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Interviews Rugby League

int08 - DIDN’T YOU USED TO BE ......... RUGBY LEAGUE'S ELVIS PRESLEY? Frank Drake, the first full-back to score a try in Australia-Great Britain Test matches

Posted by... quigs eraofthebiff - on ... Saturday, June 02, 2012

Article written by Glen Dwyer, Newtown Jets Director,
First published in 1999 in Loosehead Magazine and the Toowoomba Chronicle

Submitted 12/01/2006

Frank Drakes Test Try(links to www.centenaryofrugbyleague.com.au)


Anthony Mundine and Nathan Blacklock and their flamboyant backflips; "Changa" Langlands and the notorious white boots episode of 1975; Martin Offiah and his triumphalist posturing to the roaring crowd - they have all captured the Rugby League public's attention in different ways, but forty years ago a dashing young full-back named Frank Drake made an impact in top-level Rugby League circles like you wouldn't believe.

Drake's career achievements make interesting reading in the modern Rugby League context, with his career path following a very different direction to present-day players. Can you imagine for example South Sydney's Craig Wing moving from Sydney to a Queensland regional city to further his representative selection prospects - not likely! However, things were somewhat different in the late 1950's and sporting opportunities emerged in unlikely ways.

Frank Drake was a talented schoolboy and Balmain junior footballer. He attended the Rozelle Christian Brothers College, where one of his opponents in inter-school football was a young lock-forward from Newtown Christian Brothers named John William Raper. Drake captained the Balmain DRLFC President's Cup team in 1957, having won selection from his junior club Gladesville Sports. He moved into the grade ranks with the Balmain Tigers that same year, following the completion of that season's President's Cup fixtures.

Still only a teenager, Drake was back again with the Tigers in 1958, where he faced a major obstacle to securing the first grade full-back spot - the in-form Keith "Tinlegs" Barnes, who was to captain the Kangaroos touring party of 1959/60. However, his opportunity in first grade came when Barnes was injured, and Drake stayed in first grade on the wing after Barnes' return from the injured list.

It was a good year for the Tigers, who defeated the Newtown Bluebags in a thrilling play-off for fourth place. Drake distinguished himself with a "corner post to corner post" match-saving tackle on Johnny Raper just minutes from full-time. Balmain advanced as far as the Preliminary Final, bowing out to St. George who went on to beat Western Suburbs 20-9 in the Grand Final.

The Preliminary Final was to be the occasion of Drake's first significant run-in with League officialdom. As Tom Goodman wrote in the "Sun-Herald" of September 7, 1958: "Balmain left winger Frank Drake shocked old timers at the SCG yesterday, taking the field with white running shoes that had studs on them. He was officially reprimanded after the match by the NSW Rugby League secretary, Harold Matthews". Drake says he did not wear the boots as a direct challenge to the standards of the time, but because he genuinely found the improvised cut-downs far superior to the heavy-weight boots then in general use. The boots were actually athletics training shoes with football studs inserted, and they gave him a five yards' advantage in speed. Drake jokingly claims to have been "the father of the cut-down boot", and he wishes that Adidas and Nike had been around in those days with their big sponsorship dollars!

The 1958/59 off-season was a major cross-road in Drake's career. Ambitious and impatient for higher honours, and certain that full-back was his best position, Keith Barnes' continued presence at Leichhardt Oval meant Drake would have to look elsewhere to play in his favoured number one strip. Tiger Town officials were keen to retain his services - but as a winger. An approach came from an unlikely source - Drake had kept in touch with two former teachers from Rozelle Christian Brothers, Brothers Mullane and Noonan, who were now teaching at a school in that phenomenal hotbed of Rugby League, the Queensland regional city of Toowoomba. Being aware of Drake's dilemma, these men of the cloth contacted Freddy Gilbert, a 1933/34 Kangaroo and livewire official with the Toowoomba-based All Whites club. Gilbert wasted no time in making overtures to Drake, drawing to his attention that Toowoomba was the dominant power in Queensland Rugby League and offered genuine representative selection opportunities for youngsters with ability and ambition.

Contrary to widely held belief, it was Freddy Gilbert and not Duncan Thompson who was instrumental in persuading Drake to throw in his lot with "the University of Rugby League", as Toowoomba had come to be known under Thompson's highly successful coaching regime. Renowned as "The Downs Fox" because of his coaching wizardry, Thompson had attracted a host of young talent to the fabled Toowoomba Clydesdales' stronghold in the early 1950's - players like Ken McCaffery, Bobby Banks, Tommy Payne, Duncan Hall, Don Furner, Barry Muir and many others. The bracing, mist-shrouded mountain city seemed to also offer great opportunities for the twenty-year old Drake, who made the big move to Toowoomba in early 1959.

To say Drake's arrival in Toowoomba caused a sensation is somewhat of an understatement - he hit the place like a proverbial comet! Picture the scene - he arrived in the city aboard a high powered motor bike, sporting an Elvis Presley hairstyle, long side levers, leather jacket, tight jeans and high leather boots - all this in a regional city that was the definitive image of conservative, prosperous, hard working, Cold War era Australia. To quote the headline of the front page story of the Darling Downs Star of February 16, 1959: "Sydney's Rugby League Elvis Presley has arrived in Toowoomba", accompanied by a huge front-page photo of Drake lacing up his white boots prior to a staged training run.

The ironic aspect of the dramatic impact Drake made on wide-eyed Toowoomba teenagers, who were completely agog at his "Rebel Without A Cause" image, was that the private man had little resemblance to his flamboyant street persona. In reality he was a non-smoking, teetotal, practising Catholic who was also an all-round Mr. Nice Guy. During his time in Toowoomba, Drake must have made countless trips to school and junior coaching sessions, as well as many hospital visits to sick children. Far from being a "mug lair bodgey", he was more of an honourable Pied Piper! The entire population of the League-mad city soon came to this conclusion, particularly once he had unleashed his special talents in the sky blue colours of the Toowoomba Clydesdales. Admittedly, his penchant for wearing his cut-down boots taped or painted in the colours of the team he was playing for tended to infuriate a significant percentage of old-school male supporters!

Drake quickly made the fullback spot in the Toowoomba representative team his own, in a year that the Clydesdales regained the coveted Bulimba Cup. He displaced none other than Clive Churchill from the Queensland team. Churchill, then captain-coach of Brisbane Norths, became a great fan of Drake's, and took a special interest in his progress. Drake had a blinder in the Toowoomba - New Zealand tour match, scoring an absolute scorcher of a try, and was also a key figure in his All Whites club team taking out the Toowoomba premiership title of 1959.

What exactly were his attributes as a fullback? Pace was certainly his paramount asset - he was arguably one of the fastest men in Australia over thirty yards, noted for blinding speed when chiming into the backline. Superb handling skills and a pin-point kicking game were other features of his play, in an age when lengthy kicking duels between opposing fullbacks were still in vogue. Knockers claimed he could not and would not tackle, but he was no worse in this department than other slightly built footballers. This type of criticism was probably no more than the "cutting down the tall poppy" syndrome, an ongoing and unpleasant aspect of Australian life.

He was back in Toowoomba for a second season in 1960, and firmly established himself as the first choice Queensland fullback. It was to be an even higher benchmark year for him in terms of his Rugby League achievements. Toowoomba retained the Bulimba Cup, trouncing Brisbane and Ipswich in the process, and Drake had a standout game in the Clydesdales' gripping 21-all draw with the touring Frenchmen, played before a huge Athletic Oval crowd. In what some commentators claim to have been his greatest-ever performance, Drake was man of the match for the Maroons in the Wednesday afternoon interstate clash at the SCG. Queensland came from 12-0 down to win 17-12, prompting 4BH (Brisbane) commentator, George Lovejoy, to exclaim: "Let me say it loud for all of Sydney to hear - this man Frank Drake is the best player in the Rugby League world"! He was then named as a reserve for the Australian team for the Third Test against France, thereby joining the exalted ranks of Toowoomba-produced Rugby League internationals.

Injury in a Toowoomba club game cruelly robbed him of certain selection in the 1960 World Cup touring team to Britain. Meanwhile, All Whites won their second successive Toowoomba premiership with a team coached by 1956/57 Kangaroo "Ripper" Doyle, and bristling with international and state representatives such as Elton Rasmussen, Johnny Gleeson, Alan Gil, Bob Gehrke, Kevin Lohman and Kevin Boshammer. Clive Churchill was quoted in the Brisbane Courier-Mail as saying that All Whites were far superior to any of the Brisbane club sides in 1960, and that the Toowoomba premiers were without doubt the best club team in Australia outside of the Sydney premiership competition.

Drake transferred from Toowoomba to Southern Suburbs (Brisbane) for the 1961 season, a surprising move given that several Sydney clubs had been beating a path to his door. He represented Queensland again with distinction, and made the Australian team that toured New Zealand. Wests Donny Parish received the nod for the First Test against the Kiwis, but Drake made his own international debut in the second Test of that series at Carlaw Park, Auckland.

One of Drake's most vivid memories of the 1961 season was the bitterly contested Bulimba Cup decider between Toowoomba and Brisbane at the Athletic Oval. The match rivalled the infamous 1970 Rugby League World Cup final at Leeds for brutality, and Brisbane received more than their fair share of dubiously favourable refereeing decisions. Brisbane won back the Bulimba Cup for the first time in a decade with a controversial try on the full-time siren, and sections of the enraged Athletic Oval crowd set upon the Brisbane players as they left the field. Amid unprecedented scenes, several Brisbane players suffered extensive cuts and abrasions, including peppery halfback Barry Muir who was very much the principal target of the crowd's wrath. A small boy was seen to deal a wicked blow with a hard projectile to the back of the head of Brisbane's coloured Test winger Lionel Morgan. Drake in the meantime took no part in the rough and tumble - he was still out on the field signing autographs for his legions of fans!

The year 1962 brought about the most shining moment of his career. He was a reserve for the First and Second Tests against what is said to have been the best ever Great Britain team to tour here. Don Parish and Keith Barnes had been the fullbacks in the outclassed Australian teams in the first two Tests . Fifteen minutes into his Test match debut against Great Britain at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Drake flashed onto a centre-kick by Australian winger Eddie Lumsden and dived over to score just to the right of the goalposts at the Paddington end of the ground. After fifty-four years of Test match football, at last a full-back had scored a try - and it was by none other than the so-called Elvis Presley of Rugby League himself! Drake in fact nearly didn't make it onto the field, as he was badly affected by an attack of bronchial pneumonia in the week leading up to the match.

From 1963 on, his playing career was dogged by injury. Drake represented Queensland for the fifth successive year, but fullbacks of the calibre of Graeme Langlands, Ken Thornett and Les Johns had emerged on the Sydney scene. Up against such quality opposition and playing with injury for much of that season, Drake was shut out of consideration for the home series against Mel Cooke's Kiwis and the ill-fated South Africans, as well as the supremely talented Ashes-winning Kangaroo touring party of 1963/64.

Having signed with Eastern Suburbs (Sydney) in the off-season, Drake returned to his home city of Sydney in 1964. He had two solid seasons with the Roosters, captaining the side in 1965. Late in his second season with Easts he suffered a shocking hip injury against Wests at Pratten Park, and was laid up in traction for more than two months. Drake missed the entire 1966 season while recovering and his playing career looked to be over.

Drake and his young family returned to Brisbane in 1967, where he was enticed out of retirement to play with the Brothers club. He could still "do the business" on the field, even though he played occasionally in other positions than fullback. Sadly, he tore his hamstring in the Preliminary Final of that year, forcing him to miss the Grand Final which Brothers went on to win.

Thus ended an extremely interesting and eventful Rugby League journey. In retrospect, Drake wonders whether he "pushed the envelope too much from the inside". Was his flamboyant style and unorthodoxy all too much for "stick in the mud", blinkered officials and a vengeful media out to cut down the perceived tallest poppy of them all? Did he unintentionally set himself up to be knocked down, to the ultimate detriment of his Rugby League career? The man's private life reveals his essential decency - a hardworking, highly-skilled electrical tradesman, a devoted husband and father of five daughters and an all-round solid citizen, hardly the track record of an irresponsible, tearaway bodgey as he had been labelled in his earlier years.

To quote from the Toowoomba All Whites club's splendid Golden Jubilee book of 1992: "Frank Drake was an ornament to the game, a wonderfully gifted player who always gave of his best. While always the complete gentleman, he rather sneakily married the publican's daughter from the National Hotel (Toowoomba) where we had found him board for four quid a week - a clear case of insider trading at its worst"!

For those who were privileged to see his exquisitely-timed dashes into the backline, the supremely confident returning of the ball, his twinkle-toes running style and the radar-like kicking game, his skills were a revelation and inspiration. Above all, he has that unassailable record of being the first fullback to score a try in Australia-Great Britain Test matches to hold onto as the most glittering prize of all.

Glen "Bumper" Dwyer is a Director with the Newtown Jets RLFC in the NSWRL Premier League competition, and is a great admirer of all of the people who work so hard for the cause of Rugby League throughout the country areas of N.S.W. and Queensland.

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