Named at lock in the New Zealand Team of the Century in 2007, Hornby’s Melville Lance Cooke is widely considered to be Canterbury’s greatest-ever rugby league product. The brilliant loose forward played 22 Tests from 1959-64 – all in succession – and captained the Kiwis in his last eight international appearances.
Cooke made his Canterbury debut as a teenaged halfback in 1953 but had moved into the back-row by the time he represented the province against Great Britain in 1958.
The 25-year-old’s maiden Kiwis call-up came for the 1959 tour of Australia. He made a two-try debut against Western NSW and scored in his next five appearances. Called into the Test team at lock for the third match against Australia, Cooke dotted down in New Zealand’s 28-12 victory at the SCG to return home with the record of eight tries in eight matches on tour.
Cooke featured in the 2-0 home series sweep of France and all three matches of the Kiwis’ World Cup campaign in 1960. Now established as one of New Zealand’s brightest stars, he played in both Tests at home against Australia in 1961 and in all six Tests on the subsequent tour of Britain and France. He scored a try in the series-opening win against Great Britain and the first two matches against France, among 19 tour appearances.
An outstanding cover defender with a reputation as punishing front-on tackler belying his 85kg frame, the ultra-fit Cooke was New Zealand’s answer to the great Johnny Raper, the future Immortal Australian lock who also broke into international football in 1959.
Cooke was installed as Test captain in 1962 for the two-match home series against Great Britain, leading the Kiwis to a shock 2-0 series win over the Lions with a pair of 19-point victories. He became Canterbury’s seventh New Zealand skipper and won the New Zealand Player of the Year award that season.
The inspirational, influential forward led the Kiwis to Australia in 1963. To counter an injury crisis in the halves, Cooke showed his versatility and skill by filling in at halfback in the third Test at the SCG. Cooke’s international career wound up when he led New Zealand to a 3-0 sweeping of the French tourists in 1964.
At provincial level, he captained Canterbury to a historic Rugby League Cup defeat of Auckland in 1962. He had also taken on the player-coach responsibilities at Hornby, steering the club to CRL championships in 1962 and ’64.
Cooke accepted a player-coach position in Canberra in 1965 and skippered the Monaro rep team against Great Britain in 1966. He also won selection for NSW Country.
Returning to Christchurch, Cooke coached Hornby to Grand Final success in 1969 and later coached Canterbury in 1971.
He was an inaugural NZRL Legends of League inductee in 1995 and was the only Canterbury junior chosen in the Kiwis Team of the Century 12 years later.
Mel Cooke, a giant of rugby league in Canterbury and New Zealand, died in 2013, aged 79. The player of the match in each year’s CRL Grand Final since 2014 has been awarded the Mel Cooke Trophy.
NEW ZEALAND (1959-63)
22 Tests – 5 tries (15 points)
30 tour matches – 16 tries (48 points)
-1959 Kiwis tour of Australia
-1960 Kiwis World Cup squad
-1961-62 Kiwis tour of Britain and France
-1963 Kiwis tour of Australia