Nine tenths of the cash went on buying himself out of the Army and any prospect of a zoological career failed to survive an investigation into how a pack of zebras came to be wandering off down town on the loose.
In the summer of 1935, Rugby League’s newest Welsh import found himself down to his last £10 and without any means of augmenting his £3-a-week as a part-time professional until he found work driving long-distance lorries.
To his eternal credit, the bruiser of a boy from one of Cardiff’s blue-collar districts recovered from the runaway zebras to become one of the greats of the northern game. Along the way Frank Whitcombe founded a rugby dynasty which is still thriving on both sides of the Rubicon and he did it all on the proverbial shoestring.
During his three years at Belle Vue, Whitcombe made such an impression that Bradford Northern broke the transfer record by splashing out £850, ensuring his former employers a profit which more than compensated for any missing zebras.
At Odsal, they trumpeted the arrival of ‘the best player in the game’, a proclamation which turned out to be reasonably prophetic but not before the Second World War had run its ghastly course. Once peace had been restored, Whitcombe sailed to Australia in 1946 as one of the famous Indomitable Great Britain Lions, so-called because of the aircraft carrier which took them all the way.
They didn’t call him The Big Man for nothing. A panzer of a prop, he drove the club into three successive Challenge Cup finals at Wembley, literally so in the case of the second, against Wigan in 1948.
When the driver of the team coach lost his way in London that Saturday and Bradford were in some danger of missing the kick-off, Whitcombe averted the crisis. He took over at the wheel, put the team back on the right road and made it to Wembley in the nick of time.
He then proceeded to make history as the first player from a losing team to win the coveted Lance Todd trophy as man-of-the-match. Back at Wembley for a winning finale 12 months later against Halifax, Whitcombe made more history as the heaviest Challenge Cup winner (18st 7lbs) and the oldest (almost 36).
After retiring in 1951, Whitcombe spent the next seven years as a director of Bradford Northern before his tragically premature death from a heart attack at the age of 44. By then he had ensured that the Whitcombe name would still be talked about more than half a century later.
His sons, Brian (78) and Frank junior who died four years ago aged 73, played almost a thousand Union matches between them for Bradford, Keighley, Yorkshire and, famously in Frank’s case, for the North East Counties propping against Wilson (later Sir Wilson) Whinerary and his 1963 All Blacks. Martin Whitcombe then carried the tradition through a third generation with the distinction which comes with Leicester and England B.
Now his son, James, is beginning to make a name for himself at the age of 13. At almost six foot and some 16 stone, the embryonic giant is already part of Leicester’s Yorkshire academy.
“They think James will be the best of the lot and that’s saying something,” says Brian, as a former flanker the only member of the dynasty not to specialise in the front row. There were some outstanding props in the family but Martin reckons James has what it takes to beat them all.
“If he gets to the top, then I’d love to see him play for Wales. I’m a biased Welshman even if I sound like a Yorkshireman and, believe me, there have been times when I suffer for it at my local rugby club!’
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