A full 50 years before Meli Dreu and his mock white hair started dashing into the backline, a natural redhead began to make his mark as an Easts fullback.

Bruce Cooke was just 19 when he emerged as a lean six-footer destined for higher honours in 1972.

He shared in the 1972 reserve grade premiership before embarking on a seven- season first grade career that took him all the way to a Wallaby jersey.

Cooke was a 35-game regular at fullback in the champion Queensland sides between 1974 and 1979 and a fan favourite at Bottomley Park for the Tigers.

“Bruce was a great fullback, the rock we built our game on at Easts in the ‘70s,” former Queensland back Rob Mackay said.

“He rarely missed a high ball, he was a very good defender and he ran beautiful lines in support that made it easy for anyone passing the ball.”

Easts have always had a knack for producing fine fullbacks. To name just a few, think Cooke, Neil Goodman-Jones, Graham Holt, Andrew King, two-time premiership winner Richard Graham, Andrew Walker and 2020 grand final star Aidan Toua.

Cooke landed at Easts almost by accident after his schooling at Gregory Terrace where future Wallabies captain Tony Shaw was a hirsute First XV teammate.

Cooke lived closer to Souths and was studying at the University of Queensland.

Rugby was a far more comfortable choice for his family than the day he suggested soccer as a kid.

“Dad was from Mitchell out west. ‘No kid of mine is playing soccer’ was the answer when I asked as a boy. He drove me 5km to play rugby league rather than just down the road to play soccer,” Cooke, 69, recalled with a laugh.

“That’s where I learnt to tackle during my junior league days at Brothers St Brendan’s.

“After my time at Terrace, I came to Easts almost by chance. I had a bunch of friends at uni who were heading to the club and I joined them.”

It’s a decision he never regretted.

“Look, Easts weren’t a top team in the ‘70s. We had our ups-and-downs but I
loved playing for Easts,” Cooke said.

“We had some very good players. ‘Spider’ McLean was selected for the Wallabies in that period, Rob Mackay was an excellent flyhalf and (centre) Jeff Weeks, a real thoroughbred with a great swerve, would have played more times for Queensland but for unfortunate injuries.”

Easts made the preliminary final in both 1976 and 1978. In both years, the Tigers beat Brothers early in the finals only to trip a step before the grand final.

In Cooke’s bumper 1976 season, he was honoured as the first-ever winner of the Rothmans Gold Medal as Best and Fairest in the first grade competition on the vote of referees. When all votes were counted, he was tied with Wallaby Mark Loane (University) but won a tie breaker based on more three-point votes. Years later, Loane would be awarded a medal as a joint winner.

Cooke was an excellent goalkicker. Mackay remembers one misguided afternoon against Wests at Sylvan Road where he motioned to the referee that Easts would take a shot at penalty goal. He’d mistaken the markings on the field for 10m in the opposition half, not 10m in his own.

“I got my bearings wrong. I still had Bruce take the kick and he made me look like a smart captain because he still kicked it over,” Mackay said.

One of Cooke’s crowning achievements for Queensland was featuring in the 48-10 walloping of NSW in 1979.

He won selection for the first Test of the 1979 series against Ollie Campbell and the Irish at Ballymore. It was a proud high.

“Ollie Campbell was a wonderful kicker and the Irish were a very good team, a swarming team,” Cooke said.

“He put a ball up in the box early, I slid to catch it and the Irish pack arrived a second later. Whack.

“It was a tough game (a 27-12 loss). I didn’t have a great game but not a bad one either. It was great to have done it, play for Australia.”

It was to be his only Test in his final season. He was on the bench for the second Test of the series. Shoulder and knee niggles had built up and Cooke headed into retirement at 27 to concentrate on a career in electrical engineering.

As for that occasional nickname of “Brutal” that overtook “Cookie” at times? Cooke might have been competitive and a bit kamikaze with his tackling on occasions but he was never fiery.

Queensland teammate Loane playfully tagged him “Brutal Bruce The Basher from Bottomley” because he was the least likely to fit the description of the man who had robbed the pub run by Andrew Slack’s mother.

Dreu is finding his feet in the No.15 jersey after an early season call-up to debut.

He scored two tries in that dizzying eight days of rugby when the Tigers beat Bond University (47-19), Souths (30-19) and Sunnybank (47-45).

Some things haven’t changed since Cooke’s days.

“It’s just the people at Easts. There’s a very good culture and I’ve been made welcome since I arrived at the club last season,” Dreu said.

As for the hair: “Thank my sister Michelle. You had to find some fun when bored at home during those washed-out games. It’s growing out.”

Bruce Cooke holding aloft his 1976 Rothmans Medal
Selected for the Wallabies in 1979
Clearing kick...Cooke gets this kick away from Wests


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