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Extracts from the fifth issue of RUGBY...
Six Nations Storytellers
A collection of timeless interviews with the players and coaches who’ve been at the very heart of the world’s greatest rugby competition.
Sir Bill Beaumont
England were terrible. Two Wooden Spoons in four years, without a title since 1963, and dominated by Wales. But captain Bill Beaumont fancied their chances and began a quest that would take in a Grand Slam, a sports quiz show, world rugby’s governing body, and make him a knight of the realm.
The Fylde Coast stretches from the neon-lit, kiss-me-quick, donkey-riding, rollercoaster-rumpus of Blackpool, right down to the considerably more serene and understated Lytham. It’s at this juncture that the coastline decides it’s had enough of being battered by the Irish Sea and makes an estuary inland so it can escape towards the cosy Ribble Valley.
You’ll know you’re in Lytham because there’s a white windmill right on the seafront, and there’s also some quite lovely houses overlooking the sometimes barren, regularly beaten, but beautiful coastline which, incidentally, has also been known to produce some quite delicious cockles in its time.
Together with its neighbour, St Anne’s-on-the-Sea, and two speck-like villages of Ansdell and Fairhaven, it forms Lytham St Annes, a seaside resort that was once much fancied by wealthy cotton mill owners, enticing them to leave their Lancashire industrial heartland for a bit of fresh sea air in their retirement.
Three years after losing on his debut to Italy, Serge Betsen rose from the bench against England in the first-ever Six Nations. He was given less than 15 minutes to prove his worth, to prove that leaving him out for three years was a mistake. But, in a haze of emotion, he was sent off almost immediately. France lost, and coach Bernard Laporte told the media Serge would never play for his country again.
Above the Wasps FC clubhouse in Twyford Avenue, west London, Serge Betsen has an office right next door to the one once occupied by Sir Ian McGeechan during very different times for a club that’s now based in Coventry. Downstairs, filling the walls are memories of what Wasps, and indeed rugby itself, once was.
It’s from here that Serge runs Serge Betsen Rugby, a name that could just as easily be given to a brand of rugby as a commercial brand. Whatever times does, for anyone who witnessed him playing, they’ll know his style. Some of us can still hear it, the sound of hefty thuds ringing around stadiums; others can probably still feel it too, bruises never quite healed and joints and bones never quite being the same.
As the morning cleaners buzz around, Serge tells us of his first cap for France more than 20 years ago, in 1997. “The French team had just won the Grand Slam [in 1997] and they changed a lot of players for a game against Italy,” he recalls, “they wanted to start with a new generation, to try out new people.
It was in the 12th minute that the commentators noticed something was wrong. A further ten before England’s players started to ask questions. By half-time, Italy’s plan was working. They were 10-5 up thanks to scrum-half Edoardo Gori ensuring his side failed to compete at rucks. The Six Nations, or even rugby, had never seen anything like it.
The first few instances went unnoticed, as Edoardo Gori had shooed one or two forwards away from the breakdown. A handful had momentarily forgotten the game plan, or at least forgotten to defy their natural instincts, but soon the Italian scrum-half had them all in sync. ‘That’s interesting,’ noted a commentator almost a third of the way through the half, useful only for viewers at home, but not the England players who were soon to get flummoxed. The Italians weren’t contesting the breakdown. Not in an ineffective way, but in a pre-planned organised fashion. Not a single man was competing, meaning there was no offside line and the Italians caused chaos. Coupled with a confident first-half attacking performance, it gave them a 10-5 lead.
The tactic was the idea of Brendan Venter, the Italian defence coach. “He was very smart, a great coach, always trying to find a new way to defend,” says Edoardo, as we talk in Florence, just down the road from his home town of Prato in Tuscany. “If you don’t do a ruck, then there’s no offside, so he just thought, ‘let’s try it, let’s try this new thing’. I remember Eddie Jones saying it wasn’t rugby, it was like cheating, but if you’re smart enough to find something different, then you have to use it.”
He was only supposed to be ‘holding the fort’ while England scoured the world for their next coach, but Stuart Lancaster had other ideas. He had five matches to prove his worth and he rolled the dice for the first one, selecting eight uncapped players as he started his bid to change the face of English rugby.
Rob Andrew told me that Johnno had resigned, so I asked what the plan was,” explains Stuart Lancaster, as he sits with Rugby at Weetwood Hall in Leeds, a regular base for his England side and only a rugby field or two from his own home. “I don’t think they had one, so I asked if I could do the interim role and hold the fort during the Six Nations 2012.
“He could see the logic in it, I think because he’d held a similar role on a New Zealand tour not long before,” he continues. “I knew how the format worked, I knew how the camps were working, I knew what had been set up, I knew the players, I’d been to the world cup – I’d even been involved in the review of that world cup. It was all there.
“I went and spoke to the board, explained the plan, what I would do, and they went with it. There was no CEO at the time, Ian Ritchie hadn’t arrived, but doing this would allow them to leave me to get on with the Six Nations so they could scour the world for the next head coach.”
Less than two months after England had limped out of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand at the quarter-final stage, 19-12 to France, Stuart took the helm from English rugby icon Martin Johnson. Two months later, Stuart would be taking England into their opening Six Nations fixtures against the oldest of old [or auld] enemies, Scotland – the country he represented at student and age grade level and the birthplace of his mother, Ann.
Four days after captaining his country, Cory Hill was lying in a South African hospital bed. His kidneys were failing, his blood count dangerously low, and even the doctors didn’t know what was happening to him. As the team he led faced New Zealand, he didn’t care if he ever played rugby again. He just wanted to get home safely.
Under the ground-blistering South African sun, the Fijians tore into Wales, shredding their defence. The Kerevi brothers – Samu, who would later become a Wallaby, and Josua – had scored a try apiece, both converted, to give the Islanders a 14-0 lead. At the break, Wales were done. The heat combining with the ferocious pace and trickery of their opponents to leave them chasing shadows in every sense. Before kick-off, Cory Hill had been living the dream, captaining a Wales team in one of the world’s greatest rugby nations. It was a team full of talent still to be discovered by the wider rugby world too; Matthew Morgan, Eli Walker, Samson Lee, Ellis Jenkins, Tom Prydie, Rob Evans. “It was massive for me,” Cory tells us in the team room of the Dragons’ training base. “My father and brother had come over to watch. Getting to captain your country is pretty special, and it was the ultimate for me at that age.
“It was about 30 degrees in Stellenbosch, and Fiji played unbelievable rugby in that first half, they threw the ball all over the place. It caught us cold and, by half-time, the boys were spent. We weren’t used to that kind of heat.
“Danny Wilson was head coach and he’s a setpiece master so we changed our gameplan for the second half – kick to the corners and make the most of our driving lineout. We had a strong driving maul, good scrum, so we reverted to that and got ourselves back in front.”
The lift doors opened at the Hilton and Rala, the bag man, gagged and bound on a luggage trolley, was pushed out onto the ground floor packed with Irish fans – that was how Tommy Bowe and Ireland prepared for the biggest game in Irish history.
Tommy Bowe looked back at his team-mates, they formed a broad semi-circle behind him, as he somehow had found himself nudged out in front, like a reluctant sacrifice in a pagan ritual. He looks left and right wondering where the support was going to come from, there’s none forthcoming. Not his captain, Brian O’Driscoll, not Paul O’Connell, not even Rory Best, his Ulster colleague. He shakes his head, disappointed that the players, the friends, he’d been with through thick and thin, the highs and the lows, weren’t there for him. ‘Come on now boys,’ he says. To a man, they avoid eye contact, looking at their feet, until finally Tommy accepted his fate and began the first line, ‘What about her eyes…’ and with that the crowd of 17,000 Irish rugby fans, including the Irish president, erupted in central Dublin. Coupled with the millions watching on TV, Tommy was a sensation. Google it now, and you’ll see his rendition of The Dubliners The Black Velvet Band has more than 100,000 views. His try that helped secure Ireland’s Grand Slam the day before? Just 40,000. “It was probably both the stupidest and best thing I’ve ever done,” says Tommy of his impromptu singalong, in which none of his team-mates joined in. “It was Donncha O’Callaghan’s fault. After every match of the Six Nations, we’d always go to a post-match function and we’d always end up in a huddle with the players and their partners. Denis Leamy was a brilliant singer and we’d always look forward to him singing, but for some reason, to annoy him, I’d always start singing ‘What about her eyes…’ just before he started – it would make his blood boil, so I kept doing it.
JIM HAMILTON & ANDY GOODE
From a room that’s barely one step up from ‘cupboard’ status, Jim Hamilton and Andy Goode have become podcast superstars, with their weekly musings downloaded by 80,000 people every week. They used to play a bit of rugby too.
In fairness, few recording studios are actually that big, but 6ft 8in former Scotland international Jim Hamilton makes this one in central London seem particularly small. Together with his former Leicester team-mate and fellow Coventrian Andy Goode, himself not the most slight of individuals, and their co-host Andy Rowe, they fill the room every which way. Not least because today they’re recording The Rugby Pod’s Christmas special and so they’ve each come laden with gifts for Secret Santa.
What small surface area there is between the three mics is soon full of discarded wrapping paper and assorted gifts varying from party pubes and cat food to hair removal cream, cigarettes and a Lynx gift set.
Before they get to that though, Jim has to find a beat to his Christmas rap, which doesn’t seem like the right way to work, but sound engineer Liam quickly finds a soundtrack to go with the masterpiece nonetheless. Jim’s also concerned about his attire, particularly when our photographer starts pointing the camera in his direction. “Sorry,” he apologises, “I didn’t know you were going to be here, otherwise I wouldn’t have arrived dressed in gym kit, shall I wear the hat?
“It’s not always this chaotic,” he adds, as the team ready themselves for recording. There’s five in total, three in the studio, and Liam and Tim the producer, who’s busying himself cutting up a sheet with the names of rugby clubs entered into a competition.
When Shaun Edwards first had the chance to coach England, he had no choice but to say no, he wasn’t ready. He spoke to his mum, Phyllis, and they agreed, it was too soon after his brother Billy had died. He needed the day-to-day of rugby to keep him busy. Rugby was what was going to keep him going – he wasn’t going to let his mind get the better of him.
Shaun Edwards is wearing a flat cap. No, surprise really, given he’s a Wiganer through and through. But paired with his black tee, long black coat, black trousers and shoes, an entirely single-tone wardrobe in fact, he cuts a dash and is looking suitably dapper for our shoot. It’s easy to forget when you see rugby folk in civvies, that they’re also allowed their own sense of style.
We’re in his south west London stomping ground, a leafy stretch of the Thames, in a snug of a pub, tucked in by the river and Shaun is taking us back to his earliest days. So early, in fact, he wasn’t yet so much as a twinkle in the eye of Jackie Edwards. “My dad was a world-record signing for Warrington back in 1954, he cost them £1,000 from Wigan Schoolboys,” Shaun tells us of Jackie’s rugby league career. “He played first grade at 16, probably too young, really. But he played 223 games for Warrington [scoring 78 tries] and, when he was 24, he had a career-ending spinal injury, he slipped about four discs. It was ridiculous.
“Care wasn’t as good in them days,” he continues, clearly thinking back as he talks, digging around for more detail. “Do you know what, it’s had an effect on his whole life – people talk about mental illness these days and there’s no doubt my dad suffered from that.
Minutes after England had lost, he was asked on live television if his friend, his team-mate for more than a decade, who had just experienced the biggest disappointment of his career, should lose his job. Life had just got a bit awkward for Ugo Monye.
At 31, Ugo Monye decided to call time on his career. Still fit enough to put in a two-try man-of-the-match performance against Bath in his final game, in an era when players often don’t have the option of choosing when to retire, it could’ve been seen as a premature end to a professional career. But a brief stint with ESPN, and a nod from TV veteran Nick Mullins, had seen the Harlequins wing already get a job lined up in television, full-time with BT Sport. Now, he’s almost impossible to avoid: weekly rugby chat shows, live matches, podcasts; Premiership rugby, Champions Cup rugby, Six Nations, Rugby World Cup; BT, BBC, ITV – he’s been helping to tell the stories of rugby ever since he stepped off the pitch. “It feels the same format as when I was a rugby player,” says Ugo, “you put in all the hard work during the week, and then have to deliver at three o’clock on a Saturday or Sunday. I love it, I’m not saying this because they pay me, but I work with good people and I’ve always been fascinated by analysis, talking about different plays and strategies.”
When Ugo went to discuss his career plans with then Harlequins director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, there was a contract on the table, but he chose not to sign. “I always think your career is like the last 20 minutes of every game, it’s always the bit you take with you and remember,” explains Ugo. “I didn’t want to become a bit-part player and I’d seen guys who’d played in world cup finals and won trophies but look broken at the end, and I didn’t want to do that. In my last game I’d got two tries and played well, but I knew I couldn’t do that every game, 30 times a year. Not everyone gets the chance to call time on a career, I had the offer from BT, so I was lucky to be able to configure my own exit from the game.”
A kidney split into three, several nights in a Cardiff hospital with team-mate Thom Evans, and his side throwing away a lead to lose in the last minute. This wasn’t how Chris Paterson pictured his 100th cap.
Andy Irvine, Gavin Hastings, Chris Paterson and now Stuart Hogg – Scottish rugby has boasted some outstanding full-backs over the last four decades. But only one, so far at least, can count themselves as a cap centurion. Not that Chris Paterson’s big day, Saturday February 13th 2010, went as planned.
Aged 31, 11 years after his international debut, Chris reached the magical three-figure milestone, the first Scotland player to do so, against Wales at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. And while beforehand, in the build up to the game, he modestly declared the big 100 was “just another number”, this was to be no run-of-the-mill fixture.
Rapturous applause from both home and away fans greeted Chris as he ran out onto the Cardiff turf for what was also his 50th Six Nations game in a row. Both sides had gone into the game on the back of defeats, Scotland failing to score a try in their three previous games, but hopes were high that they could turn the tide in the Welsh capital.
Chris, in particular, was feeling good.
In 1987, England hadn’t beaten Wales in Cardiff since 1963. The Welsh No.8 Phil Davies was determined that wasn’t going to change. At only the second lineout of the game, as he tussled with Jon Hall, a single punch from Wade Dooley took him down, shattering his cheekbone. His game lasted less than two minutes, but the Battle of Cardiff had begun.
Thirty-eight penalties were awarded on the day Wales beat England 19-12 in the 1987 Five Nations, 23 against the visitors. A game took place, not so much peppered with incidents, but more one long incident peppered with rugby. Fights and tackles both high and late were commonplace. For England, there would be repercussions, and not just defeat. Four England players were suspended: Graham Dawe, Wade Dooley, Gareth Chilcott and Richard Hill. Reputations were dented, some virtually written-off. Some say Dawe was never forgiven by England, while Hill didn’t captain his country again. “Hilly [Richard] and me were talking about this the other day,” Phil Davies tells Rugby as we sit in his office at his home in south Wales. “We work together now at Rouen in France.
“It was a horrible build-up to that game,” he continues, “there was a lot of press niggle – ‘we hate you, you hate us’ type of thing. It was a horrible day too; wet, foggy, misty – that sort of day, not very good basically. The warm-up felt really eerie because everybody was so hyped up. Not that warm-ups were much in those days, they were optional – putting the heater on in the coach was almost the extent of it. We used to have a sandpit underneath the stadium that we scrummaged on before the games, but even that seemed a bit different than usual because of all the hype.”
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