There’s many ways to skin a cat in Rugby League where exists the opportunity to inflict serious pain and suffering within and around the fringes of the rules. On one infamous afternoon though at Wollongong Showgrounds, Wests’ Bob ‘Longback’ Cooper cut to the chase. Buying into a dispute between teammate Paul Merlo and Illawarra’s Greg Cook, the pain and suffering inflicted by Cooper would linger long after the broken bones had mended.
The Illawarra and Western Suburbs match on 27 June 1982 was barely minutes old when a surge of testosterone sparked a black day in the sport’s history. A mighty unit standing almost two metres tall, Bob Cooper burst onto the scene in 1980 and represented NSW in the inaugural State of Origin.
Out of favour, a last minute call-up was supposed to be an opportunity to save the back rower’s flagging career. The last thing Cooper would have envisaged was that he’d be indelibly linked to effectively ending two careers in a matter of seconds, and ultimately his own.
Following a tap, Illawarra front rower Cook directed an errant elbow at Merlo, drawing an incensed Cooper into the fray. A flurry of swinging arms ensued however Cook would regret sending a connecting punch Cooper’s way. As Cook emerged from the growing melee, his head was teed up perfectly at waist height for Cooper to unleash some fearful retribution.
The slightly built Steelers’ winger Lee Pomfret then appeared on the scene in a vain attempt to separate the protagonists. A red mist had already enveloped Cooper, and inexplicably Pomfret copped a frightful whack. Cooper knew he’d gone past the point of no return but in the heat of the wild melee involving all but three players, there was no out clause. To illustrate Cooper’s primal state of mind, he couldn’t even recall thumping a third player, Scott Greenland. As the instigator, the bowed and bloodied Cook was sent off and as the third man in (and for other obvious reasons), so was Cooper.
Pomfret suffered the worst blow, a smashed nose and broken cheekbone on each side. A newspaper photo published the next day of his bandaged head was more akin to a car crash victim. Cook copped a broken jaw whilstGreenland suffered no long-term effects.
Cook and Pomfret’s careers followed similar trajectories, both playing roughly a dozen games with the Bulldogs in 1980-81 before joining the Steelers for the 1982-83 seasons. Neither was considered anything more than a reasonable player. Pomfret was groomed as Steve Mortimer’s understudy at Canterbury but was subsequently tried in several positions. Cook’s other claim to fame was scoring the Steelers’ first ever try in the NSWRL. Nevertheless, their careers migrated south following the incident. Pomfret managed 13 more games in 1983 but reportedly lost all confidence and eventually struggled to make first grade in a local Wollongong league. Cook played just three more first grade games with Illawarra.
Jim ‘Hanging Judge’ Comans swept a necessarily heavy broom through League at the time and the method in which the Cooper case was executed ensured a hefty penalty. Little about the hearing made much sense; the unrepresented Cooper was only tried for whacking Cook; Pomfret and Greenland reputedly kept in reserve in case the penalty failed to satiate the Steelers’ sense of justice. Considering Cooper at least had a tenuous justification for decking Cook, it would seem anomalous that he was not called to account over smashing an innocent, unprotected bystander (Pomfret). In the end it mattered little.
Natural justice was given short shrift and Cooper was an opportune poster boy for League’s agenda (however admirable). It was the wrong time for any player to perpetuate ‘thugby’s’ corroded reputation and it was with a pre-ordained sense of gravitas that Comans handed down a 15 month penalty to the distraught back rower.
If God gave Bob Cooper the weapon and circumstances the trigger, just how culpable was the Magpie behemoth for the magnitude of damage inflicted? Cooper was no Les Boyd, his pugilistic exhibition somewhat out of character. In fact Cooper sometimes needed to be cajoled into a state of mind as imposing as his immense frame. Where aggression and heavy contact is encouraged (even a source of mirth in some quarters) and is an integral part of success in a sport, one could argue Cooper was as much a pawn as a reckless thug to be dispatched forever more.
Sympathetic musings aside, the severity of the penalty was justified. Cooper had well and truly crossed the line. His newly demonstrated propensity to snap and cause grievous bodily harm rendered him a danger to opponents – much like Barry Hall. Few would lament Cooper’s career petering out in a similar manner to his quarry. Cooper was indeed lucky to have only paid a penalty measured in rugby terms for nowadays he would likely be facing hefty civil damages and criminal prosecution.
Bring back the biff I hear you say?