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Rugger Days

Posted by DMC on 3 May 2009 in Anecdotes |

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 – something like 6 ½ 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 ½ 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 ’How to Play Rugby Football’ 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 Secretary’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 – 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 ’How to play rugby football’ 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. “I am a winger, Sir”, I said, “but I must warn you I have not played since I left school and I’m very rusty” I lied. “Never fear” he said, “you will certainly not be alone”.

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 A’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 winter’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 G’s – 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 B’s and extra C’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 ‘lifted’ 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!

6 Comments

  • Daniel Alcon says:

    Dear Mark,

    Having received an email alert this morning that a former colleague at J R Knowles, Graham Atherton, had connected to you on Plaxo, I have spent the last hour reading various parts of your blog, culminating in your rugby career above. Very amusing!!

    Hope you remember me. I was the founder and chairman of the RICS UAE Group in 2003, based in Dubai. I was working for J R Knowles at the time with Graham and also Steve Exelby who I believe you studied with when you undertook your MSc. You gave a lecture to our Members in late 2004 and kindly donated a couple of your books to us to kick-start our library.

    I have been reading your blog in awe of your frankness and fortitude. I greatly admire your ability to retain a sense of humour at a time when it must be increasingly difficult for you to do so. I have recently been diagnosed with diabetes, which has its bad aspects including possible amputation in extreme cases, but this seems like nothing by comparison to your current trials and tribulations.

    Mark, I find your approach to your situation both admirable and inspirational and I wish you all the very best.

    Yours sincerely,
    Daniel Alcon,
    Dubai, UAE

  • DMC says:

    Thank you Daniel so much for your very kind remarks about my blog. I hope other people find it as inspirational as you do which would mean that it is achieving its objective.You might be interested to know that we passed 150,000 hits at the end of the year. So pass it on to all your friends and colleagues in the hope that they will do the same and it might reach someone who will benefit from it.

    Have a great 2010 and good luck with the diabetes. I have many friends who have this complaint that neither perfectly normal life.forget about the negative side, amputation, and concentrate on the positive controling in your sugar count.

  • Daniel Alcon says:

    Mark,

    Thanks for your reply. If you can stay positive I am certain that I can too.

    I will certainly draw attention to your blog. I still sit on the RICS UAE Board here in Dubai, so I will start with them.

    Is there an Arbitration Club branch in Dubai? I looked it up on the internet, but to no avail.

    Love your jokes by the way.

    Kind regards,

    Daniel

  • Geoff Dawson says:

    Dear Mark
    I was astonished to read about your health problems in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph – 24th February . Having read that article and now quite a lot of your blog , it is apparent you are dealing with life with your usual positive determination ; similar to the occasion in the 1970’s when you had a bone taken out of your neck and , with your neck still encased in a plaster cast , you attempted to overrule Peter Sweet , Rod Bullough and myself and play in the final of The 1st World of Property Squash Championships at The Junior Carlton Club : remember ? – you didn’t / we did , and we won the match .
    I have the photograph to this day … let me have your email address I’ll scan and send it to you.
    Our paths must have crossed in China , India , The UAE and elsewhere since those heady days of the ’70’s …
    Remember the lunchtimes spent playing squash at The Lansdowne Club ; tormenting Wilber Stark over elaborate film scripts ; and you vigorously pursuading me to accompany me to a Lords Taverners cricket match I played in at RAF Cranwell when HRH Prince Charles bowled over the oppositon ?
    So many good memories Mark , but you are still an inspiration to everyone with your positive and determined approach to life .
    Oh! now that I am back in the UK , I’ll still let you buy me lunch at Gluttons in Saffron Walden !!
    Keep smiling
    Geoff Dawson.

    • DMC says:

      Great to hear from you Geoff.I certainly owe you a great debt for proposing me for Lord’s.As you will have gathered from the photograph on the blog. I have had an immense amount of pleasure from this particular club for the past 34 years.I even now qualify from my own name see in the Pavilion. Okay, that warrants a child’s portion of food at Gluttonsas long as you pay for the champagne. Sure I remember the squash championship. Okay, so you boys play in the final, as I was encased in plaster at the time, but who captained the team up to that point? Many thanks I do have my own copy of that particular photograph.
      The most amusing incident you failed to mention, was ringing your mate on the Today programme after hearing the spoon playing Butler and telling him that I could play tunes on my teeth. I still have the original BBC interview but wish I’d never gone to Lime Grove Studios for the live Nationwide News programme with Robert Robertson centred on a Dentist Convention. You were certainly a bit of a lad, I hope you have not changed. You will just have to use your initiative to find out my telephone number as I dare not put it here.
      I looked for to hearing from you.

      Best wishes

      Mark

    • DMC says:

      Great to hear from you,Geoff.Of course I remember the squash final and allowing you lifting the trophy However, as you observe I was encased in plaster having had a spinal fusion following the smashing of four vertebrae in a polo match against the British Army and I had, after all, played in all the preceding matches to get you boys to where you can get all the glory.

      The one great debt I owe you was proposing me for Lord’s. As you may gather from the photograph at the beginning of the blog I have been very keen member for the last 34 years or so and now qualify for my own named seat in the Pavilion. Okay, so that qualifies you for a child’s portion of food at Gluttons provided you pay for the champagne.

      One incident you may have forgotten was ringing your presenter mate on the Today Programme, Radio Four,having heard a spoon playing butler, on the way into the office, and telling him forget the Butler because your governor could play tunes on his teeth. I still have the recording of the BBC interview which was hilarious. However, I lived to regret having accepted Robert Robinson’s invitation to appear live on the Nationwide news programme, who were hosting a dentist convention that he Lime Grove Studios.

      Happy days. Use your initiative to find out my telephone number as I’m certainly not going to put it here.

      Best wishes

      Mark

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