It is a cold and miserable Saturday afternoon in November 1992. The rain is lashing across the Solway Plain and is almost horizontal as it wisps in towering curtains across Bower Park, Aspatria. The first XV is playing a friendly against Middlesborough who are themselves a strong team from the North East. It is an inauspicious game for Aspatria supporters, as several star players are away on County duty. This gives many squad players a chance to play first team rugby and make a mark. It is particularly auspicious for me as it is only my third game at tight head prop – ever, and I am in the starting line up!
Two weeks ago I made my debut for Aspatria 3rd XV. Last week I played for the 2nds, and this week I am playing for Aspatria 1st XV. Some of my old playing colleagues at Penrith laughed at me when I left and said that I would never get a 1st XV game no matter how long I tried. I took the view, that if I didn’t have a go, then I would never know. It is unusual for a back row player to make the change to front row. I’ve nothing to lose, and at 27 years old, I will never get another chance.
However there are certain things in my favour. Firstly the rugby laws have changed making the body position of prop forwards in the scrum far more regulated. We are supposed to scrummage with heads above hips and bind on the opposition’s shirt on top of his body. Traditionalists argue that this has made it easier to scrummage. It is true, but you still have to have a technique and some strength. Secondly Aspatria have a massively strong pack. It is feared by most local opposition and many southern teams hate making the trip to Bower Park. All that experience and knowledge means that I have several good men and an odd “bad man” watching my back.
Physically I am about ready to go, technically as a prop forward, I haven’t a clue. Syd Graham is an Aspatria legend, many times capped at prop for Cumbria. Now retired, he is brought in to give me personal coaching. As part of my pre- season training he has beasted me on the scrummage machine and in live scrummaging. Aspatria prides itself on the scrum. They have tested me out, run my legs to jelly, but I keep trying. Sometimes I want to give in and say “enough”, but I won’t.
Syd has been great. He’s ripped up the law book and taught me some “get out of jail” tricks at scrummage time. My absolute favourite is to bring my right knee forward and then crouch low in the scrum so that my right shoulder is actually resting on my knee. It is a brilliantly comfortable position which means I am scrummaging with my head less than one foot from the ground, but there is no chance of me collapsing down to the ground as I am propped up by my own leg. Only the very strongest of loose head props can lift me from this position and by the time he works in to that position on our put in, the ball is long gone.
So after the beasting and the initiation, the coaches believe I am ready to be thrown in at the deep end. My opposition is a wily old fox, many times capped for Yorkshire and now near the end of his career. I stand in the tunnel underneath the new grandstand. Above me is a sign saying “Welcome to Bower Park”. Any teams that play here know they are going to be a given a hard game. The nerves are jangling. I want to run with the ball, which is my forte, but I am constantly reminded that my job is to secure the scrummage. We run on to the pitch. It is waterlogged and frankly horrible.
Due to the conditions, it is not long before the first scrummage is called. I get in to position. Nigel Brown is playing beside me at hooker and he is talking to me all the time, “binding, head up, don’t paddle, lead us in”. We thump together and immediately we go to ground. It is my fault. I’ve tried to hit so hard that I’ve over- balanced and as we collapse in a heap I face plant in to 6 inches of mud. This sets the tenure for the game. I am steadily worked over by my prop. He knows where to put his feet, where to bind, when to go low, when to go high. I am always a few seconds behind him, trying to work out a way to counter- act what he does.
In one scrum, he puts me under so much pressure that I collapse in to the tunnel and even lose my left arm bind with my own hooker. The entire Middlesborough pack trundles over me, and every one of them makes sure they accidently stand on me. It doesn’t really hurt but it is embarrassing. All I can do is get up and smile and go back for more. The scrum reforms and I realise that I just need to survive, so I use the “shoulder on knee” technique that Syd has taught me. It works with immediate effect. The pitch is so wet, that my opposition can’t push from such a low position or he loses his feet. He tries once, slips and is penalised. I don’t take a step backwards for the rest of the game, as I just sit on my knee.
We lose the game but I am not really bothered. I have had some dodgy moments, but survived the game and we only lost one put- in to the opposition. The coaches think I have done alright. I haven’t let anyone down.
Training sessions at Aspatria can be pretty brutal. Senior player and forwards coach Malcolm Brown loves a game of no holds barred Murder Ball. Two packs of forwards locked in a 10 metre grid, fighting to get the ball to the opposition end. It is usually all out warfare. You have to go in head first, as hard as you can or you will get hurt. At the start of the first coupIe of murder ball games I play in, Malcolm throws the ball straight to me. He is testing me out. I have never experienced this level of intensity in my rugby life. What it does do, is build unbelievable team spirit and camaraderie.
Amazingly as the season progresses I am holding my own and have yet to be dropped. Slowly but surely I am learning the ropes playing in a strong and very able pack of forwards. I am also running around the park and scoring tries on a regular basis which can be the only reason I remain in the side
In to the New Year we play Broughton Park, a top Lancashire side. They are now plying their trade in National 3. I am propping against John Russell whom I have heard referred to as Psycho. He is a strong player having been capped at England U19 level and in the current North of England set up. He looks menacing with a shaved head and a constant glare in his steely blue eyes, especially at scrum time.
There is an unwritten rule which Nigel and Steve, my fellow front rowers have drilled in to me. If I am ever able to put so much pressure on my opposite prop that he breaks his bind and puts his hand on the ground, then I have to stamp on it. This is front row union law and it has to be obeyed, indeed it is expected.
Half way through the first half, the strength of the Aspatria pack is beginning to tell. We are grinding them down in a series of rolling mauls, one of our specialities. Indeed the “up the jumper” style of rugby is a feature of our powerhouse game. We play nine man rugby, which is the entire pack plus George Doggart our internationally capped scrum half. He controls the whole show and is the orchestrator.
I’m propping against John Russell. He is as strong as ox but i am holding my own. In fact in one particular scrum I feel that I am putting him under pressure. He breaks his bind and his entire left forearm hits the floor. He is stuck there while I am still on my feet. Then I hear Nigel Brown’s voice. He removes his false front teeth prior to the game, so it is not a good place to stand in front of him when he is talking or shouting.
“Go on then” he says through the large gap in his teeth “Thoo ‘im” I realise he means “shoe him”. I can’t get out of it. It is the law of the jungle. I’ve hardly ever stepped on anyone in my career and if I did I would probably apologise”. There is nothing else to do. I begin to rake my studs up and down John Russell’s arm. The scrum breaks up and Nigel is laughing. He is wind up merchant and niggles the opposition constantly throughout the game. He says to John Russell. “He’s had a good dance on you there pal”. I cringe and want to say “actually I can’t dance” Psycho looks at his arm which is bleeding and then he looks at me. A big smile breaks out on his face and he nods his head. Just one nod, but that nod tells me “don’t worry sunshine. I will catch up with you before the end of the game”. All i can think is “oh no, this is going to hurt”.
I know it’s coming but not when. Then the best thing that could possibly happen! With only 10 minutes to go, I am substituted. I pretend to be disappointed nay distraught as I leave the pitch shaking my head and ripping the tape off my ears. In reality I am very glad to get off before Psycho extracts his revenge. It is the only time in my career that I play against him. When I next see him, many years later, he is a media personality on TV as an expert adviser on Cowboy Builders!