Props can’t dance…….

Last week i had the great pleasure of attending Aspatria RUFC annual “Tattie Pot” supper as a guest speaker. Having spent a few seasons in the 90’s with the club playing national league rugby, it was great to catch up with many old pals including club legends George Doggart and Les Mctear together with the Presidents of the England RFU and Cumbria. I also recounted this tale about my introduction to the dark world of the front row………..

 

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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!

WAS THAT YOUR BEST SHOT?

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!

“I know that man”!

It is early July in the summer of 1991. I am 26 years of age, a qualified Chartered Surveyor but still an auctioneer learning his trade. My only hobby is playing rugby but last season was very hard. My right knee has been hurting badly for months. I am playing on a Saturday then hardly able to train through the week. My coaches think I am being lazy. In the end I decide to visit my doctor and I am referred to a specialist. He says I have cartilage damage and need surgery. There is a waiting list and I may have to wait six months. I tell him that I have private medical insurance and he tells me he can do it next week.

I am admitted to a private hospital in Carlisle in less than one week. The surgeon tells me that he will perform open knee surgery. I ask him why he can’t do keyhole as I know other rugby players who have had this type of non- invasive surgery performed and their recovery was extremely swift. That operation is not possible in this hospital or so I am told. I am then reassured that the operation will be straightforward and that my cartilage will be tidied up. I am guaranteed to be back on the pitch and fully fit by October at the latest.

I am pre- opped, anesthetised and sent down to surgery. The next thing I remember is waking up in a recovery room. My injured leg is elevated and wrapped in a huge bandage. A nurse is repeatedly smacking me on the back of my hand and telling me to wake up. My eyes focus and I see a large print on the wall. It is an old farmer pal of mine from Ennerdale called John Hind. He is pictured in a show line up, proudly holding on to a Herdwick Tup. I keep trying to focus on John but he is blurry.

“Adam, what are you looking at?” questions the nurse. I am still concentrating on John.

“Adam!” The nurse now has an edge to her voice.

“You see that man there” I croak. “I know him, he’s my friend”

“Yes of course he is” I sense her tone and realise she doesn’t believe a word I am saying.

“I know that man” I respond.

 “Yes of course you do”.

“No… I really do. He’s called John”.

“Yes of course he is”.

Then the pain hits me. My knee is burning with pain. I can’t move my leg one centimetre without agony. I desperately need to pass water but I just can’t do it in to a cardboard bottle while lying down. I try and try but I can’t push water uphill.

Eventually I realise I must sit up and get my legs over the bed to do it. The nurse doesn’t want me to. I insist. So she and my girlfriend Paula, later to be my wife, drag me up and lift both my legs over the side of the bed. The pain makes me scream but I have to do it. I manage to pass water and the relief is fantastic but then my legs have to be lifted back on to the bed. I have to scream again.

I spend 4 days having to do this until eventually the surgeon arrives and removes the bandage. My knee is grotesquely swollen but the stitched up wound is clean.

“Bloody hell what happened?” I ask the surgeon

“Ah well when I got in there, your entire lateral meniscus was in flakes, so I whipped it all out”.

“But I didn’t ask you to do all that”

“Ah well I had to and you did sign the consent form. I’m afraid your recovery will take longer but when it’s healed you should be able to play rugby until you’re at least thirty. However you will most definitely suffer from ostio –arthritis by the time you are 40. I’m pretty sure we will have a cure by then” He smiles as he whips round and leaves the room.

Exactly one year later, my knee has not healed. I have not managed to run a step in that time. The pain never goes away. Any exercise produces massive swelling around the knee. I re- visit the surgeon and he tells me it is just one of those things. Some people heal and some don’t. Then he delivers a bomb shell. Unless this knee finally heals up in the next few weeks, I am going to have to accept that my rugby career is over.

He sends me on my way in shell shock. The following day I get a bill from him to add to the £4,000 paid out by my insurers. It is £1500 for rehabilitation and after- care. I write him a stinging letter telling him why he will not get another penny from me.

Two months later and my knee is finally feeling a little better. I pluck up the courage to go for a gentle run. I expect the worst but the next day, my knee does not swell and I am ok. I start to build up the runs and my leg is getting stronger. Soon I get back to training and eventually I start to play again. My knee never heals properly again. From then on after every game my knee swells to an enormous size. I keep persevering and I am getting through games and training but my knee is now permanently swollen, all the time.

I love my rugby so much that I play a few seasons for Aspatria in the National Leagues before returning to Penrith I keep on playing in to my late 30’s. By now my knee has deteriorated and I run with a permanently shortened stride but I can still play, so I keep going as long as I can. Eventually with a young family in tow, I give in. I hate not playing, sitting at home on a Saturday not able to visit the rugby club to watch games. I have started to sing in a band so that is an ocassional distraction.

It is the autumn of 2006. I am forty one years old. It is a Saturday morning. The previous day I sold several hundred suckled calves in Cockermouth market, a hard and long day’s graft. It is the last big autumn sale of the season. I could do with a release, may be a few pints in the pub tonight.

The phone rings and it is my old rugby pal John Sealby. He is the same age as me. He still plays rugby every week for Penrith 3rd XV. He tells me that they need a front row replacement for a league fixture away at Ambleside in the heart of the Lake District. They will only use me if they really need to. My heart begins to pound. A game of rugby, after all these years!

I am ratching about under the stairs when Paula catches me.

“What are you doing?”

Looking for my rugby boots”

“You’ve got to be joking”

“No”

“Well you are a …… idiot”

She doesn’t speak to me until I am picked up by the lads. The deal is supposed to be that if we are winning comfortably, they give me a 10 minute run out at the end, buy me a beer or two in the clubhouse and give me at least four stops on the drive home from Ambleside to Penrith. We settle on The Travellers Rest, Grasmere; the Kings Head, Thirlmere; The White Horse, Threlkeld and The Sportsman’s Inn, Penruddock. All of this is agreed. I have to be home by 8pm for X Factor or I won’t be spoken to for most of the following day either.

We arrive at Ambleside to find that there is no referee and three people haven’t turned up for Penrith. An Ambleside committee man agrees to Ref but admits he doesn’t really know a lot of the new laws. I am happy to hear it because neither do I. However the bad news is that we only have three front row players and one of them is me. So I am in the starting line-up. The day is now going downhill.

I struggle to lean over and tie my old boots that have not seen the light of day for four years. They are dried out and won’t bend. One is missing a couple of studs. My bad knee is locked at about 70 degrees because I have so much strapping on it.

The Ambleside captain comes in and asks for a word. He tells me they don’t have an experienced front row. They have a young boy barely out of school playing hooker. Can we have a gentleman’s agreement that we all just take it steady in the scrums? I nod my head in complete and full agreement. So we run out on to the pitch which after the incessant rain of last night is most definitely water logged. In fact the corner in front of the clubhouse is actually under water.

The first and only other time I played on this ground was for Cockermouth as an 18 year old, 23 years earlier in 1983. It was December and it snowed so hard on the way home that my pal Ray Faulder who was driving, actually turned off the A66 and in to The Pheasant Inn near Bassenthwaite without realising it!

Back to 2006. The teams line up, Penrith in their traditional myrtle green and white hoops, Ambleside or “Side” as the local supporters prefer to scream are in Black with Gold cuffs. I stand to receive the ball with my boots already full of water. I am at this point beginning to agree with my wife’s last comment to me.

The whistle blows and the ball is kicked to us. We gather the ball, there is a melee and I get elbowed in the face. Then we spin the ball down the backs. There is a kick and the ball sails in to the Ambleside half. I run across the pitch towards the ball. They retrieve and spin the ball down their backs. There is another kick and the ball is again in our half. I run back across the pitch and find myself back where I started. I’ve run two widths of the pitch and I am totally knackered. I stand with hands on knees fighting for breath.

The ball is now on the far side of the pitch. The whole Penrith pack bar one, is advancing. I walk up the wing in attempt to at least be in the same half as my team. Then the ball starts to spin through the Penrith backs. Now I may be old and fat, but I can still read a game. If I can keep up with our backs and they don’t drop the ball, then there is an overlap with me on the end of it. I run as fast as my stick thin damaged old legs can carry me and sure enough the ball is delivered to me, unmarked. I have a 20 metre run in to the near corner. I waddle over and dive head long in to a 6” deep pond of cold, muddy water. On the TV you see internationals players dive over the line and slide 10 yards. I belly flop to an immediate halt. It is my first touch of a rugby ball in four years and I score in the corner.

The team is ecstatic. I am embraced and slapped on the back and I hear words like “legend” and “superstar” being uttered. I’m so exhausted I can hardly walk back to the half way line. They kick to us and we immediately knock- on. “Thank God we are taking it easy in the scrums” I think.

So we form the scrum, make our binds and I gently lean in ready to lightly make contact with my opposition. Bang! He thumps in to me so hard that he knocks the wind out of me and I see stars. He then begins to wrestle my arm, and bore in to my head with his own, growling fiercely. The scrum breaks up and I look at their captain on the other side who just shrugs his shoulders.

“Right oh” I say “let’s have it”. So I spend the next 75 minutes battling for all I am worth in the most competitive scrummaging I have had since my first team days. My try scoring run is the only time I actually touch the ball during the entire game. I am there for nuisance value, nothing more.

Later in the game, I spy young Jonathon Benson playing for Ambleside. He is a farmer’s son from Langdale that I have watched grow up from a young boy. He is passionate about Herdwick sheep and he is a decent rugby player for an 18 year old. He is aggressive and good with the ball in hands. I decide to slow him down. I find him at the bottom of a ruck and manage to rub his face in the mud. Look, don’t feel sorry for him! I’ve had it done to me plenty, and I was smiling all the time to show there was no real malice. He gets up spitting mud out of his mouth and he is smiling too.

The game finishes after what seems like an entire day. We line up by the changing room doors, clap the opposition through our tunnel of players and shout the traditional “three cheers for Ambleside”. It takes me 20 minutes to get my boots, bandages and shirt off. By the time I get to the showers, they are cold and I can’t get the claggy Lakeland mud out of my hair. Back in the changing room it takes me another 20 minutes to get dressed. My neck and back have seized up after 30 scrums and my right knee won’t straighten.

In the clubhouse, there is pie and beans which is taken with my first pint. Across from our table I spy young Benno. I call him over for a pint. This is one of the best parts of the game of rugby. No matter what has gone on during the game, back in the clubhouse, it is all forgotten. We stand at the bar and down a few pints in quick succession. Benno is not a big drinker and he is getting fairly merry already. It is not the last time over the next couple of years that our paths cross on the pitch and in the auction. He is a likeable young man and I try and support him in his early farming career as much as possible.

Soon it is time to leave. We shake hands with the opposition and make our goodbyes. Four pub stops and a couple of hours later I am home in time for X- Factor. I am so stiff I can’t move and I’ve had a few pints. I am sound asleep before the first advertising break. Never mind X Factor, It is a big “No” from the Missus…

By the middle of the following week I am still as stiff as ever and I limp around the auction. I bump in to John Hind, who now works part time in Cockermouth auction as a drover. My sore knee and his presence reminds me all those years ago of my hospital visit. I tell him the tale. “I know that man”. He laughs and says he has a copy of the self- same print.

For the rest of the rugby season, I don’t miss a game for Penrith 3rd XV. I lose two stones in weight and feel great to be a rugby player again. It also gives me much pleasure to coach some of the young players. There are certain tricks to be used in the front row that don’t get taught at school! If wasn’t for that bad knee, I would still be playing now!