I’ll never forget my senior debut for Haywards Heath, it was against the Isle of Sheppey, aged 16. Some of their older players took exception to me running around like a blue-arsed fly and gave me a bit of a shoeing at the bottom of a ruck. One of their boots accidentally caught me in the head and I ended up with a trip to the hospital to stitch my lacerated ear back together.
I joined Bedford whilst in my second year at Loughborough University. Someone in my Hall of Residence played there and introduced me to the chairman Ian Bullerwell. I knew Jeff Probyn from his time as England U21s manager but to be then playing alongside someone like him, and the Rory Underwoods of this world, was amazing.
A lot of the big names left after Frank Warren pulled the plug on his investment – I still have some of the bounced cheques as a memento – and we were left with a young but talented squad that worked hard and played hard and had a real camaraderie on the pitch.
I played over 100 games for the Blues but the one that sticks out most for me is the time we played a star-studded Newcastle side in front of the Sky Sports cameras at Goldington Road.
It was the most niggly game in the world. They had big bruisers like Dean Ryan and Nigel Popplewell, who was sent off for punching Scott Murray. We won 34-28. I think that game helped give me some self-confidence, something that maybe I’d lacked up to that point.
Without wanting to name drop, Zinzan Brooke then approached me about playing for Harlequins. I never wanted to leave Bedford, loyalty was a big thing for me, but I’d just come back off the England tour to South Africa in 2000 and with the Blues being relegated that kind of made my mind up for me. Zinzan didn’t last long after a poor start to the season and Mark Evans came in and gave us a bit of direction. We ended up reaching the final of the Tetley’s Bitter Cup and winning the European Challenge Cup, after a 42-33 win over Narbonne at the Madejski Stadium.
Sadly, I ruptured my Achilles in pre-season training in the summer of 2002 and Quins never saw the best of me thereafter.
Moving on to Bristol, we were a tight-knit bunch. Hilly (head coach Richard Hill) was big on that. To finish third in the Premiership was a great achievement. I think a rain cloud followed us around that year and we managed to win a lot of tight games. We had a real doggedness about us and a very effective pack.
In 2007, I was capped twice by England on the tour to South Africa. It was an incredible experience and one that will live with me until my dying day. I get emotional now when I think back to belting out the national anthem at Bloemfontein.
Both matches are a bit of a blur if I’m being honest but I do remember retrieving a kick inside our 22 – I must have been taking a break to be back there – and thinking shall I run it back or kick for touch? I opted to truck it and got hit by four Africans and pummelled into the ground. What a welcome to international rugby!
Unfortunately, the second half of my Bristol career was played outside of the Premiership. I remember bawling my eyes out after we lost the play-off semi-final against Cornish Pirates because I knew that the following season would be my last and the opportunity to play in the Premiership again had gone. Not being able to help Bristol back up is one of my few regrets.
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