Born in Cape Town in 1934, but barely out of rompers before his parents emigrated to Australia, Wilf Rosenberg certainly didn’t suffer on that account, the grounding given at Sydney Grammar School bearing rich fruit at Johannesburg’s Jeppe High School when the family returned to South Africa in 1948. Indeed, by the time he was in his late teens the world of opportunity had become his oyster.
Maturing into a centre of pace and penetration with the Transvaal Under 19 side, he graduated to the Province’s Senior XV in 1953, and within a year was being pencilled in as an international prospect of exceptional merit. Nor did he fluff his chance when it came, selection for three Tests against the 1955 British Lions being followed by the Springbok tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1956, and the 2nd Test versus France in 1958, by which time he was happily reading Medicine at Wits University, and would possibly never even have considered a professional rugby career, had it not been for Van Vollenhoven and Prinsloo joining St Helens. As it was, the offer of a lucrative four-year contract, coupled with an assurance that he would be able to continue his studies at Leeds University, was far too tempting to refuse.
Acceptance in principle was simple; signing on the dotted line almost made Rugby League history! Unable to fly to England for a further fortnight, because of his impending marriage in Johannesburg, he granted powers of attorney to his father, who met Mr George Airey, the Leeds Chairman, in London, just a couple of days before the R.L. Cup deadline, to endorse the contract and sign the official Registration Form on his son’s behalf. Legal and above board, it all certainly was, but the Cup and Rules Committee wisely declined to create a precedent, ruling the form invalid.
Arriving with his bride in mid-February, and opting eventually for a four year course in Dentistry, Wilf took longer than anticipated to tune up and acclimatise, yet suddenly clicked into action in the very last match of the season, selling a classic dummy in his own ’25’, skating at speed over a midfield morass, and then accelerating round Pimblett, the Widnes full-back, to bring down the house with a sensationally spectacular dive for the touchdown.
The longer he played at centre, however, the more he looked like a winger. Moreover, whatever reservations he may have had initially after trial outings on the left flank, they were quickly dispelled in March 1960, when he teamed up on the right with Derek Hallas, a nine-match sequence yielding eleven tries of searing pace and unflinching resolution. Next season could not come soon enough!
Nor was it one that he is ever likely to forget! Six tries in August, seven in September, four more in October; by the end of the League programme the tally had reached 42. Where better to break Turnbull’s post-war Club record than at Headingley in the Championship Semi-Final against St Helens? Where, indeed! A perfectly timed pass from Dennis Goodwin, a dive for the corner, and the record was his, albeit with precious little time to draw breath, let alone celebrate, as the battle ebbed and flowed. And then, just fifteen minutes from time, even as the beleaguered Loiners were clinging on grimly to their 8-4 lead, came a moment of glory to cherish for the rest of his days. The breakout was sudden, slick passing between Barry Simms, Colin Evans and Derek Hallas putting him in possession some forty yards out. Mick Sullivan turned from challenging Hallas to find his quarry beyond pursuit, the covering Cliff Watson lunged in vain, full-back Austin Rhodes, guarding the touchline route, went for the push rather than a tackle and could only gape in disbelief as ‘The Flying Dentist’ scorched past, to touch down amid scenes of indescribable emotion.
Regrettably, for all he played in the Final at Odsal, the try against St Helens was to be his last in Leeds colours. Extremely reluctant to regain form and confidence in the ‘A’ team, after sustaining a fractured jaw in an ultraphysical confrontation at Parkside, he was transferred to Hull at his own request, and shared a Boulevard debut versus Bramley on 9th December 1961 with the late, lamented Clive Sullivan. Some debut it was, too, with ‘Sully’ scoring three tries and Wilf two.
Bowing out at The Boulevard on 19th December 1964, when Leeds, ironically enough, were the victors by 23 points to 3, Wilf returned to South Africa to set up in practice as a Dental Surgeon, but has since been obliged to switch to Sports Promotion, following a stroke. Meanwhile, his post-war record of 44 tries remains intact.