GET YOUR HEAD TO THE LEFT!

Rugby was a different game in the 90’s. There were no video referrals or radio mics. If a problem on the pitch needed sorted, it got sorted. Here is an example of how the game was played by Aspatria RUFC.

It is 1993. Aspatria RUFC have a mid- winter national league fixture at Sudbury way down south in Suffolk. As usual we leave Penrith at 3pm on Friday afternoon heading over the A66 and down the A1. The Redcrest luxury double decker coach is full, the atmosphere convivial. The playing squad sits on the top deck around numerous tables. Committee men and supporters are downstairs.

Immediately a Forwards V Backs game of Trivial Pursuits gets under way. George Doggart is over from Sweden and wants to bet on the pie questions. The Backs are full of educated, learned men like Jimmy “Jinky” Miller, Tom Borthwick, Dave Murray and Colin Campbell. The forwards however, have a secret weapon, a genuine mastermind within their ranks. Neil Wedgwood from Maryport who only just made the bus straight from the early shift at British Steel, is an unbelievable font of knowledge. His consistency in answering even the difficult “art and literature” questions is breath-taking. Single handedly he wipes the floor with the backs. They sit open mouthed as the last piece of pie is slotted in by Wedgie with a shrug of his shoulders. He is a classy open- side wing forward, always in the right place at the right time, quietly going about his work. And he is brilliant at “Triv”.

It is a great team building exercise and we are proud to represent our Club and County as we head South. We are dressed in our club shell suits and we are men on a mission. We feel like professional rugby players even though in this era there is no such thing in the union code.

Eventually we make it to The Stansted Hilton Hotel. Aspatria Rugby Club has a deal with the hotel chain and we always stay at a Hilton if there is one close to our opponent’s location. We have a team meal and then the squad retires to the bar. I am fairly new so I am rooming with a seasoned professional. It is Tony Clemetson one of our second row forwards. I am in awe of Clemmo. He has a certain reputation on and off the rugby field. He can mix it whenever he wants to. He also has a large number of caps for Cumbria. Not many Cumbrian teams like playing against Clemmo. He is heavy- handed and he can do real damage.

The squad is encouraged to stay loose, and have a drink if required, but not overdo it. Clemmo and me stick together and find ourselves having a couple of pints of Guinness. We are both selected on the bench for tomorrow’s game by rotation. Substitutes are only allowed to come on as an injury replacement. It is unlikely that we will get much of a game.

I don’t intend to keep drinking, but we find ourselves on a table with two very camp flight stewards and a couple of air hostess’s one of whom is perhaps coming towards the end of her career, with a few air miles on the clock. The air stewards seem to love having a drink with two 17 stone rugby players but the old hostess has had one too many and she is telling me her life story. She is slowly sinking in to “could have been’s” and “should have been’s”. Most of the players have retired to bed. Clemmo and me are left with Justin, Larry and a lady who is now in tears and looking for comfort. Then Robbo arrives. Forwards Coach.

“Adam what have you done to upset this lovely lady”? “Get yourself off to bed. You too Clemmo and that’s an order” We make our goodbyes and as I look back across the bar, Robbo has one arm around Justin and the other arm around the hostess. We have a chat with a couple of supporters who are on the beer. By this time Robbo has come back and joined us. “Saved you there boy” he says with a wink as we head for the lift.

Next morning we are down at breakfast with slightly thick heads. The Guinness has not gone down too well. We then go to a team meeting. It has poured down heavily all night. Tommy Borthwick, player- coach, announces that there is a change of plan. The pitch is expected to be heavy and it may well be a battle of attrition between the forwards. Clemmo is promoted from the bench to starting second row. I will have to stay warm because Steve Irving, our County Loose Head Prop is carrying a shoulder injury and may not last the trip. Clemmo and I both supress groans. I am more worried about the fact that I have never actually played in the Loose Head position in my life, never mind a national league 3 game. In fact i’ve only had a handful of games at tight- head. Not for the first time am i left wondering what the hell i’m even doing there!

We go out to the car park and do some warm up jogging and line out drills. Then we are on the coach to the game. Tommy Borthwick hands out banana’s. Everyone has to eat them. He’s read in Muscle and Fitness that NFL stars in America chew bananas constantly. My banana is more green than yellow. I force it down. It is sour and almost crunchy. I feel decidedly unwell.

The game kicks off in pouring rain but the pitch isn’t too bad. I’m taped up, greased up and sitting on the bench in my padded subs suit. It’s toasty warm and I am hoping that Aspatria will rule the game comfortably as they generally do in most forward battles. It is a style for which we are noted and even top class teams like Wasps and Moseley have struggled to take the Black Reds on up front. I rather hope that I get a nice 20 minute run at the end with no pressure.

The first couple of scrums are a real mess. I can see that the opposition tight head is collapsing in on Steve Irving. It is deliberate and designed to stop Steve doing what he is very good at. It happens again at the third scrum. This time Steve doesn’t get up. His bad shoulder has been damaged. He will have to leave the field. “Right Adam, you are on” says Robbo. “Oh Shit” I nearly blurt out.

So I am stripped for action, sleeves rolled up, and a wad of Vaseline covering my neck to allow my head to slide easily in to the alien world of the left hand side of the scrum. I haven’t even played in this position on the scrummage machine, never mind a national league match. I am straight in to the game at the reset scrum. I bind as tight as I can on my hooker Nigel Brown. He will guide me through this and I have Clemmo in the second row behind me. “Get your right leg back” says Clemmo “and get your head under his chin”

We thump in and I immediately see stars. It’s nothing to worry about. This always happens to me in the first scrum until the nerves in my neck warm up. I get a good bind with my free left arm and my back is straight. I actually feel quite comfortable. It is a Sudbury put- in to the scrum. The advantage is with us. Nigel may choose to contest the strike but he is experienced and he knows I am not. So he gets his legs back in to a pushing position. He is also exerting immense pressure with his head and shoulders on the back of his opposition hooker and my tight- head prop.

The ball is presented by the Sudbury scrum half and I feel a surge of power from behind me. Clemmo is pushing as is Malcolm Brown on the flank. They love this. I can feel my opposition begin to creak with pressure. Then he does exactly what he did with Steve Irving. He releases his bind on my left arm and nose dives into the scrum. I don’t have the technique or strength to stop it. The referee is getting edgy and he doesn’t understand what is happening. He urges us to keep up. He is rambling on about heads above hips.  I shrug my shoulders to say “not my fault” but i’m not one for pointing and gesticulating.

We reset. Immediately my prop sinks in again. He knows he’s going backwards and he is trying to win a penalty. As we stand up I look at Clemmo for guidance. “When he goes down again, get your head as far to the left as you can” he whispers. “And remember, to the left”…

We crash in again and I hold my prop up as long as I can before he dives for the deck. As we collapse I get my head out of the scrum as far to the left as I can. It hurts. Everyone gets up. Well everyone except my prop who is lying on the ground clutching his head which is bleeding profusely. He has to leave the field for treatment. It dawns on me what has just happened. As the scrum went down, Clemmo stood up and followed through with his right boot between me and Nigel, exactly where my head should have been, had I not moved to the left. Clemmo has imprinted a perfect set of stud marks on the props head. It is quite illegal of course but is the law of the jungle at scrum time. If a referee cannot sort out a problem, or does not know how to, the team’s enforcer, and every good team has one, will sort the problem for the team. Aspatria always had more than one! Clemmo shows absolutely no emotion.

A few minutes later my opposition prop is back on the field, bandaged up. We scrummage again and he doesn’t look me in the eye. As we engage he stays straight and true. I have no trouble for the rest of the game. It is an arm- chair ride and that suits me just fine (don’t tell Steve Irving). As a result I am able to run about and carry the ball regularly. Late in the game I peel from the front of the line right around the back with ball in hand. Charging past their fly half i almost get to the opposition posts before being hauled down. We score from the re- cycled ball.

I don’t remember the final result but and I am elated to have finished the game in on piece and head held high. Minutes later I am in the big team bath sitting next to Clemmo. He soaps himself and explains the instructions he gave me on the field.

“You see Adam Lad, the same thing happened in a game last year, so I told Steve Irving to get his head to the left. The problem is he doesn’t know his left from his right”. He had to come off and get six stitches when I caught him in the lug. I didn’t want that to happen to you!

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING IN PLYMOUTH

Up in the attic searching for Christmas decorations, I came across a box full of old rugby programmes. I spied a programme Plymouth V Aspatria, Saturday 18th December 1993. My mind went back to the game, which was one of the most memorable I played in.

Up in the attic searching for Christmas decorations, I came across a box of old rugby programmes. I spied a programme Plymouth V Aspatria, Saturday 18th December 1993. My mind went back to the game, which was one of the most memorable I played in.

We travelled down to Plymouth on Friday afternoon, on the usual double decker coach. It was a hell of a long journey but the lads were in good spirits with the usual board games and banter.  It is amazing to think that in those amateur days, a little team from North Cumbria could travel the length and breadth of England playing league rugby for zero financial reward. Sure there was some free kit and few expenses to be had, but the small squad of players were on that bus for two reasons: – to play the game of rugby union and to represent Cumbria, that far off county of lakes and mountains that some teams we played against had very little knowledge of.  This was the last game to be played before Christmas and we were shopping for much needed points

Friday night saw a late meal waiting for us at the Hilton Hotel, always a Hilton Hotel for Aspatria. Then it was a couple of drinks in the bar before bed. I was rooming with Tony Clemetson our rumbustious second row. Clemmo on his day and the right mood was a force of nature. It was always good to talk to roommates before lights out. It helped to know what made people tick and what they were about. Clemmo always had an edge to him and I for one was always glad to know he had my back on the rugby pitch.

After a good night’s sleep we breakfasted before running up and down the car park doing some walk- throughs and drills, mostly for lineouts and back row moves. Then with time to spare I took off for a walk with our club captain Mark (Tank) Richardson. I enjoyed this as it took my mind of the game and stopped the nerves building too early. I did this on a few occasions with Tank. A huge presence on the pitch, he was unstoppable from close quarters, he quietly got on with the job, leading by example. When the unsubtle stuff was needed, Tank never failed to step up to the plate! Off the pitch he was a quite family man. Often on our walks he would stop at a shop and by a couple of presents for his young children. At the time I didn’t appreciate the pressure on family men, leaving their families for most of the weekend to travel the country in pursuit of a decent standard of rugby. Several of our players had children and it must have been hard for those men leaving their wives and partners with young family.

Some years later I was delighted to see Tank’s dedication to Cumbrian rugby rewarded when he was selected to play for the Barbarian’s.

Soon we were on the coach for the trip to the ground. We could see that the pitch wasn’t far from the sea. By now a real storm was brewing. As we alighted from the coach we could see rain squalls whipping across the pitch. It was frankly horrible weather, freezing cold and a muddy waterlogged pitch. We were used to this of course!

As we walked in to the changing room we saw a few of their players run out on to the pitch, dance about in the mud as their feet got wet and then quickly run back in to the warmth of their changing room. This was noted by Malcolm Brown. Malcolm was our pack leader on the field, assisting club captain Tank. As we changed in to warm- up kit, Malcolm urged us to get a move on. Finally with tracksuits, extra sweat- shirts and pom- pom hats on, were ready to go out.

Now here was the genius of Malcolm. “Right lads” he said. “Did you see those ponces out there?” He looked all of us in the eye and he was starting to froth at the side of his mouth. This was always a good sign as it meant he was already up for the game.

“T shirts and shorts only” he instructed. “We’re going out there to show these soft southern b….s what we’re made of. We are men of Cumbria, don’t forget that when we are on the pitch”. His tone was rising all the while, so we stripped off our tracksuits and sweatshirts. When we were ready we ran out as a squad dressed in a single T shirt and a pair of shorts.

“Down on the ground now” barked Malcolm and there in front of the grandstand we lay down on our fronts in the freezing mud. “20 slow press- ups, count them Clemmo”.

As Clemmo counted, Malcolm kept on talking. In the Plymouth changing room we could see a crowd of faces peering out the window at us. “Look at them” he said. They are already frightened of us. They don’t want it. They don’t want to be here. WE DO!”

For the next 30 minutes we ran and ran, hitting tackle pads, doing drills. It was so wet and cold we were actually glad to do it just to keep warm. Finally, satisfied that we were ready, Malcolm marched us back in to the changing rooms, dripping in mixure of sweat and cold rain. Plymouth hadn’t appeared.

Taped up and greased up we went back out in to the melee. Our tactical coach Tommy Borthwick wanted us to play our normal wet weather game. Kick for the corners and let the pack do the rest. Up the jumper, traditional Aspatria power play. For a second I pitied our backs who were going to have 80 minutes with very little to do!

That afternoon I was propping against a man who the previous season had been a Bath 1st XV squad player and had dropped back to league three. We had a good battle and it was honours even as I used the Syd Graham shoulder on knee technique to good effect on our ball. I was also fortunate to have men like Nigel Brown at hooker, who was the most awkward, niggly hooker a team could have. He was always breaking his bind and getting his head under his oppositions chin for annoyance. Great to play with but a nightmare to play against.

They couldn’t live with us that day and in those dour conditions and with a team absolutely driven to win, we were never going to lose. We would have run over a cliff for Malcolm that day. For 80 minutes he urged us forward as “Men of Cumbria” and we blew them away.

Sitting in the team bath later, slowly feeling the warmth creep back in to our bodies was a great feeling. We had travelled 300 miles and were taking home maximum points for Christmas. We celebrated long in to the night around Plymouth. Eventually we found ourselves back at the hotel at about midnight. I spied a grand piano in the hotel lounge. I sidled over to it and to my amazement it was unlocked. I slid on to the piano stool and begin playing and singing Christmas songs. Soon some of the lads came over and eventually some hotel guests even joined us. It turned in to a proper rugby club sing- song. I well remember our club chairman David Miller and his wife Margaret, swaying with the crowd. What a way to finish a great day’s rugby.

Sunday morning was a quiet affair. We breakfasted and then jumped on the bus for the long journey back. Some players slept off their hangovers, others watched the on- board film, The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. Eventually after several hours and as dusk was falling, I was dropped off at Penrith, job done.

I look back now and realise how proud I was to play in those games. A former Aspatria player and good friend Alistair Grant, said to me many years later, that the biggest driver at Aspatria was the constant desire not to let the club down on the pitch. I knew what he meant!