SA Rugby Legend Wilf Rosenberg Passes Away In Israel
By David E. Kaplan
January 14th 2019 saw the passing of a legend Wilf Rosenberg at age 84 at Beth Protea, the retirement home for South Africans in Herzliya Israel.
It was only six months ago that I enjoyed a good laugh with this illustrious Jewish Hall of Famer when following a string of recent defeats by the South African ‘Springboks’, I suggested “they should recall you to the squad!”
The octogenarian, who immigrated to Israel in 2009, replied:
“Yes they should; they have nothing to lose.”
Considered one of the greatest South African rugby players of all time, Wilf was dubbed “the flying dentist,” because of the way this periodontist would fearlessly hurl himself over the try line. The son of a rabbi, he first made it big with the South African Springboks and later with the Leeds Rugby League Club where in 1960-61 he broke the single season scoring record with 48 tries – a record that still stands nearly five decades later!
The other record that still stands is that Wilf is the only Jew to have ever played Rugby League.
“Jewish people came out in droves to see me, a Jewish boy, playing rugby league. It was wonderful,” recalled Wilf.
This Jewish rarity on the English playing fields was not the case in South Africa where there have been ten Jewish rugby Springboks, amusingly referred to as the “Minyan” (the male quorum required for Jewish communal worship):
Morris Zimmerman, Louis Bradlow, Fred Smollan, Dr. Cecil Moss, Prof. Alan Menter, Joseph ‘Joe’ Kaminer, Ockey Geffin, Syd Nomis, Dr. Wilf Rosenberg and Joel Stransky.
So how did it happen that Wilf emerged an all-time rugby great that earned him an induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1994?
No Stopping Rosenberg
Born in Sea Point, Cape Town in 1934, Wilf spent his childhood in Australia where his father Phillip was the Chief Rabbi. It was there where he began to play rugby at the age of six and was quickly singled out as “an exceptional talent”. In my interview in 2012 with Wilf at Beth Protea, he recalled every last detail, how his coach at the Sydney Grammar School asked Ron Rankin, a decorated WWII airman and a fullback for the Wallabies, to visit the school and assess the best players. “Pointing to me – and I was 13 at the time – Rankin said, “Look after the boy. He will play for Australia”.”
That prophesy would never “play” out as Rabbi Rosenberg moved his family back to South Africa despite a “very upset” Sydney Grammar offering “to put me in a boarding school. My mother was adamant, ‘No way, my son comes with me‘.”
Returning to South Africa, the Rosenberg males were making a name for themselves in Jeppe, the father as the new rabbi and the son at Jeppe High School where he developed his “three-quarter play”. Soon Wilf played for his province, Transvaal, at under-19 and then senior level.
“We had a great schoolboy back line,” he recalled. “Playing centre, I’d swing away outside my opponent, then, when I got the ball I’d dummy the full back and be away. Opponents used to shout, ‘Stop Rosenberg‘.”
Literally, there was no stopping Rosenberg.
His big break came in 1955, when the legendary Danie Craven took a fateful decision and: Wilf was well on his way!
Don’t Cross Craven
A stellar player, coach, administrator and one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport, Dr. Danie Craven believed that South Africa would not win a test series without a Jew in the side. “He not only believed this passionately” said Wilf, but “put it to the test with me during the British Lions tour of South Africa in 1955,” the first Lion’s after the Second World War.
Following defeat by one point in the first test at Johannesburg by what rugby history buffs consider to be the best ever Lions team to visit South Africa with the likes of Cliff Morgan, Geoff Butterfield and Phil Davies – the ‘Boks’ needed to change things around. At the selectors meeting for the 2nd test, “Craven threatened to resign if they did not pick me.”
While Wilf at seventeen had been the youngest player in the Transvaal squad, “I was largely unknown, but they knew Craven and went with his instincts.”
It paid off.
“We beat them 25-8 at Newlands,” with Wilf scoring, as the newspapers at the time described – “a stunning 50 yard try.”
Scoring on his Springbok début, it was also noted in talk and print at the time, that “Wilf won the hearts of the segregated black spectators” who cheered him wildly when he ran out to play. Was it because he was a Jew, whose people like them had endured insufferable prejudice? Who knows? Wilf responded by directing his waving at the segregated section of the stadium making as well his début statement against Apartheid. He would later cherish his meeting with Nelson Mandela when ‘Madiba’ ascended from prison to president. “He invited me to his house for tea and we spoke about his days on Robben Island where he spent 27 years in exile.”
But here was the irony that did not escape Wilf who at the time was also promoting boxing in South Africa, a sport Mandela excelled in as a youth.
“Mandela was a mad keen boxing fan,” Wilf related and “we always had ringside seats for him and his staff.”
This was a far cry from when Wilf made his début for the Springboks in 1955 in Newlands and there were no preferential but segregated seats for South Africa’s Black majority. Acknowledging this inequality, Wilf waved to those who were honouring him.
“I think about my début often,” recalling how ecstatic fans jumped the fence when he scored before being restrained by police.
With the game only five minutes old:
“I sensed their strategy – to target me, the smallest guy on the field.”
As if it was yesterday, Wilf recalled in minute detail how Davies, a giant of a man, “called for the ball and set off. I took off and hit him. Bang! The crowd erupted.” The 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.”
The Springboks 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.”
By the Grace of god
And so began Rosenberg’s career as one of South Africa’s most beloved players, where he dazzled the crowds with his speed, fearlessness and signature stunts. With his head thrown back, he would outsmart his opponents with a “dummy” – a fake pass – by cutting through the backline and then diving over the try line to score. “It looked as if I was diving into nothing,” said Rosenberg, who was now well on his speedy way to earning the sobriquet – “The flying dentist.”
So how did the son of a rabbi (Jeppe synagogue) end up being allowed to play on Shabbat (Sabbath)?
The rabbi had a smart answer:
“My son is born with a G-d given talent. Who am I to argue with G-d.”
This rationale proved reminiscent of a test-winning decision by the great Louis Babrow during the victorious 1937 Springbok tour in New Zealand. The final test fell on Yom Kippur but Babrow decided to play, arguing that, with the time difference, he would have played the match before the Day of Atonement dawned in South Africa.
He displayed the same cerebral maneuverability as he did physically on the field!
Twice inducted into the Jewish Hall of Fame at Wingate, Wilf’s Springbok jersey, socks and boots are there on display. It was a proud moment when “I led the SA delegation, carrying the flag in the 1997 Maccabi Games.”
Wilf might have participated in the 1957 Maccabi Games had he been allowed to join Nachal (Fighting Pioneer Youth in Israel) in 1956. “Craven would not hear of it, insisting I could not let South Africa down with the upcoming 1956 tour to New Zealand.”
Taking on the All Blacks was “manageable” compared to “taking on Danie Craven; that was bordering on suicide – he nearly exploded when I suggested it.”
‘Tackling’ the Past
It was Wilf’s father, the rabbi, who clinched the deal for Wilf to go professional.
While on honeymoon in Durban with his first wife, Elinor, he received a telegram from “my Dad that read ‘Pack your bags. I’ve signed you up for Leeds’.” It transpired that while on a visit to England, agents for Leeds surprised Rabbi Rosenberg at the airport and offered his son an astounding ₤6,000 to sign with them – an offer Rabbi Rosenberg could not refuse.
“I knew about rugby league growing up in Australia, but I never had any dreams of playing the game until my father made it a fait accompli,” revealed Wilf.
Adding to the allure was the fact that Rosenberg would be the only Jew to play rugby league – a distinction that holds to this day.
“A Jew playing rugby league? Unheard of!” said Rosenberg.
While playing rugby league, Wilf was also in dental school, earning the highest marks and specializing in periodontics. As he remembered it, “I lived a very fast life, juggling my dental practice with rugby and a growing family.”
To the day of his passing, Wilf remains fondly remembered with fans recalling matches well over half a century ago as if they were yesterday.
Writes Hull FC Pete Allen a club that Wilf had played for as well: “He was my first real hero. I was eleven when he signed for the club and it was at the time when the great team of the 1950s had all-but fizzled out. It was a tough time for the club. He made his debut against Bramley and scored twice, featuring the amazing dive he did in the corner. From that day onwards, he’s been a lifelong hero of mine. He’d take off two or three yards away from the line and dive horizontally over. There were always a bunch of photographers hoping to catch one of his famous dives. It was his trademark.”
Another describing Wilf’s inimitable talent is Len Lillford who recalls as a schoolboy watching Wilf in a game against Huddersfield. “He ran along the right wing and just had their fullback, Frank Dyson, to beat. Wilf lobbed the ball over the fullback’s head and ran round him and caught the ball to score under the posts. This was one of the best tries I had ever seen.”
Lawyer Charles Abelsohn of Kfar Saba, Israel, who played rugby at Stellenbosch University and later refereed rugby in Israel, describes his meeting with Wilf at Beth Protea in 2014, as “the second time in history.” Their first “meeting” was “when I was 11 years old sitting in the stands at Newlands watching with my Dad that famous 1955 Springboks match against the British Lions.”
“Yes, that was when Craven took a chance with me,” said Wilf.
“No, it was not a chance; Craven recognised talent and you proved him 100% right,” said Charles.
Wilf’s glory days at Leeds was well recalled by Derek Hallas who said:
“Wilf was such a nice guy and the best winger I played with. For a man of his size, he was one of the bravest players I have played with and he was a terrific finisher.”
Small in stature, Wilf was a giant of a man on the field. “One of the bravest players” and “a terrific finisher”, Wilf crossed the line of his life at 84 remembered fondly by fans all over the world.