by Lyle Beaton
The recent passing of outstanding Hull Kingston Rovers, Oldham, Wakefield and Great Britain forward Derek “Rocky” Turner seems to have by-passed most in Australian rugby league. This is a true shame, as, at his peak in 1962, Turner was one of the greatest rugby league locks/second row forwards to ever play in this country.
To appreciate the impact of Turner on earlier generations, it is necessary to reflect on the 1962 Great Britain tour to Australia and the state of the world-wide game at that time more broadly. Up until this point, Britain had been true giants of the international game. Australia would win the tour series in England in 1963, representing only their first away series win against the British since the 1911 – 1912 tour. A crack British side had last toured Australia in 1958, dominating the Test series 2 – 1, and was hell-bent on retaining their crown four years later.
Rarely has any rugby league game in this country attracted such attention as the First Test of 1962. Only weeks prior, the game between NSW and Britain had attracted 60,016 spectators to the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG). A remarkable six players, three from each side, had been sent off in what were scenes of near pandemonium, with Britain winning a spectacular eleven try match 33 – 28. For the First Test, the SCG was again heaving, this time with a dangerously over packed crowd of more than 70,000 in attendance, eager to see what is now regarded as perhaps the best ever touring British side.
Australia contained some of its very best players ever – including three members of the Australian Team of the Century, John Raper, Reg Gasnier and Ken Irvine – but were no match for a British team that tore them apart winning by seven tries to two, with a final astounding scoreline of 31 – 12. Perhaps in hindsight this is not surprising given this British team contained over a half dozen of its best ever players, luminaries such as Mick Sullivan, Neil Fox, Eric Ashton, Billy Boston, Dave Bolton, Alex Murphy, Dick Huddart, Brian Edgar and Brian McTigue.
A certain key to this truly great British side was the remarkable back-row of Turner, Edgar and Huddart. They were a startling combination of talents – Huddart, the long striding second rower from St Helens, regarded by no less a judge than Tom Goodman as “one of the best forwards ever seen in this country”; Edgar, who could in the words of British legend and captain Eric Ashton “side step [off both feet] on a threepenny bit”; and the true colossus that was Turner.
According to Bob Fulton’s Rugby League, Turner, a furniture removalist, was known to be able to shift a piano on his own. “Rocky”, nicknamed after his physical appearance which mirrored that of champion American boxer Rocky Marciano, played the majority of a 1966 Challenge Cup first round tie against St Helens with a broken collarbone – an immensely distressing injury for a forward required to engage in constant tough tackling. No less a player than Australian champion John Raper, perhaps the greatest lock forward to ever play the game, still regards Turner as the hardest and toughest player he ever competed against.
It would, however, be extremely unfair to Derek Turner to regard him only as a player of immense strength, hardness and courage. He was a gifted ball player who was able to easily shift from uncompromising defence to inspired attack in one movement. He was an excellent left-footed kicker of the ball in general play and could move play up-field easily with a booming 60 metre punt when required to do so.
Turner’s value to the Great Britain Test side of 1962 is clearly evidenced by the fact that his sending off in the Third Test most likely cost Britain the opportunity to win the Test series 3 – 0 for the first time (even if this match was in the end only won in highly controversial circumstances by Australia 18 – 17 with a sideline conversion late in the match from winger Ken Irvine; with dubious assistance from referee Darcy Lawler).
The circumstances of the send off are couched in Australian sporting folklore. (The Test series of course was played in an era of no replacements.) Rugged Queensland and Australian prop, Dud Beattie, his shoulder badly injured, goaded Turner (an obvious danger man for the Australians) into a fight so as to have both players sent off by the referee. As the two players left the field, Beattie explained the deception to Turner, the latter having to be refrained by an intervening ambulance-man from attempting to carry on the fight as the players left the pitch. Film of the incident shows Turner clearly gesticulating for Beattie to carry on the affair in the comfort of the public car park!
The fact that Turner was singled out as the target of choice in such an immense English side speaks volumes for the fear with which he was regarded by a remarkably talented Australian side.
Turner was also at the very heart of an all-time great Wakefield Trinity team featuring point scoring wizard, Neil Fox, and two other Lions from the 1962 tour (the gifted Harold Poynton and fullback Gerry Round were the others). Trinity swept all before them in the early 1960s winning three Challenge Cup Finals in four years (1960, 1962, 1963) and calling Wembley a second home for a time.
In many ways, Turner represents the classic English forward – tough and skilful – the type who has always had a marked impact on the game of rugby league in Australia. He represents the game heritage drawn on by more recent English forwards who have dominated in the Australian game such as Phil Lowe, Kevin Ward, Ellery Hanley and Sam Burgess.
When the brilliant 1963 sporting film This Sporting Life was cast (a film which saw both leads nominated for Academy Awards and Richard Harris transition into a world-wide star after a host of supporting roles), there was only one choice of rugby league player to play the tough nut who smashed Harris into next week and set the plot moving forward: Derek Turner. Turner’s cameo in a film largely set at Wakefield Trinity’s home ground of Belle Vue was emblematic of his position at the very forefront of English and world rugby league.
A truly great player, he will be sadly missed in this part of the world by those with cherished memories of his inspired play for both club and country.