Harry Bath: Rugby league player who twice won the Challenge Cup with Warrington
Saturday 11 October 2008
Harry Bath spent most of his long life saddled with the reputation of being the best Australian rugby league player never to represent his country. A more positive way of looking at his career would be to acknowledge him as the most influential figure of his generation on forward play on both sides of the globe.
Bath's chance to play for Australia came early in his career, but he injured his knee playing for New South Wales against the 1946 British tourists. The following year, he followed the lucrative route to England by signing for Barrow. Not only did the Australian selectors ignore him for the decade he was away – which was standard practice for the time – they appeared to continue to punish him when he returned to his homeland and was quite clearly the outstanding forward in the game.
Bath was born and brought up in Brisbane and played his first senior rugby league there for the Souths club. Offers soon came in from the big Sydney outfits, but it was Balmain, who took him on a tour of North Queensland, who got him to sign on. Bath was an instant success in Sydney, playing in the Balmain sides that won the Premiership in 1946 and 1947 before being lured to England. His stay with Barrow was a short one, because of a dispute over the terms on which he had signed, but he found a second home at Warrington, for whom he made 346 appearances.
As a second-rower, there was no one better in the game, especially when he added English-learnt ball-skills to his natural Australian rumbustiousness. He was also an accomplished goal-kicker, topping the kicking list on his way to a club record 363 points in the 1952-53 season.
He captained Warrington to their 19-0 Challenge Cup final victory over Widnes at Wembley in 1950, scoring one of their tries. Four years later, he was part of the team that beat Halifax 8-4 in the famous replayed final in front of a world-record crowd of more than 102,000 at Odsal, kicking a penalty that was crucially important in such a tight game.
In both those finals, he played alongside the fellow-Australian who was his only serious rival for the title of best player never to win a cap – the phenomenal winger, Brian Bevan. The two also played together many times for the star-studded Other Nationalities side that competed in the European Championship.
That was to be the nearest either of them got to Test rugby, but Bath was to have a remarkable second career in the game after returning to Australia in 1957. He joined the powerful St George club that had embarked on its record run of 11 Sydney Premierships and played in the Grand Final victories of 1957, 1958 and 1959, his ball skills adding a new dimension to an Australian style of play that had become excessively reliant on brute force. Not that he was any shrinking violet: his final match saw him sent off for fighting with Manly's Rex Mossop.
He is primarily remembered, however, for his refined passing andkicking skills. His record of winning the Premiership in all five of the seasons in which he played remains unique and there was something almost fitting about the way he died, after a long illness, on the eve of this year's Grand Final.
Bath was happily retired from the game and running a pub when his old club, Balmain, approached him to coach them in 1961. With limited resources, he took them to Grand Finals in 1964 and 1966, only to lose on both occasions to the all-conquering St George. He later coached Newtown with moderate success, but his golden period – the one that earned him the name "the Old Fox" – came when he took over St George in the late 1970s. They were no longer the force they had been, but Bath steered young and unfancied teams to Premierships in 1977 and 1979. His emphasis was always on his forwards, and it was tough and skilful packs upon which those successes were built.
Despite never being picked to play for his country, he twice coached Australia. The first time was in 1962, but during his second tenure from 1968 to 1972 they twice won the World Cup. Bath called time on his coaching career after the 1981 season at St George and had little direct involvement in the game after that. Indeed, he was often scathing about it. "There's no skill in it," he used to complain. "The players are like robots." Nobody could say that about Harry Bath and the way he played rugby league.
Harry Bath, rugby league player and coach: born Brisbane, Queensland 28 November 1924; married; died Sydney, New South Wales 4 October 2008.
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