Rugby League Heroes: Charlie Renilson

The Scot who switched codes and played in Oz

Charlie Renilson was a flanker with the Jed Forest club in Scottish rugby union when he followed in his uncle’s footsteps by turning professional with Halifax.
He played 302 games for the Thrum Hall side between 1957 and 1969, scoring 70 tries and helping them to victory in the 1965 Championship Final.
He won eight Great Britain caps before spending three seasons down under with Newtown Jets. He still lives in New South Wales.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

Being picked to play for Great Britain was a very proud moment, after having started out in rugby union. It’s not easy to do that. When I left Scotland, the headline in the local paper was, “Renilson throws away a Scotland cap”. I hadn’t actually realised that I was close to a Scottish cap in union, so I went to Rugby League. Had I known I was close to a union cap, it would have been a much harder decision. I was due to play for Great Britain in the 1962-63 season, but I broke my arm. I eventually got the chance in 1965 when we beat the Kiwis. We won 7-2 and I scored the only try.

Tell us about your uncle Billy Renilson who played for Halifax between 1925 and 1928.

When I came down from Jedburgh, I stayed with my uncle Bill and Auntie Margaret in Illingworth. Bill was my father’s brother. I don’t know too much about his time at Halifax, to be honest, and I’m not even sure if he recommended me to the club. They probably knew of another Renilson playing in Scotland and made me an offer. I’m glad I accepted, and I’d do the same again.

How big a factor was the money in switching codes?

Well, it was significant because I was only earning £4 a week in the local tweed mill in Scotland. I actually got £8 to do the same job in Halifax, so even before the rugby, that was nice. I received a signing-on fee of £1,500 from Halifax and then there were win bonuses too. I did okay out of it.

How long did it take you to settle into Rugby League and what sort of player were you?

It didn’t take me long. I played loose forward in league and it’s similar to wing forward in union – cover tackling, getting the scrum-half when he gets the ball and so on. I adapted well, but I soon had to do two years of national service. My team-mate Jack Scroby advised me not to go into the RAF, which had been my intention, but to go into the Duke of Wellington regiment because I’d be able to come home every weekend. But it didn’t quite work out like that! I ended up in Kenya and even played rugby union out there against the local rep side. I did come home for a while, but went back and ended up spending half my time in Kenya and Nairobi. I think Jack felt a bit guilty, but he was a lovely fella.

How good was the Halifax pack you played in?

We had one of the best packs and we proved it by winning the competition. Obviously, Colin Dixon, Terry Fogerty and Ken Roberts, who all came in after me, were excellent forwards. But we also had some great backs like Garfield Owen, Johnny Freeman and Geoff Palmer. I even played on the wing once when I was coming back from injury and scored a hat-trick against Keighley – but they soon wanted me back in the forwards!

You won the 1965 Championship Final against a St Helens team that included Alex Murphy and Tom Van Vollenhoven.

We were quite a good side too, when you look at the players we had. A lot of us played for Great Britain. It was daunting to come up against the likes of Alex and Tom, but they were both played out of position in that final so neither was at his best. Terry Fogerty became the first winner of the Harry Sunderland Trophy as man of the match that day. We also had the great Australian winger and my future Newtown team-mate Lionel Williamson that season, although he didn’t play in the final. On a personal basis, when I thought of the headline in the paper when I switched codes, I knew I’d come a long way.

But Saints got their own back in 1966.

Well, you can’t win them all! Like you say, they were a very good team, and they had a great year in 1966.

You’ve told us about your Great Britain debut in 1965, but why didn’t you play in the next two Tests?

I seem to remember they picked Johnny Rae, a Bradford player, instead of me because the second Test was at Odsal and they thought they’d get a bigger crowd! He only got that one cap. Then they chose Dave Robinson for the third game at Wigan. It was frustrating, because I had to wait two years for my next appearance when the Kangaroos came over. In fact, when I came to Australia, a few people said to me they couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been picked more for Great Britain, and they were glad I hadn’t, which I suppose was a compliment. But I did enjoy my debut at Station Road and playing alongside people like Ken Gowers, Frank Myler, Tommy Smales and Cliffy Watson was a real thrill.

You were an ever-present in the World Cup of 1968. Among your team-mates were Bev Risman, Clive Sullivan, Roger Millward, Tommy Bishop, Cliff Watson and Ray French.

I thoroughly enjoyed the competition and then coming back and seeing where we’d been. We used to go training down at the Sydney Cricket Ground, which was pretty unusual to say the least. I just thought it was a cricket ground, but there was a big Rugby League pitch marked out in the middle!
But our preparation wasn’t the best. We flew out and immediately played Australia, who beat us. Then the French turned us over and we were out. We did beat New Zealand by a big score and then we played some tour games. It seemed to be back to front – a strange tour itinerary. Had we had the tour games first, the World Cup would have been a different story.

Why did you leave Halifax for Australia?

I was on winning or losing pay at Halifax and then the chance came up to make some money in Australia – certainly more than I was on in Halifax. The bonuses were accumulative in Australia, with the winning money going up and up, maybe ten or 20 dollars a time, until you got beat. I was able to buy a nice house.

Why Newtown?

Initially, I came over to play for Canterbury with Lionel Williamson, but it didn’t quite work out like that. Bobby Hagan was playing for Canterbury and was keen for us to sign. He went on to become their coach and then was a board member. Lionel had just won the World Cup with Australia, who were coached by Harry Bath. Harry approached us both and made us an offer which was a bit more attractive than Canterbury’s, so we went there instead, and I don’t regret it because I enjoyed my time at Newtown. Harry was a famous coach and he’d played in England for Warrington. He was an excellent coach, very knowledgeable.

Did you know then that you would stay in Australia for so long?

No, not at all. We didn’t even think about it. I thought we might go back to Halifax a few years later, buy a post office and have a little business. But I worked as a rep in Australia and then started a contract cleaning business and had people working for me, so I ended up staying and here I still am!

How did standards in England compare with Australia?

Some of the teams in Sydney could sign anybody. Eastern Suburbs and South Sydney had great sides, full of internationals, so some of the teams we played were fantastic. But Wigan, Halifax and St Helens in England were similar, and I wouldn’t say there was much difference. It’s hard to split the two competitions from back then.

Did you feel more appreciated in Australia than England?

Maybe, but it’s probably more to do with the fact I stayed in Australia and went on work in the game after I finished playing.

What did you do after Newtown?

I coached their reserves for a while. I moved to Easts in 1972 and later because a selector for the Sydney city rep side.

As a Scotsman, were you still called a Pommy bastard?

I used to say, “You’re wrong!” but yes, I was. Newtown had players from everywhere. There were only 12 teams in the NSWRL back then and we tended to be between the middle and the bottom.

Who were the best players you played with and against?

There were so many, in particular, several from Wales like Billy Boston. Billy was unbelievable because he was such a size, and he could run so quickly. Dick Huddart and Cliff Watson ensured that St Helens had a very good pack and they also proved how good they were in Australia. Roger Millward and Tommy Bishop were magnificent halves and I also liked Alan Burwell, the centre who played for Hull KR and Canterbury. It was a great time to play.
And then in Australia, Ron Coote, the great loose forward from Easts, comes to mind. He was outstanding. Arthur Beetson was wonderful, and I played against a few of the other Immortals like Graeme Langlands, John Raper, Reg Gasnier and Bob Fulton.

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