Wilf Rosenberg dies in Israel
The extraordinary life of Wilf Rosenberg was ended by a stroke on Monday, 14 January 2019. He was 84.
Born in Cape Town, he started playing rugby in Sydney, Australia, finished his education in Johannesburg and was only 24 when he played his last Test. A rugged young man, his later years were frail.
Rosenberg was a star at Jeppe High School for Boys in Johannesburg and two years later, a student at Wits University, he was chosen to play for Transvaal. Two years later, at 20, he became a Springbok. At the age of 24 he crossed over to play rugby league and had an outstanding career doing so.
Rosenberg’s father was Rabbi Philip Rosenberg. In 1937, he was the chief rabbi for Australasia, when the great Springboks came on tour. When Louis Babrow played in the last Test on Yom Kippur, Rabbi Rosenberg was critical of him. When some in the Jewish community asked how Wilf, the son of a rabbi, could be playing rugby on shabbat, the rabbi reportedly said: “My son was born with a God-given talent. Who am I to argue with God?”
Rosenberg started playing rugby at Sydney Grammar School before the family moved back to South Africa. After stardom at Jeppe, he played for Witwatersrand University, where he was studying medicine. In 1953, at 18, he was first chosen for Transvaal at a time when Transvaal had some excellent backs – Clive Ulyate, Des Sinclair, Joe Kaminer, Natie Rens, Jan Prinsloo, Hansie Oelofse, Lance Nel, Johnny Buchler and Paul Johnstone. Rosenberg played for Transvaal from 1953 to 1958, just nine times in all.
The 1954 South African Rugby Annual, reporting on Transvaal in 1953, said under the heading Interesting Experiment: “By far the most interesting experiment during the season was the elevation of Wilf Rosenberg, the 18-year-old University centre, to provincial status in the match against Northern Transvaal [which Northern Transvaal won 19-17 at Ellis Park]. The youngster did quite well but, unfortunately, injury laid him low, though he did enough in the games in which he played to show that he deserves every encouragement.”
In 1953 the Wallabies came and Rosenberg played against them when they beat Transvaal Universities. Then came the great 1955 B&I Lions, and. Rosenberg again played against them for Transvaal Universities who again lost to the tourists. The Lions won the first Test of the series at Ellis Park – one of the greatest Tests in the history of the game.
The second Test was at Newlands, and Rosenberg was selected, hearing the news just after midnight on the radio. Tom van Vollenhoven had been moved to the wing and Rosenberg was chosen to partner Sinclair.
There were concerns about Rosenberg’s defence, especially as his immediate opponent would be burly Phil Davies, one of the very best centres in the world. But Doc Craven took Rosenberg in hand, teaching him how to tackle and on the Saturday, Rosenberg blotted out the Davies threat. South Africa scored seven tries in that 25-9 victory, and Rosenberg, on debut, scored one of the seven tries.
Rosenberg kept his place in the team for the next two Tests – defeat in Pretoria and victory in Port Elizabeth.
In 1956 the Springboks toured Australasia, winning two dull Tests in Australia and losing the series 3-1 in New Zealand, the Springboks’ first series loss for 60 years. For Rosenberg it was a miserable trip. He was one of the Springboks injured in pre-tour exercises and never really got his hamstring right. Of the 29 matches on the tour, he played in only five, one of them the third Test when he scored a long-range try.
In 1957 Rosenberg concentrated on his medical studies but returned to rugby in 1958 when the French came on tour. He played against them for Combined Universities and in the first Test of the two-Test series. It was at Newlands and the Springboks were captained by Johan Claassen who died just eight days before Rosenberg. The drab match was a three-all draw and signalled the end of Rosenberg’s Springbok career.
In 1959, just married to Elinor, Rosenberg signed a contract to play rugby league for Leeds for the record sum of £6 000. There he attended Leeds University, changing from medicine to dentistry. He had a stellar career with Leeds, setting a new try-scoring record of 48 tries in a season, a record which still stands.
He had three seasons with Leeds and then he, Elinor and their three children came back to South Africa. He set up as a periodontist with a flourishing practice in Florida on the West Rand. All that came tumbling down in 1970 when he suffered a stroked which left his right side partly paralysed and ended his career in dentistry. From then on he was involved in many projects – insurance, journalism, public relations and then boxing as a promoter where he was involved in promoting six world title fights.
Rosenberg was one of the rugby minyan of 10 Jewish Springboks. The others were Morris Zimerman, Fred Smollan, Louis Babrow, Cecil Moss, Okey Geffin, Syd Nomis, Joe Kaminer, Alan Minter and Joel Stransky. In 1994, Rosenberg became the third South African inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel.
In 1989 his wife Elinor succumbed after a long battle with cancer. His three children living overseas, divorced from his second wife and needing care. Rosenberg emigrated to Israel in early 2010 to be near his daughter Nicola Kroft.
Wilfred Rosenberg was born in Sea Point, Cape Town, on 18 June 1934. He died in Herzliya, Israel, on Monday, 14 January 2019, survived by his children Nicola, Andrea and Adam, who played for Transvaal schools and Under-20.