Despite the fact my dad played on the wing for Gosforth when they were in their hey-day in the 70s, I wasn’t keen on rugby when he took me to minis at Westoe RFC in South Shields. I was more interested in playing football, however, by the time I went to secondary school at ten years of age and already head and shoulders above my contemporaries, rugby picked me.
I think I’ve been near enough 6ft 6ins since I was about 12 and that gave me an advantage which I was keen to capitalise on. I managed to gain selection for England U16s and went through all the age groups until reaching the senior England team five years later.
I left school at 16 and took up an apprenticeship in carpentry, while still playing at Durham City and then Newcastle Gosforth. I joined the Army for three square meals a day and a room near the gym. They stationed me in Dorset in the mid-90s, which led to me joining Bristol.
My first England cap came that season, alongside Martin Johnson against Scotland at Murrayfield in the 1996 Five Nations. With the help of six penalties from Paul Grayson we won the game and eventually the Championship.
At the time, rugby embraced professionalism and Newcastle’s emergence was the most exciting thing happening in European club rugby. They were putting together a dream squad so to be asked to be a part of it was impossible to resist.
The Premiership-winning season of 1997/98 season was the most engaging and enjoyable of my career. We’d gone neck and neck with Saracens throughout and it came down to the last game. We went away to Harlequins knowing that we needed to win. The Saracens players, having won the day before, were in the crowd ready to come onto the field to pick up the league trophy for the TV cameras. If ever motivation was needed, it was right there. We had a stormer that day; the result was never in doubt.
That season was also memorable from an international perspective. I faced the All Blacks twice in the space of a few weeks during the autumn and, of my 21 caps, I’d say those two matches among the most memorable. To play a big international at Old Trafford, having moved back to the North, was a thrill for me and the big stand-off with the Haka only added to the occasion. In the next game at Twickenham, we went two scores in front playing some brilliant rugby but had to settle for a draw which was a stern lesson in Kiwi determination.
My experience of the 1999 World Cup was of not reaching my potential at the right time. We’d gone through an incredibly intense summer training camp and I think we would all agree we over did it and didn’t have enough in the tank for the tournament. Clive Woodward’s experiment of playing with four back-rowers meant game time was limited, and I only played in the wins against Fiji and Tonga. At the end of the next year I had surgery and missed the summer tour. As a result, I handed my place to a hungry Danny Grewcock who never gave it back.
I re-joined Bristol after Newcastle and spent four enjoyable years there, under my boss, mentor and great mate, Dean Ryan.
My third and final spell at Newcastle saw me link-up with a player I admired greatly, Springbok legend Mark Andrews. While back problems plagued me all season and led to my decision to retire, winning the 2004 Powergen Cup at Twickenham was my final match as a pro and was a great note on which to bow out.
* As told to Jon Newcombe
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