St George DRLFC is mourning the loss of six-time premiership winning halfback Bob Bugden.
Born in Murwillumbah on the NSW far north coast in 1936, Bugden made his first-grade debut as an 18-year-old in the 1954 finals series. Two months earlier, he was playing B-Grade for Sutherland in the St George juniors and was a member of Saints’ President’s Cup team. In all, he played 135 first-grade premiership games for the Dragons, scoring 57 tries, and was halfback in the first six grand finals (1956–61) of the Red V juggernaut’s 11-year winning streak in the NSWRL premiership.
Bugden represented NSW in 1959 and 1960 while at St George (and in 1964 when he was playing for Parramatta). A Kangaroo in 1959–60, he played two Tests against France in 1960, scoring three tries on his Test debut, and was a member of Australia’s 1960 World Cup squad.
Bugden’s rise to first grade was certainly meteoric — he had appeared in four games in third grade and one in the reserves when picked to replace the injured Johnny Holden for the 1954 minor semi-final against Norths. Saints’ officials knew what they were doing. Club secretary Baden Wales told the Daily Telegraph that Bugden was ‘the best St George halfback since Alby McAndrew’, the highest praise, and for the next seven seasons the lightning-fast No. 7 proved this judgment right time and again.
Bugden was quick, tough, and remarkably durable. One critic in 1959 compared him, ‘with his speed, particularly in loose play’, to the celebrated British halfback Alex Murphy. Only the presence of Hall of Fame halves Keith Holman and Barry Muir prevented him from playing more Tests. He hardly missed a game because of injury, appearing in all 17 of St George’s finals matches between 1954 and 1961. His three grand final tries were crucial. In 1956, with Saints down to 12 men after centre Merv Lees left the field with a dislocated shoulder, Bugden caught the Balmain backs napping from a play-the-ball and raced over to score just before halftime. The Dragons led 8-0 and hung on to win 18-12.
Two years later, they were in front by a point with 13 minutes to go when Bugden grabbed a wayward pass by Wests prop Mark Patch and dashed 40 metres to score. A late Eddie Lumsden try made the final score 20-9. In 1960, Bugden scored the opening try in the 31-6 win over Easts, after toeing a loose ball into the in-goal.
Writing after the 1962 grand final, St George’s legendary captain-coach Ken Kearney rated Bugden ‘the greatest club halfback since the war’. By this time, the two champion Dragons had transferred to the Eels, where Bugden enjoyed four successful seasons. In 1964, he was chosen for City Firsts, with Billy Smith, playing his first season as Saints halfback, in City Seconds. A week later, when Smith was preferred for a ‘Sydney’ side to take on the touring Frenchmen, Rugby League News reported how ‘at the start of the season when Saints were making Smith a halfback against his wishes, Bugden went along to Kogarah Oval and passed on a few hints on halfback play’.
‘Bugden apparently is a good tutor,’ RLN added, ‘with the result that Smith is in today’s side and his master is out.’
Smith remained the country’s premier halfback for the next seven seasons and is remembered today as St George’s all-time greatest ever No. 7. Bobby Bugden, given all he achieved in the red and white, is not far behind.
‘There was a happy family atmosphere,’ he remembered years later of his time at St George. ‘Once they befriended you, you stayed a friend for life.’
Following his retirement from football, Bob Bugden worked in real estate in Australia and overseas, and lived for many years on the Gold Coast. He died on 2 November 2023. He was 87.