Inspiration just occasionally; perspiration by the bucketful! One of the honest-to-goodness never-let-you-down breed, Bill Hopper slogged away match after match, week in, week out, and still came up for more. So sing as they may on The Boulevard, Old Faithful was not a Hull man!
Born at Maesteg on 18th November 1925, and grounded in rugby basics at Bryncethin Elementary School, he barely had time to settle in as a 17 -year-old with Mid-Glamorgan R. U. Club before military service intervened. However, he joined Maesteg on his return and never looked back, eight appearances for Glamorgan opening the door to selection for each of the Welsh Trials during 1947-48, with Warrington, the R.L. Champions, hot on his trail.
The offer was firm, and exceedingly attractive, whereas the odds stacked against his finding favour with the ‘Big Five’ were still considerable, so off he went to Wilderspool in September 1948, to be thoroughly schooled in the mysteries of the thirteen-aside game, before making a storming debut in the 2nd row versus Leeds at Headingley on 28th December, one burst in particular laying on a try for Fleming. Warrington took the points comfortably, making light of the absence of Johnson, Featherstone and Pimblett, but Bill it was who stole the thunder with a display which impressed a crowd of 32,000 and was to have a big bearing on his future.
Put out of action only a matter of weeks later by a fractured ankle, and plagued after recovery by a spate of niggling injuries that took toll of his form and confidence, he was drifting in the doldrums of self-doubt when the Headingley management crossed the Pennines on 5th January 1950, with the Challenge Cup in mind, to sign the player who had captured their imagination some twelve months earlier.
Taking a little time to establish himself as he vied with Dennis Murphy for a place in the 2nd row alongside Arthur Clues, Bill was smitten like the rest with a severe bout of Wembleyitis when the men in blue and amber put paid to Leigh, Wigan and Wakefield Trinity, with Warrington of all people lined up for the Odsal Semi-Final. Only eighty minutes away! He could almost see those famous twin towers now! All the more daunting, therefore, was his special assignment arising from Bob McMaster’s suspension, for a switch to the unaccustomed role of blind-side prop brought him directly up against the might of the redoubtable Jim Featherstone, who had already been selected for the forthcoming Tour. Suffice it to say that tourist or no, and despite the Loiners going down by 16 points to 4, the engineer from Maesteg stuck to his guns and came out of his ordeal by fire with sufficient credit to make the No 10 jersey more or less his own during the rest of his time at Headingley.
Nevertheless, well as he played over the next five seasons, there was to be scant reward in the way of honours and more than enough disappointments, with merely a couple of Yorkshire League Championships and a solitary appearance for Wales versus Other Nationalities, to compensate for two more Semi-Final reverses in the Challenge Cup, the villains of the piece being Barrow in 1951 and Warrington in 1954.
Came Harry Street, however, in December 1955, came the spur to even greater endeavour and a splendid eighteen-month stint, culminating in that marvellous Cup run in 1957. Wigan, in a Headingley furnace of white-hot intensity. Warrington, in a blizzard. Halifax at Thrum Hall in the 3rd Round, and incontrovertible proof that there is life after death. Semi-final agony at Odsal, with Whitehaven cynically exploiting play-the-ball as a time-consuming abacus of repetitive monotony … then Wembley at last, at the fourth time of asking. Nor, despite Barrow’s last-minute plea, was there ‘any just cause or impediment’ to mar the great day. Challenge Cup winners and Yorkshire League Champions! What a climax to his career for the ever dependable 31-year-old who had played in every round.
Yet, for all the magic of Wembley, those who thronged the Headingley terraces in the Fifties will always associate his finest hour with a day in March 1954, when Leigh were the visitors in the 2nd Round of the Cup. Down by 2 points to 3 at the interval, and with a near gale to face in the second half, the Loiners looked to be doomed, but Bill would have none of it. Pack leader for the day, in the absence of the suspended Clues, he strode the scene like a colossus, to give one of the finest prop-forward displays ever witnessed on the ground, the whole team responding with such enthusiasm that the harassed Lancastrians conceded ten points without reply. Never was a standing ovation more spontaneous, never a player more modest than he, with his sodden jersey clinging to his back and his chin dripping perspiration, yet still concerned: ‘I hope it was all right, man. I did my best.’ When did he ever do any other! One of the game’s unsung heroes, he retired during 1957-58, following a brief spell with Dewsbury. Some will remember him as Ernie; others, as Bill.
Few are likely to forget the No 10 from Maesteg!