I always joke that when I started at Bath we were the best team in the land but when I finished playing, in 2003, we were at the bottom staring at the abyss and desperately clinging onto Premiership rugby. I’m not prepared to take all the blame for that though!
Having to fight off relegation was incredibly tough for everyone involved, the history of the club weighed heavily on the shoulders of the players and we were in dire straits. To makes matters worse a TV crew was capturing it all for a fly-on-the-wall documentary called The Rugby Club.
I think Bath was chosen because they wanted to see how a top club operated. Instead, what they saw was a club struggling to cope with the transition from the amateur era, when we were the most ‘professional’ of clubs, to the professional era when we were pretty ‘amateurish’ in our approach. The TV people must have had a field day!
My passion for rugby came through my dad, who played for Harlequins, St Mary’s Hospital and the London Division, although I was a fairly reluctant mini rugby player when he first took me down to my hometown club Lincoln RFC. By the time I went to Millfield I think I was pretty much obsessed with rugby.
While a student at Borough Road College I played for Bath United, Somerset Colts and England Students, at a World Cup in Italy. The next step on the representative ladder was divisional rugby, and I remember getting a rude awakening of the size of the task in front of me when I came up against Jason Leonard in a South West v London fixture at Kingsholm.
I lasted about three minutes before my head was buried up my backside and I limped off with a hamstring pull. But I quickly learned my trade and further representative rugby followed when I was selected to play for Young England against the touring All Blacks in 1993. As expected, we got beaten quite comfortably but coming up against the likes of Norm Hewitt and Bull Allen was all part of the learning curve.
The following year I was fortunate enough to be part of the first England squad to tour South Africa after the collapse of apartheid. Barnesy (Stuart Barnes) upset the locals before the first Test when he described Bloemfontein as ‘backward’ and called it the ‘Fourth Reich’. Needless to say, we paid for it – and Catty’s remark that Francois Pienaar was a fairly average player.
Twelve months on I got to return to this amazing country, as a member of the England World Cup squad. I was on the fringes of selection with the likes of Jason Leonard, Graham Rowntree and Victor Ubogu ahead of me in the pecking order but I did get what turned out to be my one and only cap versus Samoa. Subsequently I toured Argentina in ’97 but Phil Greening and I had to fly home early because of injury and that was that.
Instead my focus was on cementing my place at Bath. I played over 100 Premiership games for them, scoring the grand total of one try! To be part of three cup-winning squads was an amazing experience. I sat on the bench against Harlequins – the game that Barnesy won with a drop goal – and against Wasps, and started in the game against Leicester when Neil Back pushed the referee over.
Cup final days were really special because the whole of Bath emptied out as everyone made their way down the M4. The day after a cup final usually involved all of the squad going round to Jack Rowell’s house for a BBQ. We’d all then retire to his living room to watch Rugby Special in a drunken haze. I was also on the bench for the ’98 European Cup final win over Brive, where the passion and atmosphere was just like those heady days of the amateur era at Twickenham.
When my contract expired at Bath in 2003 I decided to take up a position as Director of Rugby at Brighton College. I spent a year there before returning to Millfield and, 11 years on, I’m still here. Some great lads have passed through the school. For an England and Lions international like Mako Vunipola to still be calling me ‘sir’ after all these years is something I find quite amusing.
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