Frank Foster, who was generally regarded by many who played against him as one of the hardest man in Rugby League, died on 20th December 2019 aged 79 at St George’s Nursing Home in Millom.
Born in Maryport, Foster played as a professional for Workington Town, Hull KR, Bradford Northern (as they then were), Oldham and Barrow. He also represented Cumberland and Great Britain.
Both Aussie legend Arthur Beetson and the equally uncompromising Jim Mills regarded him as the toughest player they had ever come across.
“Yes, Frank was a very tough man. He’s up there with Brian McTigue, Vince Karalius, Rocky Turner, Stan Owen, Charlie Winslade, lots of very hard men about in them days,” Jim Mills told the News and Star.
“I would never say anyone was the hardest; even Frank made the mistake of hitting Brian McTigue, and came off second best.
“But Frank was one of the hardest of them all.”
Frank played rugby union at Cockermouth Grammar School, but learned his Rugby League with amateurs Glasson Rangers, where he soon rose to prominence and represented Great Britain at Under-19s level.
Workington Town spotted him and signed the teenaged Frank in 1958. He soon found himself playing in a great pack of forwards that included Brian Edgar and the Martin brothers, Bill and Dennis.
He went on to play for Town until 1965, when he was sold for a reported £6,500 to Hull Kingston Rovers. He had played 111 games for Workington, scoring 18 tries and kicking 145 goals.
His former team-mate ‘Smiler’ Allen recalled: “When Hull KR signed Frank they also recruited Bill Holliday from Whitehaven in the same week and the pair really stiffened up their pack until they were a force.”
Frank was soon appointed skipper and led Rovers to two Yorkshire Cup Final victories in 1966 and 67.
He played right-second-row in Hull KR’s 25–12 victory over Featherstone Rovers in the 1966 Yorkshire Cup Final at Headingley, Leeds on Saturday 15 October 1966. In his first season, he was named Rovers’ player of the year.
The following year he played as a substitute, replacing second-rower John Hickson, in the 8–7 victory over Hull FC in the 1967 Yorkshire Cup Final at Headingley on Saturday 14 October 1967, donating his medal to Hickson after the game, when only 13 medals were handed out to the winners in those days.
Soon after that game, in 1967, Frank made his one and only Great Britain appearance alongside team-mates Holliday and ‘Flash’ Flanagan against Australia at London’s White City in a game that the Kangaroos won 11-7.
In all Frank made 129 appearances for Rovers in his five years there before moving to Bradford in November 1968 for two years for a transfer fee of £5,000 plus Bradford captain Geoff Wrigglesworth and Terry Clawson heading to Craven Park as part of the deal.
His arrival at Odsal helped transform Bradford’s fortunes that season, with Northern winning 12 in a row soon after his debut and Frank playing alongside fellow hard men Jim Mills and Tony Fisher.
After being made captain and joint-coach with fellow international Neil Fox, Foster was sold to Barrow for a fee of around £6,000 in December 1969. The club also brought in his former team-mate from Workington ‘Spanky’ McFarlane and George Crayston from Whitehaven. The trio made their debuts together at Salford.
Two years later, in January 1972, Frank joined Oldham, who at the time were struggling in the bottom four of a one-division set-up of 30 clubs.
At that point in the season they had won only six, and drawn one, of their 21 league games. But with Frank as pack leader and the equally experienced Cliff Hill at outside-half and the shrewd Graham Starkey as coach, they lost only one more game out of 13 and that was in the last minute at Warrington.
At the end of Foster’s first season, by which time Oldham had moved 15 places up the division, club historian Mike Turner wrote: “In more than 35 years watching Oldham no player has ever made the same immediate and positive impact.”
Then in 1973 it was back to Barrow as the club’s new coach. At Craven Park Frank built up a fine Barrow side that lured Union stars Ian Ball, Steve Tickle, Nigel French and Mark McJennett to Craven Park. They would combine with local stars that included Derek Hadley, Eddie Szymala, David Cairns and Andy Whittle.
Foster created an open style of rugby and he took Barrow up and down the divisions.
He built a side that won the Second Division championship in 1975/76, and they reached the John Player Trophy Final in 1981, only to lose 5-12 to Warrington at Central Park in front of a crowd of 12,802.
Barrow were not a wealthy club, however, and they struggled to hold on to their leading players. Phil Hogan was transferred to Hull Kingston Rovers in 1978 for a then world record fee of £33,000, but Barrow fluctuated between divisions and Foster was eventually replaced by Tommy Dawes in April 1983, who was able to lead Barrow to the Lancashire Cup Final later that year, where they defeated Widnes.
The same year he was appointed coach at Whitehaven, where he remained in charge until the summer of 1985.
While he was in charge at the Recreation Ground, Haven faced a Wakefield Trinity side that has Australian superstar Wally Lewis playing for them.
Former Whitehaven prop Steve Phythian revealed how Frank prepared him for the visit of the great Queenslander.
“Wally was supposed to be on £1,000 a game so Frank pulled me to one side before the game and told me ‘make sure he earns it.’ I remember that I knocked out some of Wally’s teeth,” recalled Phythian.
Frank leaves a widow, Joyce, a son Brian, a daughter Susan and four grandchildren in Graeme, Jamie, Amy and Michael.
His funeral will be held at St George’s Church on Friday, 3rd January at 12 noon, followed by committal at Thorncliffe Crematorium. His family has asked for donations instead of flowers to the Alzheimer’s Society.
© League Express Mon 30th Dec 2019