Bill Drake: Hull rugby league stalwart

 

Bill Drake was one half of a celebrated pair of twins who formed part of the much-feared Hull pack of the 1950s and early '60s. Unlike other twins in rugby league, notably Keith and Kevin Rayne and Kevin and Bob Beardmore, Bill and Jim were not identical, in build or in style of play. Jim, the elder by 10 minutes, was a squat, aggressive prop, a renowned handful on the pitch. Bill, who has died four years to the day after him, was tall, athletic and stylish.

Although they were born in what is now West Cumbria, the boys' family moved to York when they were 14 and they played their first senior rugby league for the Heworth amateur club in that city. Bill was originally spotted and signed by Hull as a winger, but was only a moderate success in that position, really coming into his own when he was moved into the pack in the 1954-55 season. Raymond Fletcher, writing in Hull Rugby League Club: 100 Greats, notes that "retaining the pace of his wing days [he developed] into a second-rower with subtle ball-handling skills. He could open up the tightest of defences with just a hint of a dummy and put others through a gap with the ability of a centre."

Johnny Whiteley, who played alongside him in the formidable Hull pack that was considered the best in the game, says that Drake is one player of that era who would have thrived in the modern game. "I played alongside him through his whole career at Hull and he was nothing short of sensational," he said after hearing of his old team-mate's death from cancer. "Quite often you hear how players from the olden days wouldn't be able to cut it in the modern-day version of the game, but Bill would. I've got do doubt that Bill would have been sensational in Super League. He was six foot two, he was well-built, he had great hands, a tremendous pass and he could run like nothing else."

It says a good deal about Great Britain's enviable strength in the back row of the pack at this time that Bill Drake did not win his first cap for them until 1962, by which time he had lost the cutting edge of his pace and moved into the front row. He had made his debut for England two weeks earlier. Cumberland, the county of his birth, used him more consistently, selecting him 10 times from 1953 onwards.

For Hull, Drake made 293 first-team appearances, scoring 101 tries and kicking 53 goals. He played for them in five major finals, although his only winner's medal was for the Championship in 1956.

In 1963 he left the club, following the former Hull coach, Roy Francis, to Leeds for a £1,500 transfer fee. After 18 months there he moved on for another two seasons at York, where he ended his career. He remains memorable as half of rugby league's most famous set of twins, as well as a member of the celebrated pack that Hull fans of even a much more recent vintage can still reel off: Clark, Harris, Drake, Drake, Markham and Whiteley.

Dave Hadfield

William Drake, rugby league player: born Workington, Cumberland 20 February 1931; married; died Hull 8 October 2012.

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