Austin Rhodes

Everyone at Saints is saddened to learn of the loss of former player Austin Rhodes

It is sad to report the passing of Austin Rhodes at the age of 81, after a long period of ill-health. Anyone who saw him play rugby will tell you that he was real good ‘un. He was virtually the complete player and his wide range of skills meant that he could cover several different positions on the field. In this respect he would have been a prized asset in Super League. Although several of his major triumphs were when he played at full-back, he was still very much a stand-off or scrum-half at heart. He received plaudits from team-mates and opponents alike. Wigan’s star winger Billy Boston was a big fan: “he was like Sam Tomkins in that he had this uncanny ability to step off both feet…I could never do that!”

Yet rugby League in the mid-1950s was certainly a tough affair, with skilful practitioners like Austin a target for some harsh treatment from defenders, but he could look after himself too. “Austin always gave me the sort of ball that I could use effectively,” remembers Bev Risman, his stand-off when he joined Leigh. “Apart from being an intelligent footballer, he was never short of knocking people about once or twice either.”

Born in Thatto Heath and the son of a collier from a devout Catholic family, Austin attended the local St Austins school, whose Headmaster, Gerry Landers, was famous for developing schoolboy rugby league talent in the early 1950s. He played with great success for his school, town and county – captained them all, in fact – and came to the notice of St Helens RFC after leading St Helens schoolboys to victory in the Lancashire Cup final. His half-back partner was a younger lad called Alex Murphy!

Austin signed for the Saints for £100 and at stand-off, made his senior debut against Liverpool City, on 28th March 1955, when Peter Metcalfe was injured. The following season saw him a regular at scrum-half, with another string to his bow, as he volunteered to take over place-kicking duties after Metcalfe’s injury prompted his retirement. He had been a good football player too, an inside right representing the town with the likes of John Connelly, who played for England in the 1966 World Cup. Saints’ fans will remember his typical ‘golfers’ approach to goal kicking with his head well over the ball. He became an excellent marksman, leading the goal-kicking charts with Wakefield’s Neil Fox in 1959-60 [both with 171] and outright in 1960-61, with 145. He also led the points’ scorers that same season, with 338. Fans keeping the score in their match day programmes from the period would invariably put a plethora of ‘G’s next to his name!

The 1955-56 campaign ended gloriously for the team, winning the Challenge Cup for the first time against Halifax at Wembley, on 56th April. Although barely out of his teens, Austin made his mark with a brilliant long-distance conversion of Steve Llewellyn’s try that gave the Saints a commanding 10-0 lead at a vital stage of the match.

Rhodes ended his first full season with 141 goals and 10 tries in 39 appearances and gained a reputation as a prodigious points scorer. International recognition quickly followed with selection for the 1957 World Cup squad Down Under, but this also led to a major problem that was to stay with him throughout his football career and continued to have an impact for the rest of his life. Thinking he needed to increase his strength to face the Australians and Kiwis, he damaged his back whilst doing extra weight-training. His appending disk problem meant special attention from Coach Jim Sullivan, as Austin recalled years later: “Sully had to strap my back up a certain way before every match. He had to stick layers of plaster across my lower back that eventually would prevent the disk from bulging any further.”

Although he made his international debut for Great Britain in the competition, against New Zealand, Austin faced the prospect of National Service. He joined the RAF, where he travelled extensively as a member of the RAF rugby union team and eventually got a posting to the base at Haydock just outside his home town. He had continued to play for the Saints whenever military commitments would allow. By the end of the 1958-59 season, however, Rhodes was converted to full back after an injury to Glyn Moses and further honours followed with a Championship Winner’s medal in the magnificent Championship final against Hunslet, at Odsal. Rhodes kicked 10 goals in Saints’ 44-22 victory and witnessed the greatest try he had ever seen, by Tom van Vollenhoven, when the team faced a 4-12 deficit.

Lancashire League and Cup success followed in 1960 and another Challenge Cup Winner’s Medal against the ‘Old Enemy’ Wigan, on 13th May 1961. Once again, his kicking at Wembley was instrumental in stretching Saints winning margin. He punched over two marvellous penalties, one from the half-way line to break the hearts of the Wiganers in the 95,000 crowd in Saints’ 12-6 success. Rhodes had developed into a fine attacking full-back and was a playing member of the Great Britain World Cup Squad in 1960, that went on to win the trophy, together with his team-mates Alex Murphy, Dick Huddart and Vince Karalius. Austin won the last of his four caps against the Kiwis in 1961. He also played for Lancashire on two occasions.

At the end of the 1961/62, after another Lancashire Cup final victory, it was time to move on and Austin went to Leigh with team-mate Ken Large. He enjoyed three seasons at Hilton Park and formed a fine partnership in the halves with Bev Risman, making over 80 appearances. Leigh reached the 1963 Lancashire Cup final at Swinton, where they were beaten by the Saints! A transfer to Swinton followed and it was here that he rediscovered his zest for the game, with the likes of Ken Gowers, John Stopford and Graham Williams. Austin’s handling skills really came to the fore as Swinton became a most competitive team, finished runner’s up to St Helens in the Northern Rugby League in 1965-66.

Before the Challenge Cup deadline in 1968, Austin re-joined St Helens, for a £1,250 fee, together with his Swinton team-mate Graham Rees. Former Swinton coach Cliff Evans also replaced Joe Coan at Knowsley Road, who rated Austin highly. He may not have been as quick as in the early days, but his experience was there for all to see and he picked up another Lancashire Cup Winners Medal – his third in all – as St. Helens beat Oldham 30-2 in 1968/69. The team also won the Lancashire League title, but persistent injury problems forced Austin to retire at the end of the campaign. His last game was against Doncaster, on 19th April 1969 at Knowsley Road. Overall he had made 229 appearances in his two spells at Knowsley Road, scoring 90 tries and booting over 800 goals with his usual precision style, a total of 1870 points.

Austin later returned to Swinton as Coach for a spell from June 1974 to November 1975, gaining them promotion into the First Division and in a local context, coached amateur giants Pilkington Recs. Who could ever forget the two Challenge Cup ties against Wigan and Castleford, both at Knowsley Road, when the Recs so nearly pulled off sensational victories against the Big Boys!

A member of the Saints’ Past Players Hall of Fame, he remains one of the best and most popular local footballers the town has ever produced. Austin loved most sports – rugby league, football, boxing, snooker, crown green bowls and remained close friends with his former team-mates Wilf Smith, Brian McGinn and Tom van Vollenhoven throughout his life. He was one of the most knowledgeable and intuitive people to talk rugby league with and always reckoned that, apart from Tom van Vollenhoven, Mick Sullivan was the finest winger of his generation. He loved nothing better than a stroll around Taylor Park in his later years, where he spent many happy times during his childhood. Austin was also a classically-trained pianist in his youth too!

He met his wife Marlene, from Alfred Street after being introduced by a mutual friend and they married at Holy Cross Church on 25th July 1963. Brian McGinn was Best Man. They have two children – Karen [who lives in Perth, Australia] and Martyn – and have always remained a strong family, especially proud of Austin’s achievements in rugby league.

Everyone at St Helens RFC send their regards at this sad time.

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