Graham Dawe

“I do struggle with cocky 19-year-olds. You want to say to them: ‘you got something special in your heels that makes you bounce around like that?’ Just calm down. Kyran Bracken was cocky, he thought he was fun. I didn’t take kindly to that.”

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Graham Dawe. If there’s one man you don’t play a trick on, it’s Graham Dawe. The former Bath and England hooker: the hardman’s hardman.  

The Bracken story is one of many about him. It goes that they roomed for England and the Saracens’ scrum-half thought it would be a laugh to lock Dawe out of their hotel room wearing just his towel. Funny. He didn’t think it through. Eventually, of course, the frontrower got back in and taught the No.9 a lesson or two. “He’s a lovely fella…” admits Graham, “…but I didn’t take kindly to that,” he repeats. “If he was 6ft 7in and Wade Dooley I probably wouldn’t have done anything, but then Wade Dooley wouldn’t have done it in the first place.”

There may be lots of stories about Graham Dawe but they never come from him – he doesn’t like to talk about the past. In fact, he’s a little taken aback that we even want to talk to him. “I was a bit surprised to hear from you, to be honest; not sure I’ve got anything interesting to say,” he says as he greets us at his home.

This is hard to believe. What about the time Richard Cockerill stood on your fingers before a game? What about that game in South Africa when the blood was pouring and the fists and boots were flying? What about the brawl against the Welsh team in Cardiff? What about your rivalry with Brian Moore? What about being part of the most dominant side in English rugby history? What about the fact you used to drive from the edge of nowhere in Devon to Bath for training twice a week? So many questions.

But prising stories from him  is no easy task. He’s not unfriendly, or unwilling to talk, quite the opposite. He not only invited us to his house on the edge of the moors in deepest, darkest Devon – the kind of place where it takes such a sequence of left, right, left, rights that even Pacman would be befuddled – but he’s also offered us breakfast. In the event, it’s his wife Liz that does the honours, cooking up a mushroom omelette and a vat of beans. It comes with huge apologies for not having bacon as their daughter Lauren has become vegan. 

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Graham meanwhile, picks up the Bracken story. “That was when they used to room the youngest and the oldest, and he was probably about 17 at the time. I’d actually played against him already, he’d been cutting it up at Bristol with his show and go – if he went down the shortside you were in trouble. Jack [Rowell, then Bath coach] told me it was my job to look after him. You could always feel Jack looking at you when you played, so I knew I couldn’t miss him. Lo and behold, he had a crack down there didn’t he…”

He leaves it hanging, we don’t need to guess what happened next.  “They roomed me and Brian [Moore] together one night,” he continues. “We’d just beaten Harlequins in a semi-final at the Stoop in the last minute of game. We’d gone from winning 24-0 to losing 24-26, and then Tony Swift scored under the sticks to win the game right at the end. After that we all had to go to Petersham for an England session and on the rooming list they’d put me and Brian Moore together – that was Don Rutherford [England’s first ever director of rugby] having a laugh. We weren’t talking, why would they do that?”

What happened? “Moore went home,” he says.

“After that, they stuck me with the youngest, Lawrence Dallaglio, for a while.” What was he like? “Exactly the same as he is now,” he laughs. “You liked him a lot,” offers Liz. “Yeah, he’s a top bloke,” agrees Graham.

He doesn’t dwell on topics, but the topic of Moore can’t be ignored. He wants to, he doesn’t think people care. But I insist. When you battle someone for a place in a side for a decade or so it has to be worth a paragraph or two? What was he like as a player? Silence. 

“He was okay, he was a pretty good player wasn’t he?”

Off the field? Silence. 

“I don’t think we need to go through that now do we? It seems inappropriate now.”

It’s a paragraph. Or two. Liz agrees. Liz is definitely going to be key to this interview. He relents, sort of, and tells an anecdote of overhearing Moore talking about how a game was going to be an easy win. “I thought it was a bit arrogant, bit disrespectful to be honest,” says Graham, who was playing for the side that was going to be ‘easy’. “We didn’t get off to a good footing.”

Talk moves on. It goes back, not forward though, to when he first started. Born in Plymouth (despite what the records say, he was born there and registered in Tavistock – he’s proud to have been born in Plymouth), he wasn’t overly interested in rugby until his teens when his uncle, chairman of Launceston rugby club, kept pestering him to play. “I was approaching 17 so he wanted me to come and play. He kept ringing and ringing, and eventually he got my mother to drive me to training, I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.”

Originally a scrum-half, befitting his 5ft 11in stature, he fell for rugby. “I was quite in love with the game,” he says, “but I wasn’t particularly good.”

Rugby wasn’t in his blood, the Daweses loved horses but a ‘bad fall’ at 14 put paid to Graham’s passion. His brother would train as a jockey. “They did an article on the two of them once,” adds Liz. “Graham was 14 stone and he was seven stone.”

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At Launceston, Graham’s obsession took hold. Playing initially in the backs, his first XV debut would come at hooker. Did he like the position? “I liked playing for the first team.” First XV goals soon became England goals. It might seem a leap to many, but for Graham it was a case of planning. Wanting to get somewhere and working out how to do it. “I was 18, I wanted to travel and see the world, and I wasn’t earning a lot of money, so I thought the only way to do it was to play for your country,” he explains. “I got hold of an old England training programme, it was about what was expected of you as an England player. “I then wrote my own programme,” he continues. “I wanted to go somewhere and I was like ‘how do you do it?’ I’m a local rugby player and I want to get here, with England. So I planned it: 700-odd sessions over two years. Even though I played games, that weren’t…” He stops himself mid-sentence. “It sounds a bit obsessive doesn’t it?”

“It was,” adds Liz.

Maybe, but it wasn’t without reward. A match against the Barbarians in which he’d ‘had a good game and played like a kamikaze – running around like a fool’ had caught someone’s eye. “I was at the [farmer’s] market and got a message from the market office asking me to phone Twickenham,” says Graham. “They asked me to be on standby for England against New Zealand – I’d only ever played for Launceston so I said ‘yeah I think I’m free’.” Two days later, a postcard came through the door telling of his selection as a ‘non-travelling reserve’. He never took to the field, or even made it to the game, but it gave him the impetus to push on.

There are often long pauses before Graham answers questions, it’s not being impolite, he’s just analysing the impact of what he might say. He’s methodical and all about the detail. When it comes to rugby, his knowledge borders obsession. We’re told it takes him about three hours to watch a game – any game, not necessarily one his side is involved in – because he keeps pausing and rewinding passages of plays or set pieces. 

Before the story resumes, Graham passes the bowl of baked beans in my direction. Noticing the giant hands with a single finger bent out at a virtual right-angle, our photographer spots an opportunity and asks him to repeat the movement. “I’ve been asked to do many things for a photoshoot before, but never this,” he says. Later we’ll also ask him to pose in an empty swimming pool – no reason, really. Just to see him in something other than farmer or rugby player/coach mode. 

Launceston weren’t the best side in Cornwall. But in winning the merit table and getting into the John Player Cup, they kept making progress and that’s what Graham thrived on. As his side advanced, so did his game and the opportunities to face serious opposition grew. “We played Gloucester away in front of four or five thousand on a Tuesday night – that was a wake-up call. And then we played Bath and lost 50-25 – I think we scored the most points against them that season. “We had a reasonable scrum,” he continues, “but when they got going you couldn’t hold them. It was competitive but great. I’m of a mindset that the harder the opposition, the better. A lot of players don’t want to challenge themselves, but I always want to play against the better team. Otherwise, how can you challenge yourself? At the moment, at certain levels, it’s only about results, but  there is more to life than the result…”

There’s an audible cough in the background.

“No,” he appeals, realising that Liz’s cough is possibly suggesting that maybe winning does mean a lot to a man who trained 365 days a year for two years.  “At that stage of my career going to Gloucester away, yeah, you want to beat them but you can still get a lot out of the game as well.

“It’s not the end of the world…”

[Stifled laughter from kitchen]

The training regime continued and having captained Cornwall against a Somerset side peppered with Bath players, the next opportunity arose. “Rowell called me,” he says. “They didn’t have a lot of cover at hooker and I think Harry Robertson (the first-choice hooker) had got smashed up at Neath – think he had something like 50 stitches in his face, they really smashed him up. As a result, they were short of hookers.”

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Bath life began in 1985. Training twice a week, game once a week, the small matter of 150 miles between the farm where he lived and the club. It’s another of the Dawe legends. “People talk about it, but I don’t,” he says. “Although I did at the time,” he laughs. “It was about two and half hours there by car, longer if I went by train. I had to work every day too.”

Long days? “Yeah, long days, not much sleep.”

He joined a side on its way to becoming the best in the country. It was mindset as much as talent that set them apart. “They didn’t suffer fools,” explains Graham. “They didn’t like time wasters, you had to be a serious rugby player. They’d talk calmly before games for 15 minutes about what’s expected of you, what you’re trying to achieve. In training, they left no stone unturned, and you’d challenge yourselves every session. There would always be people upset with other people in training. If there was a fight, you’d just laugh about it afterwards.” 

A fight at every session? “Not every session.”

The side was full of big names. Gareth Chilcott, Richard Hill, Stuart Barnes, Nigel Redman, Tony Swift, Jeremy Guscott, Jon Hall, Roger Spurrell. During his time with Bath they won nine cups and six league titles. In English club rugby, they were untouchable. Not being the kind to revel in former glories, the pause to choose his favourite moment is one of the longest of the interview. “There is no ‘one’ moment, but I guess winning that cup final in 1996, when we beat Leicester. It was a dull game but they thought they were taking over. It was the game Steve Lander got pushed over by Neil Back through sheer frustration. It reaffirmed that they were the pretenders even though they thought they were the dogs.

“I remember before the game, [Richard] Cockerill, [Darren] Garforth and [Graham] Rowntree, were on TV and they were sat around this rickety old table. It was a wrecked, patio table. ‘Any qualms about playing Bath?’ They were asked. And Cockerill said: ‘the guy in the middle of their front row is a bit like this table, bit rickety’. It’s quite a funny story…”

It was also the game when Cockerill famously ran over Dawe’s fingers during the warm up. As Graham points out ‘everyone knows that story’, but a better insight on the Bath hooker can be found in the words of Rowntree, who said of the incident: “I remember the warm-up before a game and Cocker running over Graham Dawe’s fingers. Dawesy just looked up and smiled, and Cocker knew then he was in for a hard afternoon. And they didn’t disappoint.

Bath’s success led to caps for many, but not necessarily many caps, as was the case for Graham. For anyone who saw him play, just five caps doesn’t begin to do justice to his talents. With England, he was on the bench 34 times and, in days long before Eddie Jones’s ‘finishers’, unless there were injuries you never left the wooden waiting area. “At Bath they were always talking about one-cap wonders playing for England,” says Graham. “Getting one cap and then getting shifted out was the most embarrassing thing of all, nobody at Bath wanted to be a one-cap wonder. The most important thing of all was to play the second game.”

His first cap was due in the cancelled Scotland match in the Five Nations, so instead he had to wait for Ireland. It was a 17-0 defeat, but he was selected again to face France, defeat again 15-19 (second cap though). Wales in Cardiff followed. They lost, but his involvement in a match labelled the ‘Battle of Cardiff’ is often cited as the moment the suits at the RFU decided he wasn’t for them. His opinion? Does he regret it? “We were on a journey weren’t we? It’s easy to look back now and criticise, but it was where we were at the time, you can only live in the moment, you can’t live in the past. At that moment in time, we were trying to beat Wales in Cardiff. Something nobody had done for a very long time and there’s a psychology that goes with that. It would’ve taken something special, but sadly it didn’t work out.” 

He was told he’d ‘only miss a game’, and they’d take him to the world cup. “I got to the world cup, but was benched again. I went to Australia [on tour with England] the following year and I played in the last game in Australia before we went to Fiji, it was against Eddie Jones actually – for NSW County. I thought I’d played really, really well, which I don’t say that often. 

“I thought I should be starting in Suva against Fiji. Brian had played two games, he’d done alright by his standards, but I was benched again. When they told me, I thought ‘no chance’ and just walked away and went and trained with the Fijian sevens team who were on the next pitch.” 

His behaviour, deemed ‘not becoming’, led him to be omitted for four years, only returning to the fold – but not the starting line-up – for the New Zealand game in 1993. He started his final England game against Samoa two years later.

Luckily, his club life did help. “You’ve always got Bath, haven’t you? I looked at my options and they were basically to leave Bath and join Harlequins – that seriously went through my head, thinking one route was to get the first team spot at Harlequins. Or stay at Bath and win things, so I decided to stay. My mates were at Bath, weren’t they?”

Silverware was on the agenda every season at Bath, so much so that his most vivid memories are the defeats. “When we lost to Neath they had about two thirds of the Welsh side in their team,” he recalls. “They beat us at the Gnoll and that didn’t happen very often. Jonathan Davies charged down a 22 and scored in the corner. Going to the Gnoll in its pomp was something else, you were so pumped – you wouldn’t remember anything. You’d be led to the changing rooms after the match, it was very intense, it was rocking. “There was a coach called Ron Waldron who was quite legendary in what he asked from his players and they rose every time. You want to know what they were doing to make them like that.”

With every story, Graham reels off the names of teams, players, coaches, matches, scorelines, years, dates – for a man who took and made a lot of hits, he remembers a lot. 

He’s happy to talk of players he’s faced, his team-mates, his coaches – such as Clive Woodward who attempted to get the Bath players to train at 7am, only to be laughed at and told they’d be in ‘closer to 11am’ – but himself? He’s not too keen.

Do you think you were a good player?

Silence.

“It’s like pulling teeth with you…,” says Liz.

“I can’t answer his question – that’s for someone else to say. Okay, there are always things to work on in your game, so if you want to get down to nuts and bolts, I guess I was never fit enough in my own mind. 

“Even though Liz thinks I trained every hour of every day, I wasn’t fit enough,” he continues. “I trained intensely, I’d log everything, I timed things, but I was never happy with my performance. I was happy with a win, happy that I made tackles or scored, but I always thought there was a bit more to get out.”

The end came at Bath with a presumption. “They said  ‘you don’t want another year at Bath do you?’

“I could’ve said yes, but it was the tone of the question. He could’ve said ‘you’re up for another year aren’t you?’ But he didn’t. I was 36, and that’s quite old isn’t it? I’m not whingeing, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a whinger. But if you ask me my truth I’ll give it.”

He effectively retired for all of three months, give or take, before an offer came to join John Mitchell and Jim Mallinder at Sale. Initially as cover, then as player-coach with Mitchell starting to work with England. Graham turned down offers in Ireland – one that would ultimately have seen him reunited with former coach Brian Ashton with the national side – and in Devon, with Exeter. 

Later, his home town club Plymouth Albion, then a level four side, came calling. He led them to promotion, twice, taking them to the professional world of the Championship and the fringes of the Premiership. Still fitter than many half his age, he finally hung up his boots aged 51, making a final full appearance for Devon – the county he coached to six Twickenham finals. The curtain would’ve come down sooner, but for injury. “I had one bad injury in 2007 and I couldn’t finish on that,” he explains. “I tried to duck under a tackle by Hendre Fourie of Leeds and instead hit his knee.”

“They thought he’d broken his neck,” cuts in Liz, “and I thought ‘typical, he’s played all these years with no injury, then potentially’…”

“This is enough talk about me,” says Graham.

“Everyone thought he’d broken his neck,” continues Liz. “This young doctor saw all these shadows on your neck scan and was worried, but a South African doctor said ‘this isn’t a normal neck you’re looking at, it’s Graham Dawe’s neck’.”

Lauren, the vegan daughter has just arrived. She remembers it only too well. “I was at the game and crying so they had to send me to my grandparents.”

“I was only in a neck brace for two hours in hospital,” says Graham. “After a couple of hours they asked me to wiggle my toes. I did, and they said: ‘you’re okay’.”

The post-Bath life has been anything but uneventful. With Plymouth Albion, after narrowly missing out on the big time twice, financial woes hit and he found himself touting for sponsors around the city to keep it afloat, which he did. He then left, but not of his own accord. He came back, resurrected the side with a good chunk of the Cornish county squad he was now successfully coaching, and having taken them on a phenomenal run in National One, the new owners decided they didn’t like the cut of his jib and ousted him. The fans responded by wearing Graham Dawe masks at the next game. Those that love him, really love him.

Today, he splits his time between mentoring at an engineering college, coaching the county side, working with Liz on their property business and, of course, tending the couple of hundred head of cattle on the family’s organic farm. He’s also been known to attend the odd England session to offer some words of wisdom on the scrum. People who know him, know he knows. 

Still looking as fit as he did three decades ago, would he play again? “I listen to my wife a lot and I don’t think she’d like me to play,” he says.

“That’s not the issue: has he ever listened to me when it comes to rugby, Lauren?” asks Liz. “He’d probably be playing now if he could.”

Graham? 

Silence. 

Says it all.    

Words by: Alex Mead

Pictures by: Nick Dawe