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 should 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!