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Obituary: Dual code cap Bobby Wanbon

Bobby Wanbon with his Welsh cap

Obituary: Dual code cap Bobby Wanbon

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The WRU was saddened to hear this month of the death of the former dual-code international forward Bobby Wanbon while away on holiday in Tenerife a few days before his 79th birthday.  

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A high-quality No 8 at Aberavon, he played for the Wizards between 1964-68 before heading to rugby league to join St Helens. He had the distinction of making his Wales debut against England in both rugby union and rugby league in the same year.  

He joined the Wizards after learning his rugby at St Joseph’s School, in Port Talbot, the Aberavon Boys Club and Aberavon Green Stars. His senior Aberavon debut came at Cwmavon on 6 April 6, 1964. 

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A bricklayer by trade, he was a rugged back row man who stood 6ft 2in tall and weighed in at 15 ½ stones. He played in Welsh trials in the 1966-67 season and played for West Wales against the 1967 touring All Blacks at Swansea.  

“He was tough as old boots and a player who built up a big reputation before finally winning his Welsh cap. He joined Aberavon just before me and always looked after me in both codes,” said former Aberavon and Warrington forward Mike Nicholas. 

“He was incredibly popular among his teammates and fans and enjoyed a great career in rugby league. He felt he should have been given another chance after scoring at Twickenham, but the seletors had other ideas – Welsh rugby’s loss was once again rugby league’s gain.” 

He was picked to make his Wales debut in the opening game in the Five Nations Championship on 20 January 1968 against England at Twickenham. One of three new caps, joining Bridgend prop Boyo Jams and London Welsh flanker Tony Gray, he had three Aberavon teammates lining up alongside him in full back Paul Wheeler and locks Max Wiltshire and Billy Mainwaring. 

The game ended in a draw, 11-11, with Wanbon claiming the equalising try off the back of a scrum close to the English line. England had led 11-3 with a team that contained eight new caps. 

The English pack dominated the game, winning five strikes against the head at the scrums ruling the line-out battle 38-17 (yes, 55 line-outs in one game!). The Welsh selectors reacted by axing six players, for the next game against Scotland, including skipper Norman Gale and Wanbon.  

Gareth Edwards became Wales youngest ever captain for the Scottish clash and Coventry’s Ron Jones was recalled to take over at No 8. Wanbon had been criticised on the field for picking up at the scrum and scoring when a move for a drop goal had been called.  

Being left out of the Test side for the next game was the final straw and on 29 January he switched to rugby league with St Helens for a fee of £4,500. His farewell game for Aberavon was on 27 January at the Talbot Athletic Ground in a 17-3 defeat to Cardiff.  

His debut for St Helens came in a league game at Batley on 7 February in an 18-12 victory. He joined four other former Welsh rugby converts in the Saints side that day, Kel Coslett, John Warlow, Graham Rees and Cen Williams. He made 79 appearances for the Knowsley Road club, scoring 18 tries, before joining Warrington in 1971. 

Injuries forced him to miss out on the Saints’ run to the Championship final at the end of the 1969-70 campaign. He was a forward substitute the following year when Wigan were defeated at Swinton in a marvellous back-to-back title triumph. 

At Warrington, he was at the heart of a pack that helped the Wire beat Saints to win the Club Championship final at Wigan in 1973-74. He also saw success in the Captain Morgan Trophy, John Player Trophy and played at Wembley twice, winning the Challenge Cup in 1974 when Warrington beat Featherstone Rovers and ending up as a runner-up the following year. 

He made 163 appearances for Warrington before knee injuries ended his career in 1978. On the international front, his Wales rugby league debut came at Salford on 7 November 1968 against England. Wales won 24-17 and he went on to win a further seven caps, including playing in the World Cup defeat of England in Brisbane in 1975. 

In later life he became a highly popular pub landlord in Warrington. The WRU sends condolences to his wife, Jean, and all his family and friends.  

Robert Wanbon Cap No 723 (1 cap) B: 16.11.1943 in Port Talbot; D: 08.11.2022 in Tenerife. 

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