FLASHBACK FRIDAY: MEL COOKE’S BRILLIANT TEST DEBUT
With Hornby Panthers marking their Club Day tomorrow, this week’s Flashback Friday goes back 60 years to the Test debut of the player recognised by most as the Hornby’s – and indeed Canterbury’s – greatest rugby league product, the mercurial loose forward Melville Lance Cooke.
A teenage debutant for Canterbury at halfback in 1953, Mel Cooke gravitated towards the back of the scrum and won his maiden Kiwis call-up for the 1959 tour of Australia. The 25-year-old was forced to bide his time as a second-stringer for most of the tour, but after New Zealand lost the first two Tests 9-8 and 38-10, he was named in the starting pack for the third encounter at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
Cooke’s selection was not without controversy, however, replacing Rex Percy – who scored a Kiwis record six tries in a tour match against Central Queensland – at lock. Percy was reportedly due to marry Sydney woman Annette Baggot on the evening of the Test, and the Kiwis’ management was prompted to make a statement that Percy’s omission had nothing to do with his impending nuptials.
But Cooke more than justified his promotion, producing one of the great Kiwi Test debuts.
Playing opposite fellow international rookie and future Immortal John Raper, who was just 20, Cooke scored a try and was named man of the match (for which he received an electric razor from a Sydney radio station) as the tourists carved out an emphatic 28-12 victory in front of a 31,269-strong SCG crowd.
Former Canterbury hooker Jock Butterfield was also among the try-scorers for New Zealand, while Canterbury halfback Keith Roberts also played a key role in the victory. Reg Gasnier scored both tries for an Australian side that included fellow all-time greats Keith Barnes, Norm Provan, Harry Wells and Noel Kelly.
It would be the first of 22 consecutive Test appearances for the brilliant Cooke, all while playing for Hornby, which won three premierships during Cooke’s playing tenure (he also led the club to national tournament finals in 1962 and ’64, and coached Hornby to Thacker Shield glory in the latter year). He captained his country from 1962-64 before accepting a player-coach position in Canberra.
After retiring as player, Cooke returned to Hornby and coached the club to its 1969 grand final triumph over Marist-Western Suburbs. He had another stint as coach in 1978.
Cooke was as one of NZRL’s inaugural Legends of League in 1995, while he was chosen at lock in the New Zealand Team of the Century in 2007 – one of only two former Canterbury players included, with Butterfield.
Cooke passed away in Christchurch in 2013, aged 79, but he continues to be honoured by Canterbury Rugby League with the presentation of the Mel Cooke Trophy to the player of the match in the men’s premiership grand final each year.
MEL COOKE – NEW ZEALAND RECORD
New Zealand (1959-64)
22 Tests – 5 tries (15 points)
31 tour matches – 16 tries (48 points)
Sources: John Coffey; The Kiwis: 100 Years of International Rugby League (2007)
John Coffey; Canterbury XIII (1987)