10 May 2020

Brian Bevan | Factfile & Highlights

Rugby League's record tryscorer...

Article taken from, written in November 2000.

Before, and since, a host of Australian rugby superstars have played and settled in the north of England. But none more superduper than Bevan. He remains probably the most vividly astonishing, and unlikely, man ever to lace a boot of either rugby code.

It goes almost without saying that he had scored a try the week before, on November 17 1945, when Warrington, against their better nature, gave him an A-team trial. In all he was to score an astounding 796 tries in his first-class British career. The next man on the list, Wigan's Billy Boston, scored 571.

Even in my sheltered 1950s west country boyhood, news seeped down of this phenomenon who could jink like a crazed pinball and run like a barmy hare and who weekly for winter after winter thrillingly injected with adrenalin the north's sporting culture and self-esteem.

Bevan played at the top level until 1964, when he was almost 40. I interviewed him once, in the week of the 1975 Challenge Cup final - a reprise of his own first Wembley final for Warrington in 1950 against Widnes. By then he had unaccountably turned his back not only on his kingdom but, it seemed, even his memories of it, and he was working far away, an ageing and anonymous civilian safety officer at the naval station at Portland in Dorset. I cannot remember a more unrewarding interview. Some questions brought only a "No" or "If you say so" in reply, but mostly it was "I can't remember" and a dismissive suck of gaunt cheeks as if both question and questioner were a total irrelevance.

Fortunately this arthritic, unhappy recluse could not stop me canvassing others about the princely deeds of his prime. Such as, for instance, his also famed compatriot Arthur Clues, who shared many a pre-match hotel room with Bevan: "At any code of rugby there's never been a better than Brian, nor ever will be. Mind you, for a superstar athlete there's never been one less athletic: bald as a coot, no tooth in his head, a skeleton in braces.

"We'd be in twin beds. Every time the alarm went off before dawn I'd poke out my hand in the dark to turn it off, and every time I'd find his false teeth chomping at my hand from the bedside table . . . that would be Brian's signal to light up, and for the next two hours he'd lie there on his back chainsmoking, fag sticking up like a periscope, cough, splutter, cough, splutter.

"Then he'd finally rouse himself - to spend hours bandaging his knees - before going out that afternoon to make utter, bamboozled fools of some of the greatest rugby league players there's ever been."

Bevan was born in 1924 at Sydney's Bondi. His father had played for Eastern Suburbs but the boy, though keen enough and fast, showed scant aptitude for the game's hurly-burly. At 18, the world at war, he was drafted as a stoker on the cruiser Australia. In 1945 she fetched up in Plymouth for a refit.

On shore leave, the 21-year-old caught a train to Leeds and asked for a trial. Headingley was totally unimpressed by the skinny tyro, ditto Hunslet two days later. He tried Warrington and, because a family friend back home, Bill Shankland, had once played for the Wires, they gave the boy an A-team run-out. The following week he was in the first team, and signed up for £300 on the promise that he would return for a season after sailing home to be demobbed. True to his word, he was in his place on the wing at Wilderspool for the start of the 1946-47 season - and he ended it with 48 tries, 14 more than anyone else. The legend was up and running. And how.

When rugby league instituted its Hall of Fame in 1988, Bevan was first on the list to be inducted. The game's faithful archivist, the author Robert Gate, tracked down the now retired recluse at his new home. He was back in Lancashire, staring glumly across the Irish Sea in Blackpool.

Recalls Gate: "He was suspicious and circumspect; strange internal dynamics were vexing him. Conversation was like getting blood out of a stone, a Hall of Fame meant nothing to him, and it took five or six visits till he relaxed and began to open up. By the end I think he was even proud at the idea of being immortalised in the Hall and he seemed genuinely chuffed to present one of his faded old Warrington shirts and some of his medals for display."

Gate is preparing a long-overdue biography of Bevan and offers thanks he was just old enough to see him in action once - in 1964, the winger's final first-class appearance under the spectacular moorland pelmet at Halifax's evocative Thrum Hall ground.

"He was 39 and like forked lightning, he was absolutely, staggeringly brilliant. I remember spectators all around simply couldn't believe what they were seeing. And he hadn't just been doing that for a season or two but week in, week out for 19 seasons. I treasure a film of Wembley in 1950 with Bev haring and jinking all over the arena so you think, 'This film's been speeded up' - but then you look at the background and every other player is moving at ordinary, everyday speed."

Another of the game's vivid historians, Geoffrey Moorhouse, was first awestruck at Wilderspool in 1947 by a length-of-the-field Bevan special, "a spindle-shanked fantasy" against Wigan: "Bevan was actually in-goal at the corner-flag when Gerry Helme desperately slung him the ball . . . at once those heavily bandaged shanks began to revolve, the tongue came purposefully out of the sucked-in cheeks and the toothless gums.

"This bald-headed wreck of a man's first shimmying sidestep or two takes him past the first three Wigan players before he was off, swerving across the field to beat two more, before straightening out and, by what devices I couldn't see, crossing at the far corner before any more defenders could catch up with him. He had run much further than the length of the field, he had swept from one end of it to the other in a diagonal; and he had gone through the entire Wigan team in doing so."

Bevan died in 1991. They packed Wilderspool for a memorial service and Colin Welland dignified the honours with heroic commemoration. If a similar skinny eccentric turned up there asking for a trial 55 Novembers on, I daresay they wouldn't even let him near the pitch. As Gate puts it sadly: "They'd say, 'Clear off, lad, go away and put on four stone and then come back and we'll see if you can run into somebody'."