I might have mentioned earlier how important the game of Rugby Union has been in my life. It is suprising how many farmers play the game. Often through the physical demands of their day jobs they are naturally fit, strong and athletic. Many have played International rugby and still do to this day. I played in a Royal Agricultural College XV with some outstanding players and even got dropped from Number 8 for one gangly youth by the name of Ben Clarke. I took much exception to this at the time, only to watch him gain 40 England and 3 British Lion caps as his career progressed. Not a bad replacement after all!
On the various occasions that I played against farmers that knew me, I always seemed to be singled out for a bit of special treatment! I guess it comes with the territory being a soft auctioneer/ land agent!
I never really enjoyed playing loose-head prop. It is in some ways less physically demanding than tight head but it requires a greater technique. Tight-heads often find it difficult to acclimatise on the left-hand side of the scrum especially because only one shoulder is in contact with opposition prop instead of two. Also the loose-head props head is always exposed. I only ever played there a handful of times in my career.
One cold wet December day at Winters Park, Penrith, we were playing yet another local derby game against Wigton. Packing down at loose-head I was uncomfortable but not struggling. Another scrum was called and we thumped in. I was in a good position and began to exert a little pressure on my opposite prop. Their scrum began to shunt backwards a little. I kept on driving when all of a sudden I heard a loud smack. There followed a microsecond of delayed reaction then a burning pain hit me on my exposed left ear, which continued to ring loudly and appeared to be bleeding a little.
“Some beggars hit me” I thought. As the scrum broke up I considered letting fly against my prop but I knew he was not to blame.
“Who did that?” I asked my flank forward who was looking dumb struck,
“Their number six” he replied
“Why didn’t you hit him back”? I enquired
“Because he’s an animal” came the reply.
We ran over to the opposite touch line where a line out was forming. As I got to the line out I searched out the Wigton number six. He was smiling at me and I realised it was Derek Holliday, a farmer’s son from Sebergham. Derek had a certain reputation and wasn’t exactly backward at stepping forward on a rugby pitch! I smiled back.
“Was that your best shot then?” I said quietly walking past so as not to alert the referee.
“No way” came back the reply
“Pity because you’re going to get mine soon”!
The game continued and as I was taught from an early age, I bided my time. Some ten minutes later my time came. A Garryowen kick by our fly half was put high into the darkening December sky. On the hoof I glanced to see who was likely to catch the ball when it came down. It was the Derek Holliday. Time for a little retribution. How I ran after that ball.
“Mine” shouted Derek. It seemed to take an age for the ball to come down. Eventually it did and Derek caught it cleanly. Immediately two of our back row forwards collared him and he was held facing towards the Penrith team and still holding the ball with both hands as three players including me arrived together. At the very second I got to him I delivered a short-range right hand uppercut which landed sweetly underneath his chin. I heard a little groan of pain and a big maul formed. I drifted to the edge of it in case the referee had seen the punch but not the culprit. He had not seen it. Wigton cleared the ball to touch and we ran over to the line out. As we formed, Derek jogged up and yet again grinned at me. It was a huge, wide grin and not a tooth could be seen in his top gum.
“Bloody Hell” I thought, “I’ve knocked his teeth out”.
“Was that your best shot?” he asked.
“No way” I replied, nevertheless feeling a little guilty about his dental rearrangement.
Honours even, we played on without further incident. I think Wigton actually won the game. Duly showered and changed I made my way in to the clubhouse for a pint. Shortly after Derek walked in. As befits the most honourable of rugby traditions I offered to buy him a pint. He accepted. As we took the first long pulls from our glasses I asked him a question.
“Tell me, that little tickler, it didn’t knock any teeth out did it?”
“Christ no” he said “and you’ve just reminded me”. With that he fished into his green blazer pocket, pulled out a full top plate of false teeth, dipped them into his beer and placed them carefully on to his upper palate. He must have seen the relief on my face. “Lost these in a fight when I was a bit younger” he added.
Many years later I became an employee of the Country Landowners Association. The role occasionally took me to Belgrave Square, the Headquarters of the CLA. On my first visit I was introduced to the CLA’s Head of Environment, Derek Holliday. Later over a beer in the Star Tavern, I reminded him of the incident. He remembered it instantly and claimed that I had “mistakenly” got hold of his shirt and in so doing prevented him from disengaging from the scrum. So he felt it best to make me see the error of my ways. I didn’t even know I had done it, and knowing how Derek played his rugby, I probably didn’t grab his shirt anyway! He then went on to say, that he absolutely knew he had to catch the up and under kick. At the same time knew exactly what was going to happen when he did!
Taking another sup of beer he looked up at the ceiling, reliving the moment, and said “I remember thinking, I must catch this ball and I know it’s going to hurt”!
I never played against Derek again, which was probably just as well, but we still meet up from time to time at Penrith Rugby Club and like all past players recalling the old days, the tries get further and further out, the tackles more ferocious and the punches much harder! We wouldn’t have swopped it for anything else!