One-by-one, the councillors stood up to say their piece. Twenty, thirty, maybe forty of them. Some were for, some against. Some eloquent, some, less so. Then, the vote. All 123 councillors, a single vote apiece, to decide the future of Cornish rugby. It started with a single ‘For’, but then, one after the other, the ‘Againsts’ rolled in.
In a clubhouse showing every sign of a rugby life well-lived, four Cornishmen (two born and bred, two adopted) discuss the day professional sport was given a future in the Duchy. Not just rugby either, football too; and not just sport, but individuals, specifically the next generation.
The vote wasn’t the result of months of lobbying, it was years, decades even. If the ‘Fors’ win out, then Cornwall would be a giant step closer to having a stadium fit for Premiership rugby, professional football and a learning hub that could reach tens of thousands of students. If the ‘Fors’ have it, then Cornwall, a county whose economy is so often glossed over by postcard snapshots of its summer outfit – one of sea, sun and sandy beaches, backed onto a rural, rugged landscape, but always with lobster and luxury close at hand – will get a serious shot in the arm. And, it needs it. The view from the inside, is often not the one of the second holiday homers or London weekenders. ‘The second poorest region in northern Europe’, ‘poorer than Lithuania and Hungary’, ‘17 neighbourhoods among the 10% most deprived in the UK’, an average income of ‘less than £14,300’, and ‘over a quarter of children lived in poverty in Cornwall in 2016’ – you don’t have to look too hard to see beyond those glamping trips on the coast.
A stadium isn’t the answer to every problem, but it can make a big difference, to people, to morale, to the economy. Figures: £8.3m private sector investment in public infrastructure; £8m-£10m potential lift to Cornwall’s economy each year; £10,000 investment in grassroots sport each year; 120 schools benefitting from community programmes; 3,000 socially disadvantaged children given help.
That’s before you consider the more direct goals of the three main parties; Cornish Pirates; Truro City FC and Truro and Penwith College. For the Pirates, a stadium with a 4G pitch that could eventually seat as many as 15,000, allowing them to plan a route to the Premiership. For Truro City, it would give them a home to align with their national league ambitions. For the college, it would provide a permanent base for its catering college, business school and sporting academy. “I think some people thought it was just going to have rugby played on it,” says Phil Westren, one of the Cornish ‘born and breds’, and a Pirate through and through. Technically, Phil’s the ‘media manager’, but, with no disrespect to media managers, that doesn’t do him justice. Joining Penzance & Newlyn in 1964 as a young prop, aged 14, he went on to make 560 appearances for the seniors at No.8. His office upstairs – complete with adjoining archives which probably only he knows his way around – is effectively a museum for the Pirates, in all their guises. And perhaps the most prized item amid the wonderful mess of paper cuttings, programmes, paintings, pictures, shields and dusty volumes, is one beautiful leather-bound ledger. In this book, painstakingly, after every game, he hand writes the key facts of the match that’s just taken place. It’s a ritual carried out with great care and one he’s done for decades, and so too those before him, as it contains every single match detail, dating back to 1945, the year the two clubs of Penzance and Newlyn joined together for the first time. It’s fans like Phil that have taken Pirates to where they are without losing a sense of identity. They’ve gone from two clubs to one, and then, when changing their name to Cornish Pirates, they went from one club to a region, yet still the ledger was updated, a manuscript to a never-ending story.
“I’ve got a bit of history here,” continues Phil, as he takes out his phone to show us a video of the momentous stadium vote earlier this year.
The other Cornishmen in the Cornish Pirates clubhouse are joint head coaches Gavin Cattle and Alan Paver, who first joined back in 2004 and 2002, respectively, giving them honorary ‘local’ status, and Penzance-born Jack Richards, the ex-England cricketer, who joined the club in December to help gain support across the region.
“We got there about 9.15 in the morning,” says Phil of voting day. “Rugby was supposed to be on the agenda early, but then waste management came up and it was, damn, we thought we were going to get the vote done early.”
When it did get to the rugby, the waste management folk were undoubtedly relieved they’d got in first. “The rugby did go on a long time,” admits Phil. “So many councillors wanted to have their say, of the 123, it was 25 to 30 at least who spoke.”
Were they in favour? “No, not at all,” explains Gavin. “Certain were like, it’s not going to benefit my area of Cornwall; others had an objection to it being in Truro, because they think everything goes there. Some wanted it in St Austell or Redruth.”
“Some people even thought it should be down here in Penzance,” adds Phil. “But, undoubtedly, the majority were for, and they came across so well. John Stevens – the son of England international Stack Stevens – is a player here now, he got up and spoke very well indeed.”
“When it came to the vote, I did think, ‘come on this has got to be the day’,” admits Gavin, who as player and then player-coach has seen more than a few false dawns during his Cornish rugby life.
“We’ve had lots of votes in the past,” says fellow coach Alan, “but I remember turning up to this one and feeling that it was going to happen.”
“The vote went ‘yes’, then ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’ – it felt like it was going the wrong way,” recalls Gavin. “We knew that was going to happen,” chips in Jack, who’s brought with him a chart containing a picture of every single councillor, each one annotated. It was his political hit list. Aside from drumming up support at clubs and communities, Jack had a big hand in trying to win over the politicians. “We had 38 ‘yes’ beforehand,” explains Jack, effectively the Cornish Pirates’ ‘whip’. “They were the independents who were definitely ‘yes’ but that didn’t include the Conservatives who we thought were touch and go. We needed 20 of them to vote for us and a couple more to turn. We’d gone for an open vote, because we knew the very first one would be ‘yes’ and then the 14 after that would be ‘no’.”
“I didn’t know that,” admits Gavin.
“But then two things happened on the day,” continues Jack. “First, we got our questions in right at the start, there’s only allowed to be six questions asked [of the project] and they were all ours and they were positive. And then we had a lot of good lobbying in and around where the vote was taking place. We even had nine or ten young lads sitting in a certain place so that every councillor had to walk past them to go to the toilet.”
“I think people were very honest in their speeches,” begins Phil, sparked by Jack’s mention of youth. “They said, this is a gamble, but it’s not for us, it’s for the future, our youth. They said, ‘are we going to turn around to that youth and say we voted against the Stadium for Cornwall’? This was an opportunity that probably won’t come around again, certainly not in any foreseeable future. I think that resonated.”
After the flurry of ‘Againsts’, the voting settled and steadily improved with more and more people allying themselves with the stadium. A strong finish ended in a definitive, if not entirely unanimous, result. “It was very close,” admits Jack. “69-41.”
Cornwall had turned the first metaphorical sod of its first-ever stadium. The vote meant the council had committed £3m to the stadium cause, a figure the Government are expected to match, leaving £8m or so to find through private investors – something already achieved. Work could begin. The impassioned pleas, of which there were actually 50, had done the trick. “My councillor, a lovely lady, a vicar’s wife,” begins Phil, “had said to me she was going to vote no, because a lot of people thought the money should be spent on other things.
“But as soon as the vote was done, I got a text from her saying, ‘I came to vote no, but voted yes’.”
“My big concern going in there was trying to prep the lads if it went the wrong way,” admits Gavin, “I would’ve had to have a positive picture to paint as we were still halfway through the season.”
Instead, he found his squad were given a new sense of purpose. “I genuinely think that vote result and the positive energy that came from it gave us a lift,” he admits, as his side duly went on a seven-game winning run that took them to fourth in the Championship.
“The club now had a direction,” continues Gavin. “Now we could genuinely plan, we’d been treading water for so long, but now we could offer some guys, at some stage, long term contracts. We weren’t in survival mode anymore.”
Even amid thousands of happy Cornish people that day, one man was probably smiling more than most, Dicky Evans.
Roughly 7,000 miles and a 161-hour drive (presuming, you take the Trans-Sahara Highway, that is) away from Penzance is where this story really begins. If it wasn’t for one man’s passion for his hometown rugby club, even if he did reside in Kenya, there probably wouldn’t have been that vote. Certainly, there wouldn’t have been a Cornish Pirates, and instead Phil would have still been dutifully jotting down the match notes of Penzance & Newlyn RFC. “I was born 200 metres from Penzance hospital in 1945 and lived 400 metres from The Mennaye,” explains Dicky Evans, the rugby club’s benefactor for more than 20 years. “I grew up loving the Pirates, and fell in love with them after playing my first game.”
He’d left his love behind when moving to Kenya in 1969, but it was never forgotten. In Kenya, he played a bit of rugby, represented East Africa, and made more than a few quid from exporting vegetables and flowers, not to mention a sideline in luxury hotels. “I took my family back to Penzance in 1993, and the ground was buggered,” he recalls. “The clubhouse was buggered, they needed a new roof and it was bit depressing.”
Soon after returning to Kenya, he was visited by the chairman of Bedford rugby club, who had been touring the country. He was asked to become a sponsor. “I said I could only ever sponsor the Pirates,” explains Dicky. “So I sponsored them for the first time, it was a coach for the little kids.
“Then in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the club, I got a phone call while driving to one of my farms here asking if I’d be president. I told them it was ridiculous because I live in Kenya, but they said they’d had so many disagreements at the AGM, that I was seen as a neutral figure.”
A year later, professionalism arrived and Dicky had his first playing and coaching bill to pay. “I paid the coach £50 a week and the players £20 a game, with a £5 fine if they missed training.”
It was the start of Penzance & Newlyn’s rise through the league ladder. Promotions: Western Counties to South West Two (1995-96); to South West One (1997-98); to National Three South (1998-99); to National League Two (2001-02); and, eventually its current home, National League One (2002-03), albeit now known as the Championship.
After a tough debut season, Penzance & Newlyn found their feet, getting stuck into a west country four-way tussle with Bristol, Exeter Chiefs and Plymouth Albion for the title. They lost that one, but, funded by Dicky, continued to be a force in the division. It was off the field, they’d had the biggest threat. Their home ground, The Mennaye Field, may have pulled in crowds of 10,000 in its heyday, but not only was planning permission hard to come by, a location this far down in Cornwall was never going to embrace the county. With the Premiership tightening its entry criteria, an alternative had to be found.
Meanwhile, a name change to Cornish Pirates had been fiercely debated at a Penzance town hall meeting, but was ultimately agreed by members. On paper the team represented the county, but they had to turn that into gate numbers. “We went to Truro in 2008, to a temporary ground, and took the games there,” explains Dicky. “We played Quins in the league and sold 6,000 seats, six weeks in advance and then got 3,500 on average. In Penzance, it was hard to get the crowds, but in Truro we’d get people from all over Cornwall and even Plymouth coming.”
The temporary stadium not only cost £800,000 to put up and take down, but also had other problems, including issues with parking and local council permits, so a move to Camborne followed. Meanwhile, Dicky and his team set about making another dream come true, a stadium for Cornwall.
“I knew it wasn’t going anywhere in 2012, just before the play-off final against London Welsh,” explains Dicky of one of the biggest setbacks, as the council voted 55-46 against stadium funding. “We lost the vote, and we put a black surround on the website with the words, ‘Will the last person to leave Cornwall please put the lights out. Leave the people enjoying this moment of our depression in the dark because they have no plans to improve Cornwall so they won’t need lights.’”
Despite the rugby club reaching consecutive play-off finals on the pitch, its undoing was off the pitch. “Basically it cost me £13m from 1996 up until a few years ago, when I pulled out,” explains Dicky of his commitment to the club. “We had two good coaches in place [Gavin and Alan] together with Ian Davies, but after that vote I just realised it wasn’t going anywhere. I was disillusioned with people in the game.”
In 2014, 20 years after buying the kids a coach, with no way for the club to progress, he sold it, debt-free, for £1 to a new set of shareholders and board.
Keeping his passion alive for rugby through his support of Kenya sevens, who he’d helped to number six in the world, Dicky also remained life president of the Cornish Pirates and, we’re told, was never really that far away, but for a short while, at least, he was no longer the driving force.
He was also facing a challenge of a different kind. “I found out six years ago I had Parkinson’s,” he explains, “it’s a bastard of a disease, but I’ve just got to get on with it while I’m waiting for someone to find a cure. I dribble now, I’m slowly going downhill – it’s only 4 o’clock in the afternoon here, yet I’m already losing my voice.
“I still work a full day though,” he says, before repeating, “but it’s a bastard disease.”
As he contended with Parkinson’s, Dicky also launched yet a new venture (a construction business), although, before long, a more familiar business proposition returned to his in-tray.
“The club had a phone call from this guy called Colin Groves, who was chairman of the Waikato Rugby Union, and he wanted to chase up some fish for an omega factory in New Zealand,” says Dicky. “I put him in touch with some of the big fish suppliers down in Newlyn.”
Colin, it turned out, was Truro-born, and having found out the back story of Cornish Pirates’ predicament from team manager Tom Magill – who’d answered the phone the day he called – wanted to get involved. At a Pirates match against Bedford, Colin met Martin Hudson (a long-term director of Pirates and business associate of Dicky’s). “Huddy called me and said we were in desperate trouble and that they wouldn’t come to the party unless I was involved.
“I then got this call from Colin saying, ‘right Dicky, the chair of the Chiefs Super Rugby side would like to meet in Dubai’, but for them to invest, I had to do the same. So I met in Dubai with Colin, Martin and Dallas Fisher.”
After the meeting with the New Zealand contingent, it was long-term associate Martin, who twisted Dicky’s arm to get him fully back on board. “He persuaded me,” admits Dicky. “He said, ‘look Dicky, we’re going to go down the leagues unless you come back – we’re in debt. So I said, ‘what the hell’ and came back in for £600,000 a year.”
With a new board including, among others, Cornish-Kiwi Colin, Martin and Dicky, the Pirates were back on track. A strategic link-up with Waikato, would reap benefits on the field as well, with coaches Gavin and Alan, sent on fact-finding missions to New Zealand, hosted by the Chiefs and Hurricanes.
Less than two years after Dicky and the new-look board took control, their first goal was achieved, securing the council investment. “We’re now in negotiations with the council about the land,” explains Dicky of his post-vote work. “We’re looking to have freehold of the land so we’ll start off on the right foot and we want to put a hotel on there as well, we want to copy the Exeter model of having our own facilities. We want to have a £16m stadium that’s completely debt-free.”
With the main pitch set to be artificial, Dicky also plans to have a turf training ground. “We can’t train and play on 4G and then, when we have Nottingham away, have to learn to play on turf all over again,” he says.
Finding players won’t be a problem, either. While an academy won’t happen until they reach the Premiership, they do still benefit from Exeter Chiefs’ Truro academy. “Last year they took about seven from theirs and we took the rest,” he says. “So we are riding on their backs a bit.
“But there are a lot of good players who would want to play in Cornwall. Brodie Retallick is Cornish and he was the No.1 player in the world a year ago,” says an optimistic Dicky. “And you’ve got his brother Callum too, two players who are basically Cornish. We might not get them at the right price though.”
Recruitment aside, Dicky admits the broader scope for the stadium project is also important. “It’s also about the work Jack Richards is doing in the community,” he says. “We’re going to tie up with an outreach project that are doing some amazing work, they’re helping people up to 92 years old playing walking football. This Parkinson’s is a bugger and I can’t do much exercise, but otherwise I’d be out there playing football too.
“I was supposed to have a knee operation, but the surgeon said I’d be dead before I’d need them so there was no point doing it,” says Dicky. “I’m not capable of running or anything, but I’ve got a good five years, so I can get the stadium ready in two, and then have three years after that. I’m going nowhere soon.”
Dicky’s attitude is one to admire, not least because he’s convinced Cornish Pirates will make it to the top flight.
“I’m positive as hell,” he says. “We want to make it a party at every home game, we want to get the Barbarians down here.
“We’re going to bring sport back to Cornwall, and have 10,000 people watching Pirates play Toulouse. Who’d have thought that could be possible? Maybe it won’t be in my lifetime, but never mind.
“The Premiership is a way off,” he admits, catching his own enthusiasm. “We need a £7m budget for that and we don’t have that quite yet, but we’ll build the stadium and build a squad, and we’ve got two good coaches to do that. We won’t try and do that too soon, though.”
Dicky rattles off more about the stadium; the hotel plans, the nice restaurant, the conference facilities – it’s genuinely a dream come true. “My family are right behind me,” he says. “Although at first I did have my son on the blower, saying, ‘not again dad’, but he’s okay.
“I’ve never really failed at anything in life,” continues Dicky, “in fact, the only think I failed at was the Pirates, and now I’ve got a second chance to make it work.”
Words by: Alex Mead
Pictures by: Simon Stock