Gus Risman - The Indomitable

- - On 27 April Gus Risman was inducted alongside Billy Boston as a founding member of the Welsh Rugby League Hall of Fame. In 1988 both Gus and Billy were among the nine founding members of the Rugby Football League Hall of Fame. By way of a tribute to Gus, the following is my introduction to the 2008 edition of his 1958 autobiography Rugby Renegade published by Scratching Shed.

Augustus John Ferdinand Risman was simply one of the greatest players ever to step on to a rugby pitch. No-one played at the highest level for longer. No-one led international sides for longer. Only one man played more matches. Only two men played the game to a greater age. Only two men ever scored more points. And these facts are just the bare bones of his story. 

But it is only when we compare his career to those of great athletes of other sports that we can really get a sense of the epic achievements of the man. No-one in any other code of football can approach his longevity at the top of their chosen sport. American footballer George Blanda played for twenty-six seasons, but his last five seasons was spent as a kicker, with little to do other than come onto the field to take a shot at goal. In rugby union, Newport and Wales forward George Boots played for twenty-seven seasons but his international career only lasted seven years; Risman’s lasted fourteen. Peter Shilton played soccer for thirty-one years but he of course was a goalkeeper. 

The simple truth is that in all of the football codes around the world, there is no-one who can match Risman’s record of twenty-six seasons at the very top of his sport. Gus Risman was not only unique in rugby league, he was unique in world sport. This was truly remarkable man. 

Gus was discovered playing club rugby union by Frank ‘Bucket’ Young, the great Welsh full-back who played for Leeds and toured with the first Lions in 1910. Young suggested to his former club that they might want to take a look at the young Risman but the Headingley side, with Jim Brough, the former England rugby union international, ensconced at full back, were not interested. They were also to turn down Brian Bevan just after World War Two, so Gus was in good company. In fact, the move to Salford could not have worked out better.

Under Lance Todd, a member of the pioneering 1907 New Zealand ‘All Golds’ side, Salford were one of the most attractive and innovative sides in the game during the 1930s. They were noted for their brand of sparkling attacking rugby league and featured not only Risman but great players such as Alan Edwards, Emlyn Jenkins and Barney Hudson. They won the championship three times, performed a hat-trick of Lancashire Cup wins and won the cup in 1938, which resulted in the now iconic photograph of Gus holding the cup aloft. Such was the thrilling nature of their rugby that the RFL chose Salford to be the first British club side to visit France in October 1934, where their style of play led the French press to nickname them the Red Devils.

When World War Two began Gus joined the Army, where he managed to pursue a dual career in club rugby league and forces rugby union. Salford closed down operations for the duration of the war in 1941 and the RFL allowed players to appear for any club as ‘guests’. As his army duties took him around the country, Gus turned out for Leeds, Bradford and Dewsbury, as well as making a handful of appearances for Hunslet. In 1941 he won a war-time championship medal with Bradford and the following season won the Challenge Cup with Leeds. Thanks to the lack of restrictions on players he also played for Eddie Waring’s Dewsbury team of all stars in the same season, appearing in the side that defeated Bradford in the 1942 championship final. Moreover, he made five appearances for Wales in war-time rugby league internationals.

If that wasn’t enough, he also became one of the great players of war-time rugby union too, captaining the Army and Wales in union services internationals, thanks to the RFU lifting its ban on league players in the forces for the duration of the war. In an early services’ match for the British Army against the Army in Ireland, The Times’ rugby correspondent highlighted him as the difference between the two sides - the Army in Ireland, he commented, ‘had nobody who could quite match the brilliance of Risman, the British Army’s rugby league stand-off’. By February 1942, The Times was highlighting those games in which he would make an appearance. The following month Wales beat England 17-12 in the first-ever services international: ‘the success of Wales was largely due to their captain, A.J.F. Risman, the rugby league player, who was always dangerous in attack and very dependable in defence. He scored eight points himself and was responsible for at least one of the tries.’

The accolades continued throughout the war. At the beginning of the 1942-43 season Gus was described as ‘Risman, the rugby league player whose genius has so often changed the fortunes of a game’. Service internationals continued after the war ended in 1945, most notably by a tour of the New Zealand Army which was regarded as almost a full All Black tour. The New Zealanders routed the Army 25-5 in December 1945 yet The Times could still single out Gus: ‘Risman at right centre was brilliance itself both as a runner and a kicker’. It is worth remembering that Gus’s experience of adult rugby union had ended a decade and half earlier at the age of seventeen. To be able to walk into a rugby union match with such limited experience and take complete charge was an indication of his natural genius with an oval ball.

A similar statement could be made about the next stage in his career. When he returned home from the 1946 Lions tour to Australia he was no longer a Salford player but had signed up as the player-manager of the newly formed Workington Town. Cumberland had been a bastion of rugby league since the creation of the game in 1895, supporting a successful county side and supplying dozens of top-class players to clubs in Lancashire and Yorkshire, but it wasn’t until the mid-1940s that it proved to be economically viable to establish professional sides in the county, firstly with Workington in 1945 and then Whitehaven in 1948. Gus provided both on-field leadership to the team and the charisma to give supporters belief in the side. As he recounted in Rugby Renegade, he inadvertently made himself a hostage to fortune by referring to a five-year plan when he arrived at the club, yet amazingly the side managed to win the championship in 1951 and the Challenge Cup in 1952. Of course, he played in both matches, the latter at the age of forty-one. 

But perhaps his greatest achievements took place in the test match arena. Gus had been surprise selection for the 1932 Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand, winning out over Jim Brough as the reserve full back to Jim Sullivan. He got his chance to play in the third and deciding test in the cauldron of Sydney’s SCG. The side won 18-13 to take the Ashes. His international career had begun on a high note and was to get even better. He played in twelve Ashes test matches, was captain in seven and, as Robert Gate points out in his wonderful essay in Gone North, was never dropped from the test side. He played stand-off, centre and full back and tasted defeat just once, in the last match of the 1937 Kangaroo tour after Britain had wrapped up the series by winning the first two tests. He also played in five test matches against New Zealand and won eighteen caps for Wales. 

The highlight of this amazing career was his captaincy of the 1946 Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand. In 1945 he had told the Australian league journalist W.F. Corbett that he was ‘too long in the tooth now’ to undertake another tour, but clearly the prospect of one last crack against the Australians was too much to miss. Much has been written about how the 1946 Lions had to make their way to Australia on an aircraft carrier, the HMS Indomitable and then had spend days on a train crossing the Nullaboor Plain. But what is often forgotten is the deprivations that the players had to endure before they even left for Australia. The RFL issued each player with a trunk to carry their belongings down under with them, yet Gus, and probably the rest of the side too, had trouble filling it. The war had ended yet rationing was still in operation. Clothing could only be bought if one had the right coupons, and that included sports equipment. 

‘I have found it difficult to obtain sufficient clothing for the trip,’ Gus told the Daily Despatch shortly before the tourists left. ‘I shall travel in my demob suit [the suit issued to each soldier when they left the army]. My football boots have been patched so often that their are now more patches than the original leather on the uppers.’ His wife described to the reporter how ‘it has been an awful job. I have patched and darned so that Gus could save his coupons for the tour but we have barely managed to scrape through.’ When the tourists finally arrived in Australia they found themselves showered with gifts, including food parcels to send home to their families. One of Gus’s regular duties as captain during the Lions’ visits to the country towns of New South Wales and Queensland was to receive a symbolic food parcel of local produce that would be sent to Britain as part of Australia’s support for what they still saw as the ‘Mother Country’ as it recovered from the war.

On the field, the 1946 tour was as fierce and competitive as anything that had gone before. On 17 June Gus led the side out on to the Sydney Cricket Ground just as he had done almost ten years previously. A twelve-man Britain held the Australians to an 8-8 draw, after Bradford’s Jack Kitching had been sent off for allegedly punching Australian captain Joe Jorgensen. In the key matches, Gus was regularly singled out for praise by the press. In the match against NSW in Sydney, Truth reported that he ‘showed what a fine player he is... Cool and calm, he collected the ball at will and found the open spaces with well- judged kicks. We had no counter.’

In the second test at Brisbane, which Britain won 14-5, W.F. Corbett singled him out for his ‘heady deeds’. For the third test, the teams returned to the SCG where the Australians found themselves overwhelmed 20-7. One of Australia’s major problems in the last two tests was the failure of their centres to make any progress against the British combination of Risman and Bradford’s Ernest Ward. It is worth remembering that Gus had celebrated his thirty-fifth birthday shortly before the side left for Australia. When he returned almost six months later, it was as captain of the only British side ever to go through an Ashes series undefeated. 

The curtain finally came down on this unprecedented career in 1954. Gus left Workington at the end of the 1953-54 season after a dispute with the club’s directors and played for a few months for Batley before finally retiring in December 1954. He was 43 years, 279 days old. He had played 873 first-class rugby league matches. He had kicked 1,678 goals and scored 232 tries. No-one even knows how many appearances or points he scored in war- time rugby union. 

Following his retirement, he looked certain to become one of the game’s great coaches. But it was not to be. Eddie Waring in his warm and generous tribute to Gus in The Great Ones described how he too thought that Risman would be ‘a natural as a manager, but he was unable to click as he done as a player-manager’. Perhaps it was his very longevity as a player that made it difficult for him to connect with players when he could no longer lead by example. His stints at Salford, Bradford and Oldham were sadly undistinguished.

At Oldham, where he had a short stint as manager in the late 1950s, it seems that players found him aloof. Whether this was a generational gap or the problem of the prodigiously gifted player trying to instruct those who were less talented is unclear. Sadly, as a manager he was never able to develop the rapport with players which he had when he played. Unlike his great rival Jim Sullivan he was never to become the great coach that everyone in the game expected him to be.Maybe having the equivalent of three great careers was enough for one mortal. 

In 1938 he had written How To Play Rugby League Football, the first book about the game ever to be produced by a national publisher. It was part of a series of instructional books that included England cricketer and Arsenal footballer Denis Compton on How To Play Association Football, Jack Hobbs on The Game of Cricket, James Hartley on How To Play Bowls Scientifically, and many others. In contrast to the huge numbers of books about soccer and rugby union, it took almost fifty years for a publisher to recognise the interest in rugby league. Even Harold Wagstaff’s autobiography was only published in weekly parts in a local newspaper. It was to be another two decades before another league book found a national publisher.

The fact that the next book was Gus's autobiography was testimony to his longevity and standing in the game. Rugby Renegade appeared in 1958 as part of the publisher Stanley Paul’s burgeoning line of sports books. It was ghost-written by the soccer commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme - later to find fame as the man who exclaimed ‘some people are on the pitch. They think it’s all over. It is now,’ when England won the world cup in 1966 - who as a school-boy in Bolton had seen Gus play in the 1930s. Although we do not have any sales figures, it must have been enough of a success for Stanley Paul to publish Lewis Jones’ King of Rugger later in the same year. 

Rugby Renegade is a fascinating book. Most sporting biographies, then as much as now, are usually straightforward narratives of the highs and lows of the athlete’s career. But Gus’s book is remarkably modest and tends to gloss over many of the highlights of his playing career. It’s difficult to get a sense of his towering reputation from reading the book. Perhaps this is due in part to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s lack of appreciation of Gus’s greatness and standing in the game. But it is also because the book, in true rugby league fashion, is also about the politics of rugby and most of its chapters are actually about controversies in the game, whether it is rugby union hypocrisy or why the cup final should be played at Wembley. This is one of the reasons why the book is so interesting. Gus is not bland and uncontroversial, as books of this nature often are, but determined to get his point over about what he feels is best for the game.

But there are also some wonderful moments of insight. Gus’s description of the moment in the second half of the 1951 Championship Final when he realised that Workington had beaten Warrington (‘it nearly made me swoon’) or his memories of returning to Cumberland with the cup in 1950 are striking insights. He also proves to be something of a prophet, predicting the emergence of a BBC2 Floodlit Trophy style competition and the move to two divisions. Twenty-first century readers reading the book for the first time may also experience a sense of deja vu.He debates whether the BBC are guilty of not giving the sport the publicity it deserves. And his assessment of the differences between league and union - ‘league is a faster game, a much more intense and open game’ - is one which has stood the test of time. 

Reading Rugby Renegade one gets a sense that Gus took to rugby league so quickly as a teenager because it suited his temperament. He felt like an outsider, having been born to immigrant parents and brought up in the multi-racial melting pot of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. Interestingly, he attacks rugby union’s treatment of rugby league as the equivalent of the ‘colour bar’, as discrimination against non-white people was known in 1950s Britain. The book’s title is as much an affirmation of who he was as much as it was a description of his status. And like all those who are proud to be rugby league people, he turns the accusation that he is a renegade around to argue that it is not he who is in the wrong, but ‘those who have insisted that that there should be two organisations’ who are the real renegades, fostering intolerance and bitterness. 

How did Gus compare to other truly great players? In 1988 he was one of the inaugural nine players to be inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame. Like Harold Wagstaff, Jim Sullivan, Brian Bevan and Alex Murphy, he would have been an automatic choice. In terms of games played and points scored, his record, to use the cliche, really did speak for itself. But changes in the way the game is played make comparisons between different generations almost impossible. But in the 1930s there was really only one player who could be compared to Gus and that was Wigan’s Jim Sullivan. 

Gus and Jim were the binary stars of rugby league in their era, Although Sullivan was seven years older, they shared similar biographies, both being Welsh full-backs who became rugby league players at seventeen. Until Neil Fox eclipsed Sullivan’s points scoring record, it was Sullivan and Gus who stood at the head of the all-time points scorers records. And while Sullivan played for just under twenty-five years, Gus played for just over a quarter of a century although Sullivan played in more matches.

In the early 1930s it looked like Gus would have a limited international career because of Sullivan’s absolute domination of the full-back position. Whenever Wigan played Salford there was always a bite in the air, as Salford carved a reputation as the Cherry and Whites’ bogey team in the years before the war. It would have been easy for Gus to have been resentful yet it is clear from Rugby Renegade that both held each other in high regard. Their contrasting styles were sufficiently different that neither saw the other as a threat. Sullivan was Rome to Risman’s Greece. Sullivan was aggressive, driven and war-like.

After the 1932 Battle of Brisbane, in which Great Britain were finally beaten by a ten-man Australian team in the bloodiest test match of the interwar period, Sullivan left the field raging at the loss, angrily telling his side after the match that if the game had gone on for five minutes they could have won. His game was based not only on monumental skills but on physical intimidation. No-one who was tackled by Sullivan forgot it. Gus, in contrast, could be tough and uncompromising when necessary, especially in test matches, but played a game based on artistry and creativity. His was a game of the finely-crafted pass, the imperceptible change of pace and the anticipation of an opponent’s mistake. As well as a full-back, Gus was an all-time great centre and stand-off, but Sullivan commanded the full back position like no-one before or since. 

When he died at the age of eighty-three in 1994 it was just five days before Great Britain’s twelve-man 8-4 victory over Australia at Wembley. It was somehow appropriate that his death should be followed by an epic Ashes test, just like so many in which he had been involved. But words like epic, monumental and incredible were always a feature of Gus Risman’s career. It is the sheer scale of his achievements in rugby league that allow us to be so definite in our assessment of his genius. No-one will ever play the game for as long. It is very unlikely that anyone will ever score as many points as he did. And the nature of the game is such today that no-one will be able to build two or three separate careers in the way that Gus did. His achievement is singular and will remain so. 

Gus Risman was no renegade. He was an athlete, an artist, a visionary and a leader of men.