Having played as a first grade halfback, local resident Bruce Hopkins certainly knows his rugby league. Recently retired from property development, Bruce shares his thoughts on his footy career and the changes the game has witnessed over the years …
What originally brought you to the Coffs Coast, and how long have you lived here?
My family and I were living in Mittagong, where we had the Mittagong Hotel. Having lived near the ocean all our lives, we missed it. Seeking sun and surf again, we decided to move to Coffs Harbour, where we bought the lease for the Pier Hotel in 1975. Back then, my wife, Jean, flew back to Sydney regularly for haircuts and shopping.
How old were you when you first started playing rugby league?
During my last year at Bondi Primary, I started playing school grade rugby league. I was the school’s halfback, so I was about 9 when I first played rugby league.
Originally a junior with the Roosters (Easts), how did it then feel as a youngster when you were selected to play professionally with the Canterbury Bulldogs as a halfback?
I was captain of the Second Grade Roosters side. The first grade halfback, Selwyn Lisle, was a good player and a good bloke. However, during a break in the competition due to representative games, a ‘friendly’ match was arranged with the Western Suburbs team. Our entire second grade backline was given the opportunity to play in the second half of that friendly game, except me. I knew that Sel Lisle and the first grade captain-coach, Ray Stehr, served together in the army and were close friends. To me, that put the writing on the wall – I had little chance of breaking into first grade.
About this time, off season, my father met up with Ross Mackinnon in a Sydney pub and told him of my problem. Ross, who was the Canterbury coach, suggested that I go out to their training and that he would look after me. They started me in a sixth grade pre-season trial. However, after three or four trial games, I was chosen for the first competition match as the first grade halfback ahead of their regular halfback, Roy (Torchy) Hasson – who was not, at first, happy to be moved to five-eighth, but he happily came around when we worked together well.
You were also the first Canterbury player ever to be selected for a Kangaroos side, playing representative football in the 1948-49 year. What are some of your fondest memories from this tour … was it a tough gig?
The England and France tour was very tough and very long; it took 6 weeks by ship over, and 6 weeks back again. I remember that our interpretation of the rules was different to theirs. They fed the scrums differently, so we weren’t gaining possession.
In France, we saw many live shows, and this gave us an idea for the long trip home. Three of us: myself, Keith Froome and Wally O’Connell, decided to do an act on the ship miming The Andrews Sisters. When we arrived home, our act was so popular, we were hired by the Celebrity Club and the Tivoli Theatre to perform twice a week. We earned more money than we ever did playing football!
You’re probably most well known for your prowess as a goal kicker. What do you feel is the most important skill needed by players to be able to kick goals consistently … is it a good eye, or being calm under pressure perhaps?
I was actually better known for the torpedo pass; however, I was Canterbury’s goal kicker. Goal kickers need to be calm and unaffected by the crowd; they need to kick low and straight. Jonathon Thurston is a good example; he keeps the ball low and accurate.
What led to you changing clubs and playing with Balmain in 1950? This must have been an interesting experience too – considering your first professional game of first grade rugby league was actually played against Balmain in 1947!
I played with Balmain from 1950 – 1952. I didn’t want to leave Canterbury, but back then you had to play for the team where you lived, and I had moved to the Balmain district. After Balmain, I played for Manly during the 1953 season. A reoccurring ankle injury finally caught up with me, and I retired at the age of 30 mid-season in 1954.
How much do you feel the game of rugby league – and perhaps the calibre of players – have changed since you were a professional player? Advances in technology have obviously had a major impact on the way games are broadcast and viewed too …
Players are interchanged these days. In my day, if you lost a player from injury during the game, they were not replaced. All players were expected to play the 80 mins. The interchange rule has made the game faster, as the players are fresh.
These days, players are full-time professionals; we all had jobs and only trained twice a week.
There was only one referee, who had complete control of the game – obviously no video ref.
There were no night games back then, and I believe that today that the television media has too much influence on the way the games are being run, times and days of the week.
Given you’ve played for a few teams over the course of your footy career – lastly with St George in 1954 – who do you barrack for these days (and why)?
These days I still barrack for Canterbury; I’m a life member, and they look after me. In September they are flying my grandson and I to Sydney for a former internationals luncheon, which I’m looking forward to. I also think Canterbury is coached very well.
You’re also well known on the Coffs Coast for your work as a property developer. Having retired now, what keeps you busy these days?
I have only recently retired, so I am still getting used to it. I have 6 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren, so they are entertaining, and I enjoy watching them play sport. I still follow the local rugby league and also NRL, although my wife, Jean, is beating me in the tipping competition!
Interview by Jo Atkins.
This story was published in issue 24 of the Coffs Coast Focus