Jewish community were wonderful, says rugby legend Wilf

DAVID SAFFER meets a sporting legend whose amazing skills took him into the record books

WILF ROSENBERG is a sporting legend in rugby union and rugby league.

Born in Cape Town, Wilf developed his rugby skills in Australia before making his mark for South Africa prior to starring at Leeds RL.

Rosenberg met adoring Leeds fans recently as the club held 50th anniversary celebrations since winning its first championship title in 1961.

Now living in Beth Protea, Herzlia, near elder daughter Nicola, Wilf - who turns 77 tomorrow - was dubbed the "flying dentist" as he scored spectacular tries.

Renowned for his trademark swallow dive in the corner, this top sportsman has fond memories of a memorable career in his heyday.

"I began playing rugby union when I was six and scored three or four tries regularly for Sydney Grammar School," he recalled.

"One day our coach asked former Wallabies full back Ron Rankin to watch us play. Ron said I'd play for Australia."

But Wilf was not destined to pull on the Aussie shirt as his family returned to South Africa.

"Sydney Grammar was upset and offered to put me in a boarding school, but my mother said, 'No way, my son comes with me'," he said.

Wilf developed his threequarter play at Jeppe High School, Johannesburg, then played for his province, Transvaal, at under-19 and senior level.

"We had a great schoolboy back line," he said. "Playing centre, I'd swing away outside my opponent.

"When I got the ball I'd dummy the full back and be away. Opponents used to shout, 'Stop Rosenberg'."

International recognition came when the British Lions faced the Springboks, unbeaten at home for 50 years in a series, in 1955.

Wilf was not selected for the opening Test when Jack van der Schyff missed a last-minute penalty, resulting in a 23-22 defeat.

"The Lions had a great back line with Johnny Williams, Cliff Morgan, Phil Davies, Jeff Butterfield and Anthony O'Reilly," Wilf recalled.

"There was uproar that I was not in the team and a feeling the Springboks would have won if I'd played.

"Just past midnight, the team for the second Test at Newlands, Cape Town, was announced on the radio. It was an incredible moment when I heard my name.

"Next day, the Page One headline in the main newspaper, the Sunday Times, read 'Rosenberg - Fifth Jewish Rugby Springbok'.

"The editor was Jewish. He told me later, 'I'm writing the main story - after all it's a Jewish boy'."

Scoring on his Boks début, the game is also notable as Wilf won the hearts of segregated black spectators.

Running out to play, Wilf waved when they cheered him.

In the world of apartheid, he was an instant hero.

Ecstatic fans jumped the fence when he scored before they were restrained by police.

"I think about my début often," he recalled.

"The game was five minutes old and I sensed the Lions strategy: 'We'll target Rosenberg, the smallest guy on the field'.

"Davies was a giant, called for the ball and set off. I took off and hit him. Bang! The crowd erupted.

"Our plan was to keep it from the backs and attack in the second half. I cut right through the Lions back line for my try. Fans still say it's one of the best they've seen.

"I was not a selfish player so when Roy Drybrugh came running up on the outside screaming 'Rosie', I slipped him the ball to score.

"We won 25-9 and at full time the Lions lined up and started clapping. I wondered why and then the Springboks stepped back and clapped. It was for me."

In a memorable series, the Boks won the last Test to square the series 2-2.

The fifth Jew to represent the Springboks, Wilf followed 30s stars Morris Zimerman and Louis Babrow.

He went on to tour Australia and faced New Zealand and France.

After missing the opening two Tests against the All Blacks due to a torn hamstring, Wilf lined up for the Christchurch Test after doctors injected his thigh.

"I scored a try from 75 yards," he recalled. "The crowd are sporting and claimed it was the greatest they'd seen. It was also all the press wanted to talk about."

Wilf was unable to play in the final Test as the Boks lost the series, dubbed the "hamstring tour", 3-1.

He ended his Springboks career against the French. "I tucked up the two centres," he recalled.

Throughout his Boks career, Wilf never experienced antisemitism.

Regarding apartheid, he noted that there was no excuse for it but hated politics and steered clear of the subject.

"I was a Jewish boy doing his best," he said.

And this Jewish boy is immortalised alongside other Jewish players in a painting called the Springbok Minyan.

"There are 11 copies, one for the artist and one for each Jew who played for South Africa," he said. "I'm in the top right-hand corner. My elder daughter, Nicola, who lives in Israel, has it over her fireplace.

"Everyone can see her daddy and she's very proud of it."

Depicting 10 Boks, the list includes Joel Stransky, of Invictus fame, as he starred in the 1995 World Cup triumph,

Wilf is proud of the Springboks' two World Cup triumphs and describes Invictus, which tells how the team united the Rainbow Nation after years of apartheid, as "very realistic".

And just as Stransky has a place in history, so does Rosenberg, head back after dummying an opponent before slicing through and swallow diving over the try line.

Wilf's stock had grown and soon he was following fellow Boks Tom van Vollenhoven and Jan Prinsloo to rugby league. But he was not bound for St Helens where the duo impressed.

Leeds RL scouts had approached Wilf's father, Rabbi Philip Rosenberg, when he visited his brother in London.

Being a rabbi's son, his father had been criticised back home in South Africa.

Asked how he could preach on the Sabbath when his son played the same day, the Orthodox rabbi noted his son's "God-given talent", reasoning, "Who am I to argue with God?"

Wilf and his wife Elinor were on honeymoon in Durban when a telegram arrived from his father telling him to pack his bags for Leeds in a record £6,000 deal.

"I didn't know where Leeds was but knew about rugby league," Wilf recalled. "It was a shock but part of the deal was that Elinor could return to see her parents every three months.

"When I arrived there was a message from Henry Gould, of Headrow Clothes, and a chauffeur waiting.

"Mr Gould introduced himself and lawyer Jack Levy. He then told his tailor to measure me for five suits."

Away from rugby league, Wilf switched from medicine to study dentistry at Leeds University.

On the field, he initially played centre before moving to the wing with devastating effect. He also knew that Leeds RL had made a sound investment for other reasons.

"The club were not shmocks," he said. "They knew a Jewish boy could draw the crowds and on my first appearance the number of Jewish fans was incredible.

"The Jewish community were fantastic. We were often asked for Friday night supper and it is something I've never forgotten."

In a memorable three- year stay at Headingley, Wilf recorded a record 44 tries in the 1960/61 campaign as Leeds RL landed the top domestic honour.

"The club had never won the title but suddenly we were winning every game," he recalled. "Something special was happening. Lewis Jones was the key player with Kenny Thornett and Derek Hallas."

Wilf scored twice in a play-off against St Helens.

"Lewis was responsible for the first when he went past the fly-half like a dose of salts," he said. "I screamed, 'Lewis' and he flipped the ball.

"I took it and dived for the line with Mick Sullivan hanging on to my legs.

"For the second, Lewis in his genius way swung the ball quickly to Derek who flipped me the ball. I got past the St Helens cover but still had full back Austin Rhodes in front of me.

"Austin was a big, strong guy and I had nowhere to go so decided I'd go straight at him. Next thing, I had the ball down, the referee scores it and it won the game."

The try, secured a new record - but would be his last for the club. As for the final against Warrington at Odsal Stadium when Leeds claimed a historic 25-10 win, Wilf noted: "I remember the massive crowd and brilliance of the Leeds side. We won comfortably."

Sustaining a broken jaw early on the following season, he was not keen to regain form in the A-team and joined Hull where he ended his playing days.

Looking back on his Headingley days, he added: "Playing for Leeds was a tremendous experience.

"Jewish people came out in droves to see me, a Jewish boy, playing rugby league. It was wonderful."

Returning to South Africa, Wilf and his wife brought up their three children while he built a dental practice and a burgeoning sports career.

A rugby columnist for South Africa's Sunday Times, Wilf was a journalist for overseas newspapers and magazines, a commentator for the South African Broadcasting Company and hosted Wilf's Whistle.

He also helped promote boxing, which is when he got to meet President Nelson Mandela.

"Mandela was a mad keen rugby and boxing fan," he recalled. "We always had ringside seats for him and his staff, but could not start until he arrived.

"He invited me to his house for tea and we spoke about his days on Robben Island where he spent 27 years in exile.

"'Wilf, you must learn forgiveness,' he told me - an amazing statement after the way he had been treated. Mandela had learned tolerance and forgiveness. He is an amazing person."

Wilf, whose wife died in 1989, made aliyah two decades on to live near his daughter, Nicola, of Modi'in. Wilf's other children live in Australia.

His sporting status was recognised when he was inducted into the International Jewish Hall of Fame in 1994.

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph