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Moment in Time: the 1967 County Championship final

Surrey Team Photo 1967Surrey were the draw specialists of 1967 County Championship rugby so it is no surprise that they were forced to share the title with Durham.

A 3-3 draw with Middlesex in the group stages meant a replay to decide who went through to the semi-finals after both finished level on points.

Then there was the last-four saga against Cornwall: the first game in Redruth ended 6-6 and the first replay at Richmond 14-14. Surrey went back to Cornwall to triumph in the second replay 14-3 to earn a place in the final against Durham.

Events in the semi-final leave a bad taste in the mouth even 44 years later. Behind the scenes there were bitter arguments over ticket allocations and prices.

While on the pitch it was played against a backdrop of mirrors being shone in the faces of place-kickers while Surrey winger John Coker was twice attacked by a spectator.

Coker boxed at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics for Sierra Leone losing in the first round of the heavyweight division to Romanian Ion Alexe, who eventually went out to the winner George Foreman.

“Looking back at the cuttings it is extremely amusing but when we were in Cornwall for the first game at the end of the game someone ran from the crowd and walloped me,” said Coker. “When we came back to Richmond it happened again so for the third game I had half of the Cornish Police following me.

“Every time I moved wings they came with me. It was quite comical. So by and large we got away with it and Mr X never got to me again.

“The Cornish have always taken their rugby seriously and we were portrayed strangely enough as the gentlemen from London going down to play the country yokels.

“But half of us were teachers so we weren’t anything like the City Slickers they thought that we were.

At the time, the County Championship was a stepping stone to an England trial or even the national set-up itself as club rugby was still without organised competition.

The final against Durham was at Twickenham with Surrey bidding for their first Championship and for long periods it appeared to be going to plan. A Bob Lloyd try converted by Bob Hiller, who also kicked two penalties, gave Surrey an 11-6 lead and a hand on the trophy.

But tries from Arthur Chapman and John Ranson swung the game back in favour of Durham and much to the annoyance of Surrey skipper Roger Michaelson, who said:  “We should have won at Twickenham. We led 11-6 lead but then suddenly we missed a couple of tackles and I think they scored both times.

“Suddenly we were 14-11 down with only a couple of minutes left and we were given a penalty. I remember clearly it was near the halfway line towards the touchline. I walked up to Bob Hiller and said, ‘this is the reason why we pick you’.

“I honestly saw where it was and thought, ‘God almighty’. It was a massive kick to have to take to square the game at 14-14 but over it went. And that sent us up the A1 to Hartlepool.”

The replay had to wait a fortnight because of England’s Five Nations clash with Wales the following week.

But the long, hard season had taken its toll especially on the Surrey side who had been playing sometimes three times a week while holding down full-time jobs.

Try as they might, neither side was able to make a breakthrough and, as Hiller remembers, it was getting quite comical towards with end with both sides desperate to win.

He said: “The ground was between a railway line and a chemical works. It wasn’t very picturesque. I think Mike Weston, for Durham, and myself had about umpteen attempts at a drop-goal but couldn’t get one over.

“We just wanted to win the ruddy thing. It had gone on for long enough. I can’t think of many other games that ended 0-0, let alone the County final. There weren’t many games when I didn’t score and Mike Weston was dynamite with his kicking, one of the best kickers out of hand I’ve seen.”

Weston, a retired chartered surveyor, believes Durham should have finished the job at Twickenham, saying: “Bob Hiller kept them in both games but we missed too many kicks at goal and fell foul of the referee and gave away too many penalties.

“In both games we had the territorial advantage but Bob (Hiller) kept pinning us back in our own half,” he said.

So, for only the third time, the County Championship final finished 0-0. The previous occasions were in 1907 when Durham shared the title with Devon and then in 1960 when Devon drew a blank with Cheshire.

Hiller points out that Surrey officials were eager for a second replay and at one stage Leicestershire officials present offered to stage it midweek under lights.

The following year’s accounts showed why Surrey were keen for another game. They made a then substantial £1,630 from three semi-finals against Cornwall, £764 from the Twickenham Final and a further £350 from Hartlepool replay.

But they had a major problem: the season was due to end the following Sunday, strictly enforced in those days, so it was decided to leave the decision in the hands of the players.

“When we drew they were all for playing the game again. But we all wanted to go on our holidays and we talked them into sharing the Championship,” said Hiller.

“Surrey were making so much money out of all of these games, they wanted to keep it going. But most people had plans of doing other things.

“It was right at the death of the season. But that season was the most fantastic fun and we had some great characters. The whole season was bizarre.”

Weston points out that Durham were all in favour of playing a third game but time was against them.

“We had a good team that had been together more or less since 1958 or 1959 and this was our best chance of winning the County Championship – we had never been this close before,” he said.

“Our dressing room wanted to play a third game but they didn’t want to. We felt that we were unlucky in the first game and even more unlucky not to have won the replay.

“A third time we would have finished the job off but it was too late in the season and Surrey didn’t want it.”

NEIL FISSLER

*This article was first published in The Rugby Paper on August 10.

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