After all these years, I’d like to put the record straight – I did not decline to play over in Ireland at the height of the ‘troubles.’ The Press were by and large pretty kind to me during my career but they got that one wrong, a perforated eardrum was the real reason why I did not travel.
The infamous Ireland game came a year after I’d won my first cap for England against Wales, a debut that came later than many people expected because I’d been on the radar for some time – as early as the late 60s. I remember scoring a couple of tries in a final trial match but was still overlooked.
It was never a life’s ambition of mine to set out and play rugby for England, although obviously I take great pride in the 11 caps that I went on to win. In fact, I never set out to play rugby full-stop. As the son of a West Bromwich Albion season ticket holder, football was my game. My pals and I used to slip through a hole in the fence at the nearby Walsall Rugby Club and play on the field there – but with a round ball not an oval one – until we were chased away.
Had my headmaster not turned down an approach from Joe Mercer for me to play for Aston Villa, aged 14, things might have turned out very differently. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a thing because I had ten of the most enjoyable years of my life playing rugby for Moseley. The only lingering disappointment is getting dropped by England after we’d become the first Home Nations team to beat New Zealand in New Zealand, in a one-off Test in 1973. I’d effectively been named man of the match by reporters so it came as a big shock.
Until now, I have found this hard to talk about. Steve Smith had come on the scene and I could accept that they may have wanted someone with a longer pass, but I couldn’t fathom out why I was the only player axed; it hurt tremendously to be left in the dark the way I was. The Press came after me looking for a reaction but I simply didn’t know what to say so went to ground instead. That was the only blip in an otherwise enjoyable career, but it was one that could have been avoided with better handling.
At 5ft 5ins, I couldn’t play the game as it is today, I’d be too small. But once my Aston Villa dreams were dashed, I decided to give rugby a go upon seeing a scrum-half called Peter Stretton play for Walsall RFC’s first team. I’d been playing rugby begrudgingly at Walsall Queen Mary’s Grammar School, because it was the only winter sport on offer, but seeing Peter dive pass was the thing that caught my imagination.
After a couple of enjoyable years at Walsall, John Finlan asked me over to Moseley stating that they were playing an attractive brand of rugby which would suit my style. As captain, I wanted us to play the game the way it should be played and I think we were the first side to invent tap-and-go rugby.
We proved you could be success- ful playing that way too, reaching the inaugural John Player Cup Final in 1972, where we played Gloucester on a cold and wet day at Twickenham with barely 15,000 spectators in the ground. We had the unwanted distinction of playing with 12 men for much of the game after two of our players suffered injuries and Nigel Horton was sent off. Unsurprisingly, Gloucester won the game but we kept the scoreline respectable.
Many of the players on show that day had faced each other in the County Championship Final a couple of years earlier, with a large contingent of Gloucester and Moseley players in the Gloucestershire and Staffordshire XVs. Gloucestershire were the powerhouses of the County game at the time whereas we’d not been in existence that long so were massive underdogs, even though we had some top players. Burton-on-Trent’s ground was packed to the rafters and we managed to smash them 11-9!
Without doubt, Gareth Edwards was the best scrum-half I ever played against but Syd Going was probably the most awkward, as I found out when we played the touring All Blacks at Twickenham in 1973. I’d been part of the Midlands Counties side that had beaten them at The Reddings but he wasn’t playing that day. At Twickenham, he was all over me and I struggled to deal with him in a narrow defeat.
That summer we went on a mini-tour to New Zealand after the proposed trip to Argentina was cancelled. We lost the three provincial games and got to the one-off Test at Eden Park thinking we had nothing to lose. My back row understood the problems Syd had given me at Twickenham and gave me much more of an armchair ride that day. My overriding memory is not the game itself but the standing ovation we received from all quarters when we entered the room for the post-match function.
I was fortunate to go on some great tours and to also play for the Barbarians. The ‘73 trip to New Zealand followed a tour to the Far East where, for once, I felt like a giant standing next to a five-foot Japanese scrum-half, and also to South Africa where we managed to defeat the Springboks, unofficial world champions at the time.
Like I said earlier, I was never hellbent on playing for my country. I just wanted to be as good as I could possibly be and go wherever that took me. I was very fortunate that rugby took me to some fascinating places and enabled me to make some lifelong friends.
*As told to Jon Newcombe