I was born into rugby and Staines Rugby Club really. I arrived on Easter Saturday 1949, which left my father free, the following day, to attend the first Staines Seven a Side tournament, which he had organised. The winners were Old Mitchamians. My grandfather was a Vice President of Staines in the forties, fifties and sixties (albeit not a very active one) my father, me and my son Sam and my daughter Sophie all played for Staines and if Sam’s son Noah follows in his father’s footsteps there will have been five generations of Partners involved with the club.
My father had joined Staines in 1931, when the family had moved from South London to Chertsey on my grandfather’s acquisition of the Empire Cinema, Chertsey which initiated some seventy five years of family involvement in cinemas. He had previously played for Old Dunstonians. He spent six years away from home during the Second World War and told me that the only thing that kept him sane was the planning of the reformation of Staines RFC after the war which involved correspondence with my godfather, Bob Granger, who was invalided out of the conflict. Bob was his best friend and, like my father, was later a President of the club.
I played rugby at school and at Staines, continuously for about thirty years from 1960 to 1991, during which time I must have played roughly a thousand games. I was very lucky with injuries. Never suffering breaks other than to my nose (three times) and only had one serious injury to my back in November 1971 which kept me out until the beginning of the 1972/73 season.
If Rip Van Winkle had witnessed the 1971 and 1974 British Lions’ tours of New Zealand and South Africa and then seen nothing until the 2017 tour of New Zealand, he would have thought he was seeing two different disciplines. The changes are as a result of many things, the game going professional in 1996, the changes in the laws brought about by the southern hemisphere’s (and in particular Australia’s) need to compete with the simple continuity of rugby league by becoming quite similar to it, the relative wealth of the English and French game and the relative poverty of Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and more recently South Africa and other related factors. The relative poverty and economic uncertainty of these four countries has resulted in their rugby mercenaries playing all over the world and predominantly in Europe. To see a six foot eight second row’s or a twenty something stone front rower’s potential does not take an agent with huge specialised rugby knowledge to detect and the continuous export of these large men and this necessitating their being matched by similar sized home products has accelerated the move to the game being the province of giants.
The results are that a game which once was played “by all shapes and sizes” has now become predominantly the sport of big men. The 1971 and 1974 Lions probably had three or four men over six feet and they were all in the scrum and either second or back rowers. The 2017 team had probably fifteen men over six feet with six foot four backs not uncommon. This pattern is repeated to a lesser extent at all levels of the game. When a tackle was made and the ball was contested at the “break-down” in earlier times all eight forwards from either side would contest for the ball with the possible exception of the open side flanker standing out to negate the effect of the opposition fly half running the ball (in those days many fly halves left the number seven to do the tackling of their opposite number). The modern version will often see no more than two or three forwards from each side contesting the ball with the rest strung out across the field. The result of this is that the majority of a modern rugby game is taken up by large men running no more than a few yards before they are stopped by equally large men from the other side. A typical passage of play is that from a ruck or maul, the scrum half passes to the nearest player who looks up, attempts a dummy (which is hardly ever bought) then ploughs forward a few yards before being stopped. This is repeated time and time again and is now the main activity in the game. Forwards I played with would not even have understood the instruction to “pick and go” and would probably go through entire games without having the ball in their hands to run with. They were there simply to feed the ball to their backs. Their understanding of a “clear out” would be limited to their activity in the toilets before the game. Set scrums were once about gaining the upper hand and making a genuine challenge to hook the ball back by both sides, but now this is supplemented by the dominant side aiming to win penalties simply by out shoving the opposition as a matter of course if they are on top. In the majority of games taking the ball “against the head” unless one side is totally dominant, is a rarity. Hookers who were once skilled operators at having speed of foot strike to hook the ball back are now mainly power scrummagers along with their props. Their line out throwing, which when I started was done by the wing three quarters, is also now a vital skill.
Many modern tries come as a result of a forward drive from a line out or from a number of phases close to the try line where no more than a few inches of progress is made at a time. Line outs are completely different as the practice of lifting the aimed for jumper, once illegal, is now the norm. Another thing that would not have been recognised from the past is the contesting in the air of kicks ahead. I think Phillipe Sella of France was the first international player to adopt this practice taken from Aussie Rules Football. Whereas a full back or winger fielding a high kick once simply had to stand his ground and catch the ball, he now has to jump to compete in the air with an attacking player jumping with him. This is a relatively new skill contest that occasionally produces the most awful mid air collisions and injury creating landings.
The modern game has many plusses in that the individual skills of catching and tackling, long spin passing (but not short sympathetic passing) have been improved upon as has overall fitness. As against this, at the highest level, twenty three players rather than fifteen play during the duration of a game with the front rows in particular not normally lasting more than an hour. However, the monotony of short passages of play does make some games very dull. I recently watched a game where Exeter gained possession a few yards from their own try line. After some twenty something “phases” of making no more than a few yards at a time, they eventually touched down for a try at the other end. This is the kind of tedium that led to the six tackle law being introduced in rugby league. The above mentioned incident was recently eclipsed by the opening game of the Six Nations in 2018, when needing a score to win the game in the game’s final play, Ireland went through no less than forty phases in gaining half the pitch length, before Johnny Sexton kicked a long winning drop goal with the last kick of the match. The commentators found this very exciting and although the effect on the score and thereby the result was genuinely intriguing, the rugby spectacle was not.
It would be misleading to say that the old or the new way of playing the game is superior to the other. They are simply different. In the old days the game was much more stop and start with many more line outs and set scrums. These were the basis for the forward contests whereas now the break down is the dominant form of contest, the difference being that backs as well as forwards are now involved. The individual skills of tight forwards in passing, tackling and running with the ball are unrecognisably better than in former times but the tendency is now for the vast majority of players to run at the opposition rather than to try to run either side of them. In the congestion that spreads across most rugby pitches three quarters gain praise and presumably fulfilment from gaining a few yards before presenting the ball to the next man. In previous times whether successful or not their earlier counterparts would have been more ambitious with the length and extent of their involvement.
The overall result for me is, however, that a game I once loved is now one I just like. It is fair to say though that the love affair lasted for the best part of half a century and therefore was not a fleeting episode.
During the fifties and early sixties at the old Staines ground in Laleham I was there for home games on a Saturday as my mother and sister would help out making the teas for the players, which, in those days were the white bread sandwiches which they had made. Quite early on I developed an interest in the game and probably from the age of six or seven onwards would watch the game on a Saturday and bring some school friends down on a Sunday morning to run around whilst my father was engaged in selection. Sunday afternoons at home in Acton would be taken up with my father and sister making out the selection cards which I would later walk round to the post box.
My father, Aubrey Partner, was in a unique position that would not exist today. He was Match Secretary of Staines for over thirty years at a time when this position was vital to the status of the club and a member of the ruling committee, but was actually much more. As Match Secretary he maintained and tried to improve the status of the club by improving fixtures and as a result, Staines travelled to the Midlands and to South Wales, which given the current league set up would be unheard of now. We had regular fixtures with Newbold on Avon and occasional ones with Hinckley and Kenilworth and on one occasion, Worcester (now of the Premier League), visited us at Laleham. In South Wales we played Blaina, Llantwit Major, Pontypool United and Cardiff Athletic. A club’s fixture list generally defined its status and one rarely lost fixtures unless one was beaten by another team by a large margin several seasons in a row. He also had quite a dominating voice in team selection and was more or less unofficial team manager to the First XV. This would mean that on a Saturday when Staines were playing away, he would assemble the team and transport some of them in his Standard Vanguard, having provided other travellers with type written directions. At most away games and some home, he would act as touch judge. He had almost total influence and control over the First XV and in his eightieth year Billy Clark was still professing to me to being unhappy about having been dropped by him following his temerity in attending his own marriage the previous Saturday. I think he was generally held in the kind of awe that a popular school teacher would enjoy. Brian Stubbs nicknamed him “Uncle Aub” and at the end of one season he was presented with a mug engraved with this name. His commitment to rugby was as significant part of my family life as he was also very much involved with Middlesex at a time when county rugby was much more important than now. It was the normal pathway to international recognition. He became Middlesex president for three years in 1976 and had the honour of welcoming Prince Charles, who arrived by helicopter, to the Middlesex Sevens finals of 1977 at a full Twickenham, this being the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year.
In the same way that his successor as Match Secretary (also for a thirty year spell) and later Staines president, Eric de Voil initiated Mini Rugby, my father observed, shortly after the war that when the school leaving age was fifteen, many potential rugby players had nothing in between school and senior rugby.
In 1949 he formed Staines Cygnets for these boys to play school teams and eventually other colts sides as other clubs followed suit. His team of 1949 contained many players who eventually had decades of involvement with the club and John Barker’s team of the mid sixties was the basis of the very successful decade in the seventies, similar to the excellent side of the nineties.
By the time I was eight or nine, I was totally in love with the game of rugby. I remember some very good teams in the late fifties and, in particular in the early sixties. I remember First Team captains like Frank Pearce, Norman Sparrow, Bill Dow, Henry Hall, David Hunt, Billy Coombs, Colin Davies and others. On the subject of David Hunt, when I was about eight or nine, after a game at the old Laleham ground he put a pint of bitter in front of me and said “if you want to be one of the boys, you will drink this down” I duly obliged in one hit, with no real after effects (I think the draft beer we drank then was weaker than the modern version) and this started a love affair with the amber liquid which has lasted sixty years so far. Should I thank him or curse him? I remember classy backs like Mike Cooper, Mike Hawker (who subsequently made the strange journey from full back to prop), John Skerrett-Smith, Peter Valentine, Colin Harding, Ron Coe, Dicky Evans, Keith French and an eighteen year old John Hodgekiss, Ken Lancey, Roy Bickford, Brian Saunders and Tony Bratbury. I remember front rowers like Sandy Powell, Bob Deeley and Tony Pontin (who was persuaded to Captain the Cobs in their first season). This was a radical move with this “Extra First” team playing other first teams with the teams below thereby playing a team one up from their opposition’s status. This raised the standard of the lower sides until other clubs adopted the same arrangement. Second rowers like Peter Harris, John and Tony Girling, Robin Kent and Josh Beattie. Back rowers like Alan Tucknott, Billy Clark, Brian Stubbs, Bill Peters , Derek Smith, Jim Daley (who eventually played with distinction in all three rows of the scrum) and Ron Sheen. I remember what I think was possibly the 1961 season where Staines were gloriously unbeaten in their first half dozen games until losing to a negative, spoiling Finchley side on a mud heap at their ground.
These memories all come from our time at the old ground and whilst I watched a lot of games when we moved to “The Reeves”, by this time my own playing days had commenced and I was more occupied with playing than watching.
I attended Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith from 1958 to 1967. In my first two years in the preparatory department, soccer was the only option. I had never played this properly before and apart from being stunned at the social status that prowess in this sport achieved - Graham Carter an outstanding footballer was, as a result of his skill, the most popular and admired boy in the class – I enjoyed playing very much and believe that good soccer knowledge and footballing balance later helped me with my rugby. I played a great deal of football – playground, five a side and eleven a side up until I left school.
When I joined the senior school at age eleven, everyone in the one hundred and fifty strong second form had to play rugby for the first term after which they could chose between rugby and soccer. The vast majority chose the latter and my year had a terrific soccer eleven that would only lose one game in the five years they played together.
In the second term of the school year the under twelve team was created and I was made captain, a position I maintained through all the subsequent age groups to under fifteen. We had our first game against Staveley Road School in Chiswick on a Friday afternoon. My father came to watch and we drew 3-3, this being a try apiece. Out try was scored from a line out close to their line by Peter Stanton. From memory our team was a follows:
15. Colin Barrett
14. Ian Elliot-Shircore
13. Tim Partner
12. Peter Lawton
11. Graham Skeats
10. Iain Gordon-Mackintosh
9. Phillip Jackman
1. Harry Escott
2. Carl Levesconte
3. Peter Stanton
4. Stephen Lee
5. David Kendall
6. Derek Emmins
7. Geoffrey Emmins
8. Keith Gardiner
Interestingly enough, for various reasons, none of my team mates from then appeared in the First XV I captained in 1966/67. At the start of the following season we lost Peter Lawton, Geoffrey Emmins and Keith Gardiner to soccer. Over the next couple of seasons John Hetherington arrived from Australia, Ian Lavers, David Purser, Frank Gardiner, Paul Vigrass, Colin Barrett (who later abandoned rugby to become a successful cross country runner), Tom Misslebrook and Steve Ankers among others, moved into the team and in time for the under fourteen season, Steve Evans, son of our coach and pastor, the Reverend John Evans arrived from Llandovery College. I even persuaded a couple of genuine non-rugby types, “Gilbey” Greenwood and “Icky” Gould to play a bit of rugby for the school.
At this first fifteen a side game against Staveley Road, I can still remember the immense sense of pride and excitement before and during the game. I think the rest of the school year was watching as there was a good crowd on the touchline and I remember the sense of relief when the first scrum went down without any embarrassing mishaps.
Other memories of that first season include a hammering by Chiswick Grammar 20-3 which score in those days was a hammering as they scored six tries and a later better game against them only losing 6-3.
The following season I swapped positions with Iain Gordon-Mackintosh and moved to fly half with him playing centre. I was much happier in this position and I took it upon myself to do all the penalty and conversion kicking both from hand and at the posts. The only game I can remember well from this season was a 14-3 victory against Isleworth Grammar and I remember that Graham Skeats on the wing scored a try.
The next season Steve Evans arrived and I was asked to move from fly half to full back. I was not best pleased but reconciled myself to the change and in the event had a good season in the new position and Steve became a close friend. Full back was a very different position in those days – largely defensive.
The wingers did not drop back to cover and the full back had the whole of the width of the pitch to cover for tactical kicks and as a result stood far deeper than his modern counterpart. The first game of the season was against John Fishers School who had a very good running fly half. Probably three or four times in the match he ran through our entire defence only to be stopped by me. I also must have been quite fit as I managed to come into the three quarter line outside the winger and scored a couple of tries. This game gave me confidence in the new position and I had a good season. Amongst other games I remember playing Eton at their ground and again scoring a couple of tries in a victory. During this season we had a boy called Roshanakorn (I cannot remember his first name and have not necessarily spelt his name correctly) playing at number eight. He was absolute dynamite with the ball in his hands and quite frequently picked it up from the base of the scrum and scored from there. He was interesting as I believe he was Malay and did not speak much English and I am also quite sure that he was a few years older than the age group he played in.
Fitness at that age and with the life I was leading was never an issue. As well as an afternoon of rugby during the week, we had two sessions of P.E. and played probably three quarters of an hour soccer every lunchtime and also after school on Fridays. At the weekend I would play rugby for the school on Saturday morning, soccer for the Y.M.C.A on Saturday afternoon and five a side at the Y.M.C.A in the evening. On Sunday afternoons there was often a football game at North Acton Playing Fields with various people from Latymer travelling to play. I probably had more than ten hours of active, competitive sport a week. The issue of childhood obesity had not raised its head at that time. From memory of the one hundred and fifty boys in my year, no more than a couple were overweight. We certainly had ample opportunities for exercise and although there were fish and chips and Wimpy had just started out, MacDonalds, KFC, Pizzas, Indian and Chinese takeaways had yet to arrive.
At the age of fifteen I became eligible for the senior school teams and having decided I wanted to play in the centre again, was picked for the First XV. Having had a couple of seasons playing full back behind a very porous defence, my positional play was not good and I was soon moved back to full back. My captain that season was Martin Bream and the following season Colin Phillips. In the 1966/67 season I was made captain of the First XV and with a pretty good team had a relatively successful season. Our coach was Tony Briggs who was unusually helpful in turning a blind eye to our lighting up after the game.
We won more games than we lost and ran the very strong Hampton Grammar team close in one of our better games (I missed a kick at goal that would have drawn the match). We even managed to win a couple of games at the Public School Sevens at Rosslyn Park’s ground and get through to the second day. The usual team as I remember was as follows:
15. Tim Partner
14. Nigel Burdett
13. Steve Ankers
12. Steve Goulding
11. Frank Gardiner
10. Steve Evans
9. Dave Morton
1. Richard Lacey
2. Martin Woelful
3. David? Stanton
4. Taffy Beale
5. Barry Simpson
6. David Jacklin
7. Dave Lewes
8. John Hetherington.
At the start of the 1967/68 season I played in the trials at Staines. I found the difference between coping with adults as opposed to schoolboys not too difficult to deal with. My first game was in the Extra A (4th team) but due to late withdrawals I played in the second team, the Cobs, the following week. I was again playing in the centre against A.W.R.E. Aldermaston and scored a try from a pass from Andy Davies, the son of the club’s founder. I was put back down to Mike Hawker’s A XV (3rd team) but worked my way back to the Cobs and in March 1968 at the age of eighteen was selected for the first time for the 1st XV. My father came home from the relevant selection meeting and teased me for a while before confirming my place in the team. It was an away game against Newbold on Avon (its distance perhaps explaining the lack of alternatives to me in the team) and we won due to a try from Ron Pettifor from a horrible bouncing pass from Paddy McLoughlin. I remember chasing everything very hard to impress Sid Richardson, our captain and also the conduct of my opposite number. He was a bad tempered baldy possibly fifteen years my senior. Every time I tackled him, and doing this was not a problem, I found that I was smacked in the face. It is a testament to my naivety and inexperience that it was not until the second half that it dawned on me that this was quite deliberate and I smacked him back. I remained in the 1st XV for the remainder of the season.
At the start of the 1968/69 season I was selected for the 1st XV and played every game for them at centre. I was actually dropped for the final scheduled fixture after a dreadful performance against Ealing where I could not catch a cold, but the 1st XV game was cancelled and I played for the Cobs instead. In those days a new Gilbert ball was far more difficult to catch than its modern counterpart but this is the only game I can remember when my handling badly let me down. As a result of this extra Cobs game I won the most games played tankard which was presented to me at the Annual Dinner by Alistair McHarg, the Scottish international. At the beginning of the season, nineteen year old me was partnered in the centre by Dickie Evans, then thirty eight. He was later replaced by Ray Griffiths who whilst being a good attacking player, allowed me to do a fair amount of his tackling. He was later moved to the wing with Dave Kilonback coming into the centre. Before J.P.R. Williams had been established as one of the first attacking full backs we had a set move which brought Pat Booth, our full back into the line between the centres. Pat was a talented player who again was a better attacker than defender and he later managed some first team games for Bristol, when they were one of England’s top sides. Sid Richardson was our captain and we were a very young side. I have a photograph of a team playing Madrid University at the Easter end of the season with Sid, Barry Egmore-Frost, Bill Williams and Tony Westlake being the only players over twenty one. Amongst the youngsters was Alan Pike, an excellent second or back row player who later managed some games for Cardiff. For some reason that I am unable to explain, fifty years on, I still remember vividly each of the four tries I scored that season against Maidenhead, High Wycombe (this was as a result of an angled run that Leighton Morgan and I practiced years later and called “the move”), Windsor and Newbold on Avon more than any before or after. Another interesting memory from that season was my friend, Francis Gardiner from Latymer playing most of this season and somehow getting into the Middlesex County Clubs XV, an invention of my father to give representative rugby to junior club members. Francis was an average winger at best but somehow got into the side and scored four tries against Belgium, after turning up in poor shape after a heavy night before, without having to run more than five yards for each one.
I was never a lighting fast centre but I was young and fit and my defence was sound as I positively enjoyed tackling. I was training twice a week without fail, (during which time I could keep up with Ron Pettifor and Dave Kilonback in the sprint sessions) and playing on Saturday for Staines and on Sunday, either for the Buccaneers or later for a pub side the Railway Sleepers of Teddington. I was captain of the Buccaneers for almost a whole season during which someone brought along their mate Mel Bonner, who was already forty and had only recently taken up the game. He eventually joined Staines and made a huge contribution well into his late forties. His sons Keith and John came through the Cygnets and played at First XV level before decamping to Wasps where John had a very long and successful career including playing in John Player Cup finals at Twickenham.
Another difference between then and now as that we played right and left centre rather than inside and out. I preferred left as I passed better off my right hand and this demarcation was normally decided between the two centres, as they ran onto the pitch. Outside me on the wing that season was Ron Pettifor, who scored a record number of tries, many after I had passed him the ball. I would like to say that I gave him try scoring passes but actually he normally had his own man and the full back to beat which he managed on many occasions.
The following season I decided I wanted to play fly half again. I had to effectively go down a couple of levels to re-learn my trade in that I had not played at number ten for five or six years. The laws had changed meanwhile as one could now not gain ground by kicking directly into touch from outside the twenty five. The season after that, the 1st Team captain was Ian Robson who played in that position so I played almost exclusively for the Cobs or below during those two seasons.
At the end of the 1970/71 season, the Staines seven qualified for the Middlesex Seven a Side Finals at Twickenham. Those not old enough to remember these times will have no idea how big a deal this was. With the close season not dominated by overseas tours and the season ending much earlier than now, this was an end of season celebration of try scoring rugby, far more open and much less physical than the modern globe-trotting circuses. All of the first class clubs in the south east strived to qualify plus two specialist sevens colleges (St Lukes, Exeter and Loughborough) and two guest sides, these being first class teams from outside the south east. The preliminary rounds were played at eight grounds and it meant that a junior club such as Staines normally had to beat a first class team to get to Twickenham. Our excellent seven did this by beating London Irish on their own ground at Sunbury. This seven had been winning junior tournaments but reaching the finals at a sold out Twickenham was the height of their achievements. On the day they faced Edinburgh Wanderers, an excellent Scottish side from the country where sevens was invented, whose seven included Menzies Campbell, an Olympic sprinter and later leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party. They lost by three tries to two to a seven who reached the final of the competition. The seven were:
Dave Kilonback (captain)
The season after, 1971/72, Dave Kilonback became First XV captain and there was no way that he would tolerate a non-tackler at fly half, which Ian Robson was (although a talented attacker and a very good place kicker). I therefore played my best ever rugby in the best team I ever experienced as fly half until injuring myself after ten or so games. At that time I was at my fittest as my first marriage was breaking up and I was happy to train and play as much as possible. This team had a number of very talented players but it was Dave Kilonback’s captaincy (as in the seven a side team) that gave the team an extra dimension. As well as being a very good player, Dave was a very forceful personality and most of his team were more worried about letting him down than any concerns about the strength of the opposition. I remember almost the sense of relief when after flattening my opposite number, a word of praise would follow.
My injury occurred when we were playing R.M.A Sandhurst and with ten minutes to go we were forty points up. I had seen a French international winger do a sort of double footed bicycle kick manoeuvre as he cross kicked and tried to do the same. I landed on my back in agony with no opponent having touched me and later found I had dislocated my hip. I did not play properly again until the following season (this was ten months later) and never really trained or was fit again. The most positive thing that came out of it was that John Earl moved from centre to fly half, with Ron Ladley taking his place and it was John’s performance in hassling his opposite number into a nightmare game that was very influential in Staines beating the full Wasps First XV later in the season in the Middlesex Cup. I did not possess the speed off the mark that had enabled him to do this.
During my time with that team I had Angus Bertinussen as my scrum half who was the best I ever played with. He left at the end of the season and had a long and successful career with London Scottish although he played mostly on the wing. He came from a rugby playing family with his brother gaining a trial for Scotland. I always preferred a quick rather than a long pass and Angus, together with Chris Hicks and Nuby Stevens and lower down Neil Bennett were those who excelled in this. Those who concentrated on the long wound up pass that did not suit me so much included Jimmy Page, Dave Dubbin, Neils Carruthers, Mervn Page and Graham Alsford. Co-incidentally all of those five apart from Dave Dubbin, were poor communicators which also did not help.
The team who beat Wasps were:
15 Wayne Wregglesworth
14 Clive Richardson
13 Ron Ladley
12 Dave Kilonback
11 Ron Pettifor
10 John Earl
9 Angus Bertinussen
1 Sid Richardson
2 Chris Huntley
3 Charlie McSpirit
4 Mel Bonner
5 Keith Beattie
6 Gareth Jones
7 Alan Hughes
8 John Hodgekiss
After returning to play again in the 1972/73 season I played mainly in the Cobs (2nd team). I was living at that time in North London which made a long journey to the Club but in this and the following season, although not a regular, I still played some occasional First XV rugby. Duncan Everson and I considered ourselves to be cannon fodder at that time as we tended to be selected for difficult away games when other players made themselves unavailable. A good example of this was a fixture against Salisbury who were not normally that strong a side but on this occasion various army regiments has been recalled and they were terrific and beat us 92-12. At the end of the 1973/74 season, I had regained my place permanently and kept it through to the end of season tour to Pierrelatte (which I organised). I did not play there as I twisted my ankle in a drunken kick about on the evening we arrived. At the end of the season Rod Billinge stood for First XV captain. As I considered him not an appropriate person for that position, I stood against him and lost by a few votes. The facile charm of the man won the day. I am not sure what kind of fist I would have made of First XV captain and as I had given up training I did not play more than a couple of games at that level under Rod Billinge, however I was ultimately not that unhappy to have lost this contest as I had just moved in with Liz and had thereby become a father for the first time. I think I would have struggled with this new domestic role had I had to devote the time necessary to do the job of First XV captain properly. I was not an outstanding player at First XV level, more competent than inspirational with my main qualities being my kicking out of hand and my tackling which at that time was still something that not all fly halves involved themselves with. For a couple of seasons or possibly more, I could find touch from inside my own twenty two, in the opposition’s twenty two nine times out of ten. This was with the old fashioned “torpedo” kick and if the timing was right, was effortless, at least for a while. I was more Rob Andrew than Phil Bennett.
For the next seven years my disinclination to train, my new family responsibilities, my increasing business involvement and my fairly hedonistic lifestyle in terms of food and drink resulted in a gradual decline in form an accumulation of weight and a descent down the clubs’ teams. I had the odd First Team game and remember vividly Nuby Stevens’ first outing at scrum half against a very strong Hinckley XV, who were second only to Leicester Tigers in their part of the world at the time. We actually played very well in a narrow defeat. I recall that Nuby came off the pitch not knowing what had hit him, absolutely exhausted. I also remember a season playing for Jeff Bevan’s Cobs. This team included Brian Feltham, Pete Hansford, Trevor Cook, Jimmy Page and Nuby Stevens. I was punched more often in that season than any other, inevitably as a retaliation in respect of something one of the aforementioned had done to the opposition. When Liz and I married in January 1976, I was playing for Chris Little’s A (3rd) XV and due to the marriage being on a Friday and England playing France the following day, I played on the Saturday morning after drinking until 3am the previous night. Not a great performance I remember but I got through it. I gradually slipped further down and ended up playing for Peter Hewlett’s B Machine (5th team). This loss of playing status did not bother me at all as throughout the seventies and eighties Staines was simply a marvellous club to play for and to enjoy. The membership was an eccentric mix of people from every walk of life and the social scene after the game was enormously attractive. This was to the point whereby many of us got into serious trouble at home for staying later and drinking more than was wise. This element was even more pronounced when the Veterans or Swans were formed in 1980. Those visiting the club on a Saturday in recent times where it is usual for there to be a maximum of one game only being played would not have recognised the bustle and atmosphere of earlier years when up to five games would ensure a crowded and lively clubhouse after the games had finished.
In 1980, Dicky Evans, now in his fifties, formed the Veterans or Swans XV. This was for players over thirty five. I was thirty one at the time but due to my appearance, weight and lack of fitness, my age status was never questioned by the opposition. Future captains included Eric de Voil, Richard Sexton, me for two seasons, Richard Humphrey, Peter Hewlett and Ian Geddes. For six or seven years this team was a delight to play for. The pre match changing room humour of Paddy McLoughlin, John Sheather, Leighton Morgan, Richard Sexton and others and the often unintentional humour of those including Peter Hewlett, Jim Hair, Nick Mickelson and Jim Rix was such that on many occasions I would find myself running onto the playing field quite weak with laughter. The after game socialising was equally enjoyable. We generally won more games than we lost and played an open running style. We had an interception specialist in Leighton Morgan but because of the attacking style we used, we were quite vulnerable to interceptions ourselves. There were many memorable games and moments but those I fondly remember include two amazing defensive performances against London New Zealand and Old Harrodians (now Barnes) where we tackled our hearts out and came out on top. Another good game was against a Richmond Heavies side, sprinkled with former internationals at the Athletic Ground where we ran them very close.
We also had a number of tours to coincide with international matches, I think Paris four times and Dublin once which were amazingly enjoyable but normally took a day or two to recover from. In Paris we would play Paris Referees on the morning of the France/England game and they would come to us when the fixture was reversed. We only went to Ireland once and played Old Belvedere on the morning of the international. One particularly happy memory is of a game in Paris where we had an excellent back row of Richard Humphrey, Nigel Slater and Ian Klyne who dominated the Parisian pack. With Leighton Morgan and Godfrey Axten weaving their magic in the centre and Jerry Wright running in tries from the wing we gave quite good opposition a good hiding. It was also – from perhaps rose tinted memory – a glorious spring morning.
The Swans teams of the eighties contained a number of eccentrics. We had in Eric de Voil and Jim Rix, arguably the worst two line out second rows in the game. Eric was approaching fifty when we started and in spite of having been a good all round tight forward, had failed throughout his career to overcome the fact that at 5 foot 10 inches or so, he was too short to compete successfully in the line out. Jim, a fearless fireman by trade and a quiet and pleasant man, had little understanding of rugby and a desire to rid himself of the ball by whatever means whenever it came near him. He was I think, the only person I ever played with who had no rugby skills whatever other than the ability to pack down and shove in a set scrum. At kick offs he had a seemingly endless repertoire of inappropriate actions when the ball came in his direction. These are hard to describe but possibly their inspiration came from volleyball as Jim would launch himself towards the ball and fist it in an unpredictable direction. At line outs he managed to punch considerably below his weight by going from standing to a crouch position as the ball came in. This meant that our only viable line out option was the long throw which put pressure on Richard Sexton, our hooker. Richard was actually a reasonably good thrower and a hooker of the old school of fast striking, however after more than fifty years of playing and watching the game, he still, by his own admission, does not really understand it. Warren Lee was a strong and reliable prop who loved to run with the ball. Unfortunately he would run in whatever direction he was going in when he received it which often did not include the opposition try line. Jim Hair was our fearless Kiwi back row who, according to an after dinner speech by Leighton Morgan “would run through a brick wall but had problems when he could not locate one”. There were other odd people over the years including Ian Geddes (totally nuts) and Peter Hewlett who would arrive from his perilous army security job in Northern Ireland during the troubles, stinking of onions and garlic which he consumed before every game to discomfort his opposite number in the front row. He would then change quickly and whilst most people still had bare feet his combination of short sightedness and natural clumsiness would mean others had to look lively to avoid having their feet broken by him in his laced up boots. His other habit was at every opposition kick off, to shout out “watch the funny”. This, to the best of my memory, was not understood and therefore ignored on every occasion by his team mates.
This section would not be complete without mention of Paddy McLoughlin. Paddy, as a skinny back row forward had been fitness coach as well as playing in the Staines First XV of 1968 when I made my debut. He left the club shortly afterwards playing for a number of clubs including Harlequins where he captained the second XV. In spite of the ravages of time that had seen his weight gain eclipse even my own, he was a fine rugby player and was still able, although a little more slowly than in his prime, to make telling breaks.
Our clubhouse was destroyed by the gales of 1987 and Graham Clark, Graham Lee, our current President, and Ron Pettifor did manful work in the designing and procurement of materials and the management of the building of the new club house. Unfortunately this project took more money than we had available and we ended up with a significant debt which in effect we carry to this day. In 1990 with interest rates at 15% and a club manager largely out of control we were in a financial mess and George Swain –a very competent administrator - was asked to form a finance committee to confront the problem. I was asked to join it and soon found that when I arranged for proper stock checks, we were being robbed by the manager and so, by this time having assumed the position of Chairman of the club (this being because President Kevin Cloran, another more than competent administrator, was working in Birmingham and could not attend committee meetings), I sacked him. In conjunction with Eddie Jones and Mike O’Reilly, we set about finding a new one and Brett Schofield and his wife Pam were hired. For getting on for fifteen years and until his addictive gambling and drinking resulted in Pam leaving him, this couple made us the best catered for club at our level and also provided the income from the function room to allow us to pay players when the game went professional.
The introduction of leagues in the late eighties saw us placed in Middlesex League One. At the time of writing we are now in its equivalent Herts/Middlesex One, but its status is hugely different as there is far less below us. After a spike in 2003, when England won the world cup, participation at club level has vastly diminished. The reasons for this are many and complex, but it is partly due to the success of rugby at the top level being watched by more people than ever before, many of whom would be playing the game in previous times. The Premier League, part financed by the receipts of international rugby as well and television fees is where our international teams are developed and are selected from. There is always an uneasy balance between importing overseas players to raise standards and this process limiting the opportunities for English qualified players to develop. I think we largely get it right, unlike the French who with far larger budgets than their English counterparts, overdo the overseas imports and have suffered at international level as a result. The second tier or Championship is the highest point for semi-professional sides with grounds that do not match Premiership minimums. At the time of writing it appears that London Irish, Bristol and possibly Worcester face an endless process of one being relegated from the Premiership and gaining immediate promotion from the Championship the following season. The saving grace is that Newcastle, after being part of this merry go round for some years, now appear to have established themselves in the top division. As with Sale this is vitally important as they are the only Premiership sides north of the midlands. Yorkshire, as in professional soccer, punches well below its weight.
What is the case with leagues is that the old system whereby a good Match Secretary and a level of old pals philosophy determined a club’s progress and status is long gone. In Herts/Middlesex One we are now seven levels below clubs we have competed with in the leagues or play offs (Ealing Trailfinders, Richmond, London Scottish, Hartpury and Jersey) and six levels below five others (Old Albanians, Esher, Cambridge, Bishops Stortford and Old Elthamians) many of the reasons for our current lowly position is the result of self inflicted wounds, but more of that later.
By the time I became chairman of Staines, 1991, I had just stopped playing. When it reached the point where on a Saturday I was still aching from the previous week’s game, I realised that the time had come. When I reflected on my rugby days I concurred that three people had helped me learn and appreciate the game. My father had drummed certain things into me. If the ball comes towards you, catch it but if it is moving away from you kick it (this would not apply today as the modern ball is easier to catch going forward). He also made me practice kicking with my weaker left foot and practiced with me catching a ball bouncing in front of me, one of the more difficult rugby skills. At Latymer, when I reached the First XV, I was coached by the Reverend John Evans who in his day was a fly half for Glamorgan Wanderers and was apparently selected as the one non international for the British Lions team of 1939 which never travelled because of the uncertainties prior to the outbreak of war. I have never been able to confirm this story, but in his fifties, his rugby skills, speed and rugby knowledge would make it no surprise to me if it were true. At Staines in my day the coaching at First XV level was the responsibility of the First XV captain and was pretty much was limited to fitness training. I was helped, however, by John Hodgekiss whose natural ability included being able to coach others on the field whilst he was playing.
My own ability at coaching was very limited. Although I did not have the physical attributes or skill set to be anything but an average player, I think I understood the game well and found it a pretty straightforward business. With Nuby Stevens and a First Team prop whose name I cannot remember who left the club in a huff over something or other, I helped coach the Under Seventeen XV who won the Middlesex title. I found communicating things I found instinctive did not come naturally and that team’s success was due mainly to their having two or three outstanding players who unfortunately played little or no senior rugby. My son, Sam, later played in this age group in a final against Ruislip (never my favourite side). He was playing blind side flanker and I noticed their prop was illegally holding him into scrums to create space for his backs. I instructed him to belt the bloke which he duly did and the game erupted into a brief punch up. Things calmed down but I had the later embarrassment explaining to the Middlesex hierarchy that the person responsible for this disgraceful scene was the grandson of a Middlesex President acting on instructions from his father.
I had twelve years as an administrator at Staines, nine as chairman and three as president. My first years were blessed by a superb First XV mainly made up of players who had come through our youth system. These talents were augmented by the terrific coaching of Bob Lawless who later became Director of Rugby, President and Chief Executive of Staines. He is currently the second person from Staines to become President of Middlesex. In four seasons they managed three promotions and we were very quickly in London Division One and we also had a number of Middlesex Cup winning seasons. The season we were promoted from London Division Two to One was our most successful in that we had huge crowds of many hundreds watching these games. This was mainly as the home grown element of the team attracted support from their family and friends. We were also making significant dents in the debt we were carrying from the building of the new clubhouse.
We had probably half a dozen seasons where the success of our largely home grown team made rugby at Staines a delight to watch. Whilst I cannot remember all the players, a few stick out. “Windy” Miller and later Shaun Terry at full back. The wonderful Barry Hathaway at scrum half – who later captained Middlesex - partnered by Roland Davies at fly half. Wingers like Andy Turner who must have had the best part of twenty years in our First XV, later in the back row and centres like Will Mold and Charlie Hacker. The more unconventional style of scrum half and person in Spencer Franks. The front rowers Mark Davies (a Welshman who had played against the All Blacks and who was never anything but on top in the tight), Kevin Jones the captain Damian Porter and Paul Kightley, backed by second rows like Nigel Taylor, Dave Hoade, Tim Mulhall, Andy Tolson and Tim Hollidge and back row players like Ollie Blake, Carl Taylor, Paddy Elmes and Vince Holden.
When the game went professional in the mid nineties the R.F.U. offered nothing in terms of leadership and guidance. Whilst the sacrifices and commitment of players at the top level had made it inevitable that the game would have to go in this direction it was a mistake for the R.F.U. not to take responsibility for the running of the senior club competitions and the contracting of players at the highest levels. This lack of foresight put us behind the southern hemisphere teams for a number of years. At the top level a number of wealthy carpet bagging business interests, including Sir John Hall in Newcastle and the copper fraudster Ashley Levett at Richmond, bought out clubs with the expectation that top level rugby would generate them big money. This turned out not to be the case and of these, only Nigel Wray of Saracens still remains and he has not profited financially. Rather he has invested a large amount of his personal wealth in making them one of the top club sides in Europe. The top teams in England, France and other countries almost all have an owner who is primarily a benefactor rather than a genuine investor.
With the support we had in our promotion to London League One, just one step from the national leagues, we had the reasonable expectation that as we progressed higher the support might increase even further. This dictated our ambition to progress into the national leagues, which seemed a logical ambition at the time. We did not, however, continue to produce players as good as the ones who had facilitated our progress and with the income we had, a very substantial portion of which was generated by Brett and Pam Schofield, we decided to invest in players from outside as by now all our players were receiving payment of some sort. We did not realise that we were doing ourselves no long term favours as the teams that followed in the later nineties and the noughties no longer had the local connections of their predecessors and whatever the standard of rugby, did not attract the crowds of earlier years.
I can remember occasions when we had as many as four former internationals (Chris Sheasby, Nick Greenstock and Steve White-Cooper of England and Waisali Serevi of Fiji) playing for us but their box office value was way below that of the previous home grown teams. Another long term problem we were unknowingly creating was the fact that the affinity and affection that previous generations of players had had for the club was no more and the natural progression from playing into administration was entirely gone. Although it seemed like progress at the time, the ending of the system where one of the home teams helped out behind the bar, this being replaced by paid bar staff, added to this disconnect, even if it improved the gross profit. When I stood down as President in 2003 due to business problems making it unreasonable for me to finance the position (it always was a costly hobby) whilst my home finances were under strain, I was appealing, as I had been for the previous five years or so for younger people to come forward to take up positions on the Executive Management Committee. However, the mercenaries we had employed as players were long gone and the previous progression from playing to administrating had ceased to function effectively.
We were also unfortunate in that two able administrators, Hugh Pallot and Tony Brightwell met untimely deaths which thinned the ranks in terms of ability. My appeal met with no success and the average age of administrators continued to rise until this season 2017/2018 when at last some new blood has come in.
Since my involvement in administration ceased, playing numbers have decreased all over the country and our formally excellent club manager changed from being an asset to becoming an enormous liability. Instead of dealing with this in a straightforward and positive way, given he had provided ample grounds for dismissal, those in charge eventually paid outsiders to give them lousy advice which involved paying him £25,000 compensation. This is typical of a recent management style that involved us acting more like a multi-national corporation than a small local rugby club with the management either managing staff poorly and generally with kid gloves or paying for politically correct, expensive and impractical advice from outsiders. It should be understood, however, that my knowledge of the machinations of the Executive Management Board comes entirely from touchline and bar room chat.
On the playing side as recently as 2010 we were, as a result of reorganisation in the leagues, up from London One into the National Leagues in London and South East Division Three. However, after successfully finishing half way up that league, our Executive Management Committee, showing Middlesex, our constituent ruling body far too much respect, responded dutifully to a missive urging clubs to tidy up their balance sheets. The result was that in April, at the end of that season the playing budget was slashed. Between then and the start of the following season, seventy two players took the decision to cease playing for a club with such ambivalent ambition and on the playing side we have only just started to recover from the resultant freefall. We have experienced relegation in four of the last five seasons and now struggle get out more than one team as opposed to the regular six and occasional seven in my playing days. We have wasted enormous amounts of money on dishonest staff and useless club coaches. The gentleman who we paid £20,000 to get us relegated last season has, I note now become managing director of London Scottish who coincidentally? appear to be in danger of surrendering their status in the Championship.
I think Staines has a promising future however. Unlike most teams at our level, we own the freehold of our ground and pavilion and this equity more than covers the debt we still carry from the development of the new clubhouse. We have income streams independent of rugby and given their level there is no reason why we cannot manage our finances. This season with an excellent coach in Rocky Hudson, we have won more games than we have lost for the first time since we were in National League South East Three and once we again have a group of local players who enjoy playing rugby together and also drinking together. In my view the two activities have to go together for a successful team to emerge. We should now have the potential for probably a modest rise up the leagues in due course, although there is no hurry for this to happen. Our President, Graham Lee has stood firm during our period of decline when running the club was a thankless and difficult task. It is significantly easier to get people to undertake jobs and go the extra mile when the club is doing well, which was my own fortunate experience. In Chairman Stephen Leach, we finally have, for the first time since Kevin Cloran, someone with the right background to run the business side and also someone who is not near retirement age.
What has now been clearly established is that there is no financial benefit from progressing upwards in the league structure until a team has the potential to reach the Premiership. Changing leagues does, however, provide the benefit of varying the fixture list, which with us playing our league opponents home and away does not have the variety it once had. Whilst in my day we would play more than thirty different clubs in a season, the current structure means that after pre season trial games, we now play just eleven.
It will always be possible, however, for poor administrational decisions to bugger things up. The Bard observed that “the evil that men do lives on whilst the good is oft interred in their bones” and small organisations such as ours have a habit of attracting people with little genuine ability who offer their services as a means of fulfilling some otherwise unfulfilled need in themselves. These offers of involvement are rarely refused as any volunteer is always taken at face value until his actions become unacceptable. I have been given to understand at the present time we may have one such person on the Executive Committee, I very much hope that this is not the case. As we have seen, it only takes one poor decision to send the Club into a downward spiral, no matter how many sound ones have been made previously.
For my own part, I drink every Friday night with people I have known for fifty years or so through Staines Rugby Club. On most Saturdays these friends and I also watch the rugby at Staines and having endured several seasons of loss after loss, now enjoy arriving with hope and expectation of a good game and a possible win.
Rugby is still a game that makes it difficult for cowards and bullies to thrive and that is the one enduring reason why it was a game I once loved and is still one I like very much.