In Memory Of Austin Rhodes

Leigh Centurions were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Austin Rhodes at the age of 81 and pass on sincere condolences to his family at this time.

The former St Helens and Great Britain star enjoyed an illustrious playing career and though he was remembered chiefly for two spells with his hometown club he also enjoyed stints with both Leigh and Swinton.

Austin recently wrote a highly readable and informative autobiography A Lad from Donkey Common and retained his razor-sharp memory and love of Rugby League.

He was a very popular player and person and his passing will be widely mourned.

Austin and Alex Murphy OBE’s careers followed a similar path, two of Thatto Heath’s most famous sporting sons whose talents flourished in the first team at Knowsley Road.

A hugely gifted goal-kicking fullback or halfback, Austin made his Saints debut in 1955 and amassed over 300pts in his first full season, later switching from scrumhalf to stand-off to accommodate the prodigious teenaged talent of Murphy.

Austin was a key member of the Saints side that lifted the Challenge Cup for the first time in the club’s history in 1956 after their 13-2 victory over Halifax at Wembley, kicking two goals.

And he earned his second cup-winner’s medal after playing a key role from fullback in the 12-6 win over Wigan at Wembley in 1961, kicking three goals and making a brilliant cover tackle to save a seemingly certain Billy Boston try.

A member of Great Britain’s 1957 and 1960 World Cup squads, the latter squad winning the competition, he also played for Lancashire.

Austin was fullback as Great Britain defeated Australia 10-3 at Odsal in the deciding match of that 1960 tournament, kicking two goals in the first half as tries by Boston and Mick Sullivan gave the home side a cushion against a Kangaroos fightback in the second half of a fiercely hard fought and often vicious encounter.

He also kicked ten goals as Saints won the 1959 Championship Final with a classic 44-22 victory over Hunslet before a 52,000 crowd at Odsal.

Austin was no stranger to big games and maintained an incredible consistency of performance that made him such a favourite with team-mates. Reliable, cool, calm and capable of understated genius he was a brilliant player in an era of brilliant players.

In September 1962 Austin and his Saints’ team-mate Ken Large joined Leigh for a joint £11,000 transfer fee, a sizeable investment for the time. Former Saints and GB star Alan Prescott, Saints captain in that landmark 1956 Wembley win, had taken over as Leigh coach during the previous season and he saw the capture of Rhodes and Large as integral to his team-building plans.

Both players made their Leigh debuts against their old club Saints in a Western Championship game at Hilton Park when Large scored a try and Rhodes kicked two goals in Leigh’s 20-10 defeat in front of a crowd of 10,369.

Leigh were in the second division at the time and never recovered from a dreadful start, losing their first eight games. They trailed in a disappointing seventh and though rising to second in 1963-64 Prescott was relieved of his duties and replaced by Gerry Helme.

Austin shared the goal-kicking duties with the fast-emerging Colin Tyrer and though several of his team-mates went on to enjoy long and successful careers at Hilton Park, he had the misfortune to play for Leigh during a re-building phase.

Leigh reached the 1963 Lancashire Cup Final after wins over Rochdale, Wigan and Oldham, playing star-studded Saints at Station Road when Austin partnered Terry Entwistle at halfback in a side captained by fullback and former British Lion Bev Risman. The Leigh side was: Risman; Tyrer, G Lewis, Collins, Leadbetter; Rhodes, Entwistle; Robinson, J Lewis, Owen, Murphy, Martyn, Hurt.

Saints won 15-4 to lift the cup for the fourth successive season though Leigh gave a good account of themselves. Two Tyrer penalties gave them an early lead and it was only just before half-time when Saints’ South African winger Len Killeen scored the game’s first try that the favourites hit the front. Second half tries by Tom Van Vollenhoven and Wilf Smith completed Saints’ victory with Kel Coslett kicking three goals.

Austin’s third and final season for Leigh was in 1964-65 when, with Rugby League back to one division Leigh finished a creditable 12th despite losing their first ten games of the season. He played 80 games in the Cherry and White, scoring nine tries and kicking 51 goals and retrospectively earning heritage number 712. Large, meanwhile, played only 31 games for Leigh and moved on to Blackpool Borough.

Transferred to Swinton, Austin finally wound down his illustrious career back at Saints, retiring through injury after the 1968-69 season having amassed 113 tries and 2,178 career points in a 15-year career. He later coached Swinton in the mid-1970s and also Pilkington Recs.

Austin Rhodes; b St Helens 25 Feb 1937; d St Helens 12 Feb 2019. An obituary by Mike Latham.

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