Sunday, 3 June 2007

I vow to thee...

The England rugby team meant very little to me until February 1980. Prior to the 1979-80 season I'd known nothing but football, both from a playing and spectating perspective, and the trials and tribulations at Newcastle United (no change there, then) had been uppermost in my childhood sporting consciousness.

And then came the 1980 Five Nations, following swiftly on from my debut on a rugby pitch, and an interest fired by a desire to see how the game should be played (as opposed to the somewhat comical efforts of my school's under 15s) as well as being driven by questions as to why, whenever I'd seen England play on the TV during the seventies, we'd always been on the wrong end of a hiding from the Irish, the French, the Scottish and, in particular, the Welsh.

From the moment Bill Beaumont led his team out onto the Twickenham turf to face Ireland in the opening game I was hooked. Looking back it was a motley collection that took the field for England that day. Dusty Hare waddled around at fullback without ever suggesting he could break into a canter, let alone a sprint; Mike Slemen on the wing looked as if he might snap if tackled; and John Horton at fly half looked like a science teacher lost in in some bizarre experiment. The forwards were largely droopy moustached and distinctly unathletic-looking and all in all, when compared to the gym-enhanced monsters that grace the game at the top level these days, looked like a bunch of blokes that had been assembled in the pub half an hour before kick off.
Fortunately appearances did turn out to be deceiving as the English pack tore into the Irish that day with the likes of Fran Cotton, Roger Uttley and Tony Neary to the fore and the 24-9 victory was the start of a push towards England's first Grand Slam in decades. A 17-13 win followed in Paris with Clive Woodward making his debut, followed by a tight 9-7 victory over Wales at Twickenham, a match in which Hare kicked 3 penalties and Paul Ringer was sent off. Finally John Carleton's hat-trick and a virtuoso Woodward performance saw England seal the Slam at Murrayfield.
It was the first time I'd followed the Five Nations from beginning to end, I was a confirmed convert to rugby, England had won the Grand Slam and a new era of English dominance was about to begin.
Err, well, not quite - the following season, with Messrs Uttley and Neary having retired, England quite comfortably slipped back into a complacent mediocrity which they managed to maintain for the remainder of the decade. It made no difference though - my appetite was whetted and my expectations set...

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