IN 1998, at the end of my first year at Loughborough Uni, I was picked to go on the full England tour of Australia. I was just 19 at the time and faced with the dilemma of choosing my education over playing for my country, which is any player’s dream.
I knew I was in with chance as I’d been placed on standby. Then, one day after lectures, I returned to my hall of residence and there was a note pinned to the door, saying, ‘ring Don Rutherford, it’s urgent’. Don was Technical Director of the RFU at the time and responsible for squad selection and when I rang him, he told me Mike Harrison, the tour captain and winger, had picked up an injury and I’d be taking his place.
Straight away, I went to tell my tutor, the amazing Jim Greenwood, the good news. Naturally, he was delighted for me, but he said I better go and speak to Tom Jones, the head of rugby, and let him know. I don’t blame Tom, because that’s just the way Uni policy was back then, but he told me I’d have to re-sit the whole year if I went because I’d miss my exams.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. My parents weren’t that well off and it was only because I had a full grant that I was able to go to Uni, and no grants were available if you had to re-sit a year. I took the decision not to go because I thought the England caps would come at some point down the line, especially with me being so young, but that never happened. My teammate at Leicester, Barry Evans, went instead and got two caps, and we always have a joke about it to this day.
I got close to being capped a few more times, none more so than in 1992 for England’s game against Canada at Wembley. Rory Underwood had ‘retired’ for the first time and I made it into the 23. I thought, ‘this is it, I’ve got a right chance now’. We’d played against Wasps the Saturday before, and I’d skinned Chris Oti once and scored a try. We assembled at Quins, upstairs in the bar, and as Dick Best started to announce the squad, I was confident I’d be in it. He read out the backline, and then he mentioned everyone else except me. I wasn’t even sure he knew I was there!
The following year I went on the England A tour to New Zealand. It was a long old tour, about seven weeks if I remember rightly, and I got in ahead of Andy Harriman. Over 200 metres, he was lightning, I think he ran 20.8, an Olympic level time. I wasn’t slow, mind, I once ran the 100 metres in 10.6 and was probably quicker than him over 30-50 metres. But over five to 15, you couldn’t touch Rory, and in rugby you didn’t normally get any more space than that to run into. From 1988 through to about 1997, I was in and around England squads but as time went on, I realised it was less likely that I’d get capped.
After my first year at Loughborough, I joined Nottingham. Brian Moore was captain and they had quality players like Gary Rees and Chris Gray. I stayed there for three years before Tony Russ, who was my England Students coach, approached me about going to Leicester. I joined in ’91, I think. Leicester had been in the doldrums for quite some time and they’d just appointed Russy as the first paid DoR in world rugby.
People questioned my decision to go to Leicester because Barry was there, and Rory and Tony Underwood were there. Rory was one of England’s greats and I thought I’d learn loads off him, and I thought the competition of Tony and Barry would be good for me, plus I thought if things don’t work out, I could always go back to Nottingham.
At the time, Tony and I were being courted by Cambridge University, Tony on the left wing and me on the right for the Varsity. Tony went but I wasn’t that fussed about continuing my education, so I stayed at Leicester. With Tony being away for around three months, that meant it was between Barry and me for a place on the wing. A lot of people thought I was an idiot, but I’m glad I did what I did because it worked out pretty well. Russy created a rota for us, where we’d play two games and then miss a game. I scored a lot of tries, and it worked well for me.
Leicester games against the Barbarians were always enjoyable. While I never got to play in an actual Test, there was one game where the Baabaas backline was the best anyone could have put together in the world. You had Nick Farr-Jones and Lynagh at 9 and 10, Sella was at 12, Jerry (Guscott) at 13, Lafond on the wing opposite me, Campese on the other and Blanco at full-back. I scored two tries in one match and Les Cusworth, who was coaching England at the time, gave me man of the match.
Right towards the end of my Tigers career, we played some outstanding rugby and reached the 1997 Heineken Cup Final. That year the likes of Austin (Healey), Will (Greenwood), and Eric Miller came to the fore and it was awesome. The additions came on top of all the guys that had been there 5-6 years, people like me, Cockers (Richard Cockerill), Darren Garforth, Graham Rowntree, Deano (Dean Richards), Wellsy (John Wells), Rory, Lilo (John Liley), Stuart Potter and Aadel Kardooni, all good players.
The journey to the final was amazing. I remember going over to Leinster, playing at Lansdowne Road, and somehow winning the game. Their winger got over the try-line, but I managed to strip the ball out of his hands. Otherwise, they would have won. In another match, Leon Lloyd scored over in Pau in injury time to win us the game.
It all went a bit pear-shaped against Brive in the final; we should never have lost that game. It was weird. On the Friday night, they’d organised a live link-up with Canal+ TV, at around 10 o’clock at night, which was crazy. Maybe not Deano, but most of us would have been in bed by then but we had to stay up late. Then, after breakfast the following morning, we had a walk around Cardiff, maybe for about an hour, and all the supporters were there.
You try and look at reasons why you didn’t perform well, and those were very unusual things that we didn’t normally do and never did again. We were unbeaten for ages, and on a real high, and losing that match 28-9 was probably my worst experience in rugby.
I was 27 when the game turned professional and I thought if I was lucky, I’d got another three to four years to go. I knew I needed something else and not just rely on rugby for my income, so I started up my own marketing company. On the rugby front, I followed the money a little bit and left Leicester for Moseley. That was a complete disaster as they went bust by Christmas.
Russy, who had been sacked by Leicester and replaced by Bob Dwyer the year before that run in Europe, said to me, ‘come and play for Waterloo’.
Again, the money was good, especially for training just twice a week, but by then my interest in rugby was waning. The reason I’d joined Leicester was the prospect of playing in front of big crowds, and at Moseley and Waterloo, I was playing in front of a few hundred. By the time I got to 31, I decided to pack it in.
I look back on my time in rugby with some great memories. Because I was fast, I got to play in a lot of Sevens tournaments around the world, while to be a part of that Leicester team that built up a dynasty of success was something special. It’s just so sad to see where they are at the moment.
– As told to Jon Newcombe