"Wilf Rosenberg was a very fast and fantastic defender. He was a world class player," said Leslie Susser, a native South African and rugby maven who is a journalist based in Israel.
Rosenberg has settled in Israel to be closer to one of his daughters and her family.
Still agile and spry despite a nerve injury that hinders movement in one leg, he welcomes a JEWISH AGENCY reporter into his new home at a senior residence in Raanana.
"Look at the crowds! They're going mad!" he exclaimed, holding open a photo of himself from Outstanding Leeds Rugby Players 1928-1988. The year was 1961 and the photo captures Wilf in the midst of "one of the greatest try ever seen and never to be repeated" that won rugby league the game.
So how did it happen that Rosenberg became one of the greatest rugby players of all time – an accomplishment that earned him an induction into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1994?
Born in Cape Town in 1934, he spent his childhood in Australia, where he began to play rugby at the age of six and was quickly singled out as an exceptional talent. Even now, over 60 years later, Rosenberg remembers every last detail: How his coach at the Sydney Grammar School asked Ron Rankin, a fullback for the Wallabies, to come to the school and have a look at the best players. Pointing to Rosenberg, who was 13, Rankin said, "Look after the boy. He will play for Australia.'" But soon Rabbi Rosenberg moved his family back to South Africa and Wilf got his big break in 1955 when Jack van der Schyff missed the post in the last minute of the game. Rosenberg was then chosen for the second test in Newlands, Capetown, where South Africa played the British Lions. So began Rosenberg's career as one of South Africa's most beloved players, where he dazzled the crowds with his speed, fearlessness and signature stunts: His head thrown back, he would outsmart his opponents with a "dummy," a fake pass, cut through the backline and then dive over the try line to score. "It looks as if I am diving into nothing," said Rosenberg, thus the moniker, "The flying dentist."
"The thing about Wilf was he was an excellent rugby player both on attack and defense," said Susser, a reporter for the Jerusalem Report and JTA. "He was both a superb runner with the ball and very, very fast."
Looking back, Rosenberg admits that he was fearless. "I didn't care. All I had on my mind was that I had to score." He can’t explain how he gravitated toward the sport, either, other than to say he was "born to Rugby," not that he was encouraged by his parents.
| Wilf Rosenberg at his home in Raanana displaying a book chronicling his accomplishments as one of South Africa's greatest rugby players. |
"They acted as if I was not playing rugby," said Rosenberg, but they didn't prevent him from following his true calling, either.
"One time someone asked my father how he could allow his son to play rugby on Shobbos," Rosenberg recalled. "And he told them, 'My son was born with a God-given talent. Who am I to argue with God?'"
And even though his parents never went to one game – a fact offset by his brother, Maurice, who attended every single game, bar none – it was his father who clinched the deal for Wilf to go professional.
Rosenberg was on his honeymoon in Durban with his wife, Elinor, when he got a telegram from his father that read, "Pack your bags. I've signed you up for Leeds." It seemed that on a visit to England, agents for Leeds surprised Rabbi Rosenberg at the airport and offered the young Rosenberg an astounding ₤6,000 to sign with them– an offer Rabbi Rosenberg could not refuse.
"I knew about rugby league growing up in Australia, but I never had any dreams of playing the game until my father made it a fait accompli," said Rosenberg.
Adding to the allure was the fact that Rosenberg would be the only Jew to play rugby league – a distinction that holds to this day.
"A Jew playing rugby league? Unheard of!" said Rosenberg.
South Africa, however, has had its share of Jewish rugby players. A painting called the "Springbok Minyan" famously depicts ten of them, including Morris Zimerman and Louis Babrow, both well-known players from the late 30s. Of course, the most recent celebrated Jewish South African rugby player is Joel Stransky of Invictus fame, the star of the 1995 World Cup game.
While Rosenberg was playing rugby league he was also in dental school, earning the highest marks and specializing in periodentology. As he remembers it, he lived a very fast life, juggling his dental practice with rugby and a growing family. Rosenberg and his wife raised three children, one settled in Israel and the others live in Australia. Rosenberg's wife died in 1989.
While is adjusts to his new life in Israel, hoping that the Israeli rugby team will one day play South Africa, England or France, he looks back at his legacy with pride.
"I will always be remembered," he said.