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My Life in Rugby: Derek Jelley – former Leicester and Rotherham prop

Derek JelleyOver ten years on from leaving Leicester I still get goose bumps walking into the ground on match day. I spent a decade at the Tigers as a player and I’m now involved in the corporate side of things. Of my former team-mates only Louis Deacon is still hanging in there, so I must be officially old now.

What I love about Leicester is you see the same faces in the same spot they’ve been at for the last however many years without fail. They are Leicester through and through as I am.

I’m immensely proud to still be a part of the set-up here, having previously been a member of the ‘ABC club’ when it was still in its infancy.

I joined Leicester at 21 in 1992, and learned so much from the front row trinity of Messrs Garforth, Rowntree and Cockerill. My first real experience of being taken under their wing was when we went on a pre-season tour of South Africa in 1993.

South Africa was a pretty scary place to be at the time, especially for a young lad whose only previous experience of touring was in England with my junior club Market Bosworth.

To have those three on your side against no-nonsense teams like Natal was brilliant, especially Garfs, because when the s*** really hit the fan you knew he’d be there sorting it all out before you even had time to roll your sleeves up.

I remember him bailing me out once after I filled an opposition prop’s blazer pockets with a thick sauce during post-match celebrations in deepest, darkest France. Quick as a flash ‘Skin’ stepped in and calmed things down with a word on my behalf. Normally Skin’s word involved the use of his medicine ball-sized head! Being around those players, you either sank or swam, so to have been at the club for a decade I must have done something right.

When the game went professional I tried to balance rugby with my job as a construction worker for a concrete manufacturer. I was always a big lad but I think doing that sort of labour-intensive job helped build me up and develop my strength without having to spend endless hours in the gym.

It got to the point though where I had to choose one or the other and I was never going to turn down the offer of a three-year deal with Tigers.

We had policemen, a trainee vet, a scaffolder, a French polisher … people from all different backgrounds in our midst, and we were all a bit goggled-eyed when the brown envelopes started to get handed out.

With a pay cheque bigger than anything I’d had before I bought myself a Peugeot GTI 1.9 sports car. Somehow I managed to squeeze my 17st 7lb frame into it. Heaven only knows why I got it.

That four-year period when we won four consecutive Premiership titles and back-to-back Heineken Cups was absolutely amazing. I didn’t feature in the finals but was very much part of the squad and played a good number of games throughout the season.

Just recently I spoke to a Leicester fan who promised me a photo of me fast asleep clutching the European Cup on a luggage trolley at East Midlands Airport the day after we had beaten Stade Francais in their own backyard in Paris.

I think at the time we probably didn’t fully appreciate what we achieved. It’s going to be hard for an English team to replicate that I would imagine.

In 2003 I felt I was going a bit stale at Leicester, I was 31 and needed a fresh challenge so I took up an offer from newly-promoted Rotherham. Sadly, things didn’t work out. Two games into the season I tore the muscle off my shoulder whilst attempting to tackle Leeds’ Phil Christophers in a game at Headingley.

I thought I’d only be out initially for five to six weeks, but the look on the surgeon’s face after I’d come round said it all.

He’d done 350 shoulder operations on Rugby League players but he said mine was top of the tree in terms of its severity.

-As told to Jon Newcombe

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