I should perhaps explain what I alluded to about me being a sickly youth. An obvious target for the school bully. My saving grace was that I was brighter than most of the thugs who set about me, to my further detriment, as their fists rained down, I never let them forget it! The problem stemmed from the fact that I suffered from almost permanent septic throats, inflamed tonsils and adenoids. During this period there was a field of medical opinion which was against the removal of either tonsils or adenoids and, as a result my mother was so advised. With my system being poisoned year after year my growth was stunted and I was painfully thin â€“ something like 6 Â½ stone at 13 years old (dubbed with the nickname name Belsen). At which time it was obvious that the infected tonsils could not be allowed to remain and I went into Paddington hospital to have both tonsils and adenoids removed. This was quite a serious operation in one so old, normally being carried out in babyhood. I seem to recall that I had to spend something like three weeks in hospital, much of the time only being able to eat jelly and trifle. The outcome was that over the next three to four years I put on quite a lot of body weight and grew 10 Â½ inches.
So it came about that in my entire school career I was excused all forms of physical exertion. Indeed, I have, to this day, a certificate from the school doctor to that effect. When my system recovered from the operation and my health improved significantly I began to feel strong enough to take some physical exercise and by the age of 17/18 I positively yearned to do so. Believe it or not I decided that in order to raise my profile with my peers I would play rugby!
Of course I had never played a game, or indeed, to the best of my memory, had never even made contact with a rugby ball. However, I had seen a number of games played and the physicality of it appealed to me as being a manly pursuit and I was desperate to be accepted as one of the lads.
I bought myself a book entitled something like â€™How to Play Rugby Footballâ€™ and, after reading it a couple of times, decided that it was not too difficult a game. The next move was too find a club to join. In discussing this with a rugby playing friend and he discovering that I had a Scottish father, said the obvious choice was the London Scottish Rugby Club. This was one of the leading London clubs and I was given to understand that they had several teams and therefore varying standards of players would be welcome. I found the Secretaryâ€™s telephone number and rang him. He was very welcoming and suggested that I turned up the following Tuesday at Richmond for a trial. So the die was cast
My next move was to go to Lillywhites in Piccadilly to kit myself out. When I tried on my new boots, shorts, shirt and socks, I look like one of the dummies in the shop window. This clearly would not do so I took the whole lot into the garden, scuffed the boots and rubbed the rest of the new gear into the mud. So equipped I presented myself, the following Tuesday, as requested, at Richmond rugby ground, which London Scottish shared with that club.
When I arrived there must have been 50 or 60 other players all changing for the evening practice. It was not therefore difficult to get lost in this crowd and changing to my, now not so obviously brand new, kit following the crowd. I ran out on to the pitch for the very first time. I felt really great. I had arrived at last! I was one of the lads like everyone else.
It was not difficult to blend into such a large crowd and follow what everybody else was doing. Sprinting from one end of field to the other, then twisting and turning and running past would-be tacklers. Finally, and most exciting of all for me, receiving and passing the rugby ball â€“ the very first time I had even touched one. This ball was gathered by me and passed on as sweetly as anyone else on that field , or so I thought at the time.
After half an hour or so of this strenuous training under the floodlights a halt was called and the coach asked if there were any new members. I raised my hand with half a dozen other hopefuls. When it came to my turn he asked what position I played. Having re-read â€™How to play rugby footballâ€™ shortly prior to this training session, I decided that the only sensible position from me would be as far away from the forwards as possible i.e. on the wing. â€œI am a winger, Sirâ€, I said, â€œbut I must warn you I have not played since I left school and Iâ€™m very rustyâ€ I lied. â€œNever fearâ€ he said, â€œyou will certainly not be aloneâ€.
Having isolated the half a dozen or so new players, the coach then picked the balance of two teams from the regular players who had been training with us. We were told that we would be playing 10 minutes each way under the floodlights. I lined up, as I recalled I should from the book, and, apart from keeping my position, I had little to do other than one throw-in during the first half. After 10 minutes we had a three-minute break and then changed ends. Halfway through the second 10 minute period the ball came right down the line into my arms. I was so startled that I ran like a hare for the try line. On the way I spotted one burly obstacle but such was my terror and adrenalin level that I sidestepped, shot past this man and touched down. That was, in effect, all I did in this practice game. The whistle blew and we all took off. I was a very happy lad.
I stripped off and joined 20 or 30 other young men in a huge steaming bath. I really did feel that I had arrived particularly once I had a small glass of beer in my hands (despite hating the stuff).
Imagine my pride when I discovered that the burly obstacle who I had managed to negotiate was none other than Ken Scotland, the Scottish international fullback. My joy was heightened even further when the coach sought me out after the bath and told me that he was impressed with my performance and asked if I was prepared to playing for the extra A team the following Saturday. I had no idea that the extra Aâ€™s were the second or third team in a string of 14. All I knew was that I had arrived, the whole thing was really not as frightening as I had at first thought, in fact, I could see no impediment at all to play and enjoying this game. What a rude awakening I was in for!
The following Saturday, having read the book yet again, I presented myself at the Richmond ground, it being a home game against London Irish. It was a brilliant winterâ€™s day with a startling blue sky and frozen ground like concrete. I changed with some slight trepidation at the thought of playing my first game. Positioning myself in the back line there seemed little to do during the first 20 minutes or so, the ball rarely reaching the extremity of the wing. Then it happened.
After a scrum down one of the opposing forwards hiked a high Garry Owen, up and under. The ball rose high against the ultramarine sky. I can see even now. Rising high above the ground and then plummeting towards me in a gentle arc. It hit the ground about 10 feet in front me shooting first to the left and then violently to the right, first one way then the other. By the time I reached the ball, suddenly my mind went blank. I simply could not remember whether I had to play the ball first with my foot or was I allowed to pick it up and run.
This notion, some 50 or so years later, of having to play the ball with my foot before running with it seems so absurd that I can scarcely believe it myself but that was what I thought in the split second I had before opposition reached me. But then you must remember I totally unfamiliar with the rules.
In this state of indecision I could see a hoard of giants descending upon me with grim determination on their fearsome faces. Their arms pumping hard as they drew closer. Just me and the full back between them and the try line. I now know, of course, that what I should have done was to have fallen on the ball with my back to the oncoming horde and been fallen upon and trampled on whilst my own team retrieved the ball on our side. Not, at that time being in possession of such intelligence, I panicked and tried to kick the ball. To what end I know not. Sheer funk I think. I executed, what many a ballerina would have been proud of, a perfect pirouette and then fell flat on my face. By which time the opposing team had reached me and I was trampled heavily under a score of studded boots into the frozen mud as they swept over and past me. This performance, and the battered and bedraggled being which was me, after that assault was worthy of Norman Wisdom! Whether the London Irish actually scored from my transgression I was too shocked to register. I do know that the captain of our team was so angry he yelled that I was not to touch the ball again for the rest of that game.
As a result I thought that my rugby career was to have been very short-lived. Instead I received a card the following Tuesday requesting me to turn out on the following Saturday for the extra Gâ€™s â€“ 14 teams lower than the team I had played for the previous Saturday!!
Nevertheless I was thrilled. I really had made it this time. I had been accepted as a rugby player, albeit that the smell of beer from the overweight, elderly pack could be comfortably picked up on the wing by even the least sensitive nose. Never mind, I had started. Over the next three seasons I rose slowly up the pecking order and ended the last season playing in the Bâ€™s and extra Câ€™s.
Sadly my rugby playing career came to an end when I went to Australia. Melbourne being in an Aussie rules state rather than rugby union, I hung up my boots for ever in favour of other out door activities. However, I still wear my London Scottish tie with great pride. I earned it! (Sadly, London Scottish disappeared altogether in 2001 when they amalgamated with, of all teams, the London Irish, and the name was dropped altogether shortly after.)
My last contact with the London Scottish occurred on a year or so ago, 40 years after my fateful first game, when I returned, with an apology, a framed cartoon, with I had â€˜liftedâ€™ as a dare from behind the bar of the London Irish. I know they would have killed me if I had been caught at the time and it took all of this time to pluck up courage to admit to my scurrilous deed and return the trophy. After all, I reasoned, they could hardly beat up an old aged pensioner!