Born on 12th May 1934, and blessed with not only the attributes, legs and all, of a natural No 9, but also the flair and the sensitively creative hands of a middle back, Bernard Prior came into his own as the unchallenged prince of schoolboy hookers whilst attending Hunslet St Joseph’s, his selection for Hunslet Schools’ R.L. and Yorkshire County being virtually automatic. Nor had there ever been any reason to doubt that inevitably one day he would graduate from Hunslet Supporters to don with pride the ‘myrtle, white and flame’ of Parkside. All the more unexpected, therefore, was his sudden defection and unsolicited trek across the city in 1951, to ask whether he could join the Headingley ‘nursery’.
Wisely content to bide his time in ‘A’ team football until such time as maturing physique matched his exceptional technique, promotion to the status of ‘1st team regular’ was further delayed by a cartilage operation in August 1955. Came September 1956, however, and he was taking over from Arthur Wood with all the cool assurance of a hooker par excellence, who was a master of his craft in the tight, with a strike-rate second to none, yet had so much extra to contribute in his own quiet way in the loose, dependable textbook tackling, the telling pass, to set men free, the occasional dummy, balanced, unhurried running, positional sense, ability to read the game like a threequarter , intelligent backing-up, with a ready awareness (all too rare in a forward!) of when to drop out of the line and leave it to the backs.
Rarely in the limelight, yet rarely out of the picture, what memories he must treasure, and rightly so, of that first season in particular; his second-half try, converted by Jimmy Dunn, to set the seal on a thrilling victory over Ken Kearney’s Australians, the nerve-racking Semi-Final at Odsal, when his two-to- one domination of the scrums induced Whitehaven to persist with sterile play-the-ball tactics ad nauseam, until Joe Anderson intervened to set up Jeff Stevenson’s dramatic, match-winning drop-goal. Then Wembley, on the eve of his 23rd birthday, and the measured pass, timed to perfection, that sent fullback Pat Quinn diving over to open the account against Barrow; the final whistle, that brought tears of joy and a winner’s medal to set alongside one for the Yorkshire League Championship. Some birthday!
Would that the remainder of his career at Headingley had been equally rewarding. As it was, his withdrawal on account of injury from the 1958 Yorkshire Cup Final gave an opportunity for 19-year-old Barry Simms to press his claims for recognition with an impressive all-round performance against Wakefield Trinity at Odsal. Not that Bernard’s place was in immediate peril, his consistently good form finding favour with the Yorkshire selectors for the match versus Cumberland at Hull in September 1959. Even so, bravely as the management strove to accommodate both players during the opening months of the 1960-61 campaign, once the experiment of giving Simms an extended run at loose-forward had ended in comparative failure, he was given first claim on the coveted No 9 jersey from mid-October onwards, no doubt because of his whirlwind aggression and devastating bursts from acting halfback at play-the-ball. Be that as it may, and whatever the pros and cons, suffice it to say that some three months later, when loose-forward Brian Shaw was signed in a sensational £13,500 deal, Hunslet were only too happy to welcome back their ‘prodigal son’ in part-exchange.
Nor was their faith misplaced, for during his five-year stint (149 appearances) Bernard played no small part in helping to generate a long-awaited Parkside revival: in 1962, a Yorkshire Cup Final win over Hull Kingston Rovers; in 1963, the Division Two championship; honour in defeat in two Finals in 1965, the first at Wembley in the classic end-to-end clash with Wigan, and the second as Yorkshire Cup runners-up to Bradford Northern. Then, in March 1966, and certainly not before time, came international recognition with a Test appearance against France at Central Park
And how he responded at the age of 32, when Trinity dialled PRIOR for possession, making 27 appearances in Belle Vue colours, and heeling so consistently in the 1967 Championship Final replay that St Helens were humbled by 21 points to 9 at Station Road, following the 7 – 7 draw at Headingley.
Bernard Prior: likeably modest and amenable; hooker extraordinaire! I well remember a comment from renowned Great Britain hooker, Joe Egan, during an ‘A’ team match at Leigh: ‘You’ve got a good ‘un there, Ken!’ And so we had. They don’t come any better!