‘It must have been one hell of a kick...I suppose it was’

Ernie Cooper with his son Tim, who was president of Bridlington's local rivals Driffield
Ernie Cooper with his son Tim, who was president of Bridlington's local rivals Driffield

To mark the 70th anniversary of his 81-yard penalty, former Bridlington RUFC president Ernie Cooper spoke to the Free Press sister paper, The Yorkshire Post, in 2014 about his memories of his record-breaking kick. We are reprinting it as a tribute following his death.

A crisp winter’s day greeted the final game of the season for Bridlington School’s rugby team, on January 19, 1944.

Ernie Cooper won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bridlington Free Press sports awards in 2014

Ernie Cooper won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bridlington Free Press sports awards in 2014

Only a slight wind blew across the field to mark a game in which they needed to avoid defeat to ensure they would finish the campaign unbeaten.

Their opponents that day were an Army select team, which comprised rugby league players because some of the union boys had been called up to war.

Midway through the second half, the Army team were penalised deep in Bridlington territory and a penalty was awarded.

Ernie Cooper, a 17-year-old winger, placed the ball and pointed to the posts.

Ernie Cooper receives a tankard, marking his record-breaking kick, from Bruce Raper

Ernie Cooper receives a tankard, marking his record-breaking kick, from Bruce Raper

He was five yards in from the touchline and one yard outside his own 25-metre line. The distance to the posts was a staggering 81 yards, or 74 metres.

“What does that silly bugger think he’s going to do from there?” the opposing captain was heard to quip as his players went and stood under the crossbar, anticipating the ball would drop short.

But Cooper, unruffled, merely went through his routine, dropping back three paces before accelerating through the ball with his right foot.

There was a “slight, moderate cross-wind” the school report noted, it didn’t matter.

Cooper’s kick travelled the 81 yards through the air and never looked like dropping short. It cleared the crossbar comfortably and even landed beyond the dead-ball line.

“I was delighted to have knocked it over, but the most important thing that day was that we drew the game and managed to finish the season unbeaten,” recalls Cooper, who scored a try and a conversion as well that day.

The enormity of the achievement was lost on the teenager and, to be fair, most of the participants that day.

In fact, it would be nearly three decades before it was put into the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest kick in the history of rugby union. It is a record that still stands today.

“I have a card from Jonny Wilkinson that reads, ‘It must have been one hell of a kick, Ernie’, and I suppose it was,” smiles Cooper.

As well as going relatively unrecorded for 30 years, the irony of that day was that Ernie Cooper was not a traditional kicker, nor was he after that.

“I was a winger by trade who just kicked occasionally,” he said.

“I went to Birmingham University after I left Bridlington School and wasn’t a kicker then. Nor was I for much of my career.”

What Cooper was, however, was a terrific servant to Yorkshire rugby union. He had broken into the Bridlington School team at the age of 13, playing alongside, and against, boys who were sometimes five years older.

“I was a sports fanatic. In union I had a strong hand-off and I was fast when I went down that left wing,” he says.

“I also loved athletics and was a sprinter, a high jumper and a discus thrower, among other disciplines, at school.”

His union career took in six Yorkshire teams.

Cooper played for Bridlington, Scarborough, Headingley, Roundhay, Hull & East Riding and York Unicorns, who were his last team, with his final game of union coming in a midweek league game in January 1990.

Cooper was 64. He had played union in Yorkshire in six different decades, from the 1940s to the 90s.

His long service to the sport in this county was honoured in 2013 when his beloved Bridlington reached the RFU Junior Vase final at Twickenham, and he was asked to lead the team out.

“What an honour that was,” he says. It was a fantastic day for our club, one none of us will forget.

“And the hospitality that day? Out of this world. Anything you wanted you could have.

“We lost unfortunately (30-22 to Brighton), but we were an amateur team, up against a team with money.

“That’s the big change I’ve seen in the sport over the years, the advent of professionalism has meant money rules, which is a shame.”

It is a far cry from the innocence of Cooper’s early days and, indeed, the majority of his gloriously long career, when such events as an 81-metre kick were greeted with polite applause and two teams who just got on with it.