slight of build but he was very wiry and undertook great preparations before a match, always spending an inordinate amount of time carefully and heavily bandaging his wonky-looking knees.

One additional factor distinguished Bevan from his peers and contributed vitally to his success. Bevan’s unique offensive style of play revolutionised the way wing 3/4s played. Before the Warrington “Wing Wiz” came along, wingers tended to stay fixed on the wing, running a line parallel to the sideline. Their positional role clearly defined as finishing off a backline movement, receiving the ball and making a hell-for-leather dash for the corner post. Bevan’s style was completely instinctual and unorthodox, he would often receive the ball and if well-marked on the flank he would suddenly turn at right angles and make a characteristic diagonal run for the centre of the field to avoid defenders. The wandering wingman would often roam all over the field looking for an opening in the defence, and when he spotted one, he would turn on his incredible speed, usually leaving a bewildered trail of defenders in his wake. Warrington V Wigan (Ward Cup, 1948) typifies this, weaving from one side of the field to the other, beating over half the opposing team by himself and making them look complete fools in a zig-zagging 125 yard run to the tryline [Gate, Keating].

Bevan was capable of tackling but he wasn’t much of a contributor in this area and far from the strongest defender in League for that matter. This didn’t overly concern the club chiefs at Wilderspool (the Wires’ headquarters). They correctly reasoned that the wing king was not there to wear himself out defending, but was in the team for the attacking edge it gave them, they were happy for him to keep producing those spectacular, often match-winning tries he was famous for. Recognition by his own country of the magnitude of Bevan’s English achievements was shown in his 2008 selection as one of the ‘100 Greatest Australian Players’.

Three Easts’ match-winning wingers, absolute legends of the game in Britain, but all lost to the club in Bondi, Sydney, that gave them their start … leaving Easts’ fans and Australian RL supporters generally to ponder what might have been.

About Pagan Maven

Outside left for Gorky Park Cadres U12s; Kremlin Gremlins U14s - Stalinovskiy Vodka Juvenile League. Ricky Lenin B & F medal winner 1966-67. Mascot for Felchester Rovers senior side in the Q-League. Bolshevikskaya Primary School cadet sports journalist covering the USSR V Australia international amateur boxing tournament "From Russia With Glove" (Melbourne 1963). Emeritus Left Winger, Trotskiy Collectivisation Colts.

Comments

  1. Scott McIntyre says

    Thanks for this comprehensive, informative and most interesting piece.

    I find the history of rugby league before the advent of fulltime professionalism incredibly interesting. For a long time there, the fact that players were permitted to be paid to play, intertwined with the fact that there wasn’t necessarily the money in Sydney rugby league to make it the first and only choice for good players, made for some very quirky and interesting history. I love to hear stories of players making it big in Sydney and then going to the bush to captain-coach at the height of their powers, or of blokes playing for Australia from the bush – all that sort of stuff. The advent of full-time footy has obviously been very beneficial for the players, but it has taken a lot of the romance and the variety out of it for the history buffs of the game.

  2. always liked the Bevo stories due to the name connection

    When my league hero Terry Fahey was stampeding over fullbacks in the mid-70s, he was often compared to Bevan. high praise, well deserved.

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