Hazy Memories by Len Down
No games being played because of the Covid 19 pandemic so we haven’t got much to put in the Ventnor RFC Magazine. Do you fancy doing an article about your times as a player” said James Morton?
I did point out that this was going back nearly 50 years. I have trouble remembering what I did yesterday let alone half a decade ago. Being of a certain age and having certain medical conditions, Nora and I are in the shielding category and must remain isolated (11 weeks so far). Having done all the jobs in the garden, decorating every room and not having live sport on the television, it would have been difficult to make excuses as to how busy I was and how I could not find the time to test my memory and indeed my writing skills.
My immediate recall goes back to moving to the Island and joining the Hurricanes in 1972. For various reasons, harmony in the club was not at a high level and I seem to remember a few people felt they were doing the majority of the work to keep the club going with little help from the other members. Familiar probably to lots of junior clubs even today.
However, this really started the exodus of players and the rebirth of Ventnor RFC. The original Ventnor Rugby Club had disbanded prior to WW2. I managed to get a photograph of the team and to my surprise, my father-in-law, Eric Bagnald was standing there in the back row (4th from right).
The whole idea of reforming VRFC was certainly a challenge but a group of like-minded individuals made it happen. It was not easy for a new club to get fixtures but fixture secretary, Ian Wilson did a grand job and we ended the first season, having played 23 games. In their first match for 34 years, Ventnor beat an experienced Havant Mariners side 8-0 with Mickey Buttle thundering over for the first ever try for the newly formed club.
The season progressed relatively well and Ventnor were beginning to build a reputation in the way they played their rugby. “The best social life and team spirit on the Island” to quote the Island RFC captain, Mick Stephan, at the annual dinner. We played our rugby on a 2 in 1 incline on a pitch at Ventnor Middle School before we moved to the flint plains of Watcombe Bottom. After match get-togethers were held at the Central Hotel, with great food thanks to Margot and which was highly praised by visiting teams and certainly made it easier to invite them back again.
The one match I do recall more than any other in the first season was the first confrontation with the Hurricanes. It didn’t need an expert forecaster or a crystal ball to see storm signals being hoisted in both camps. The match report mentioned some players on both sides were guilty of using the pitch as a battleground to work apparent grievances from their systems. The Hurricanes won the match even though 11 of the home side, who were playing in Ventnor colours, had the previous year played in the Hurricanes 1st XV at some time or other. Anyway, all’s well that ends well and the local derbies on the Island are now enjoyed by both teams and the enthusiastic spectators.
The Bollene fixtures were always very memorable and I used to enjoy playing against the French team especially in France where the welcome was incredible. The matches used to take on an international status with lots of Press coverage. The crowd for the first match was more than we were used to all season but we managed to win that match with everybody “punching well above their weight”. Long lasting friendships have been maintained as a result of Emile Rouby having the original idea to set up a match between the two teams.
It would be somewhat difficult for me to remember too much detail about the games played so long ago. The one thing that really struck me in those days was the fun we had and the camaraderie that existed. The early teams were made up from all walks of life, young and old. Policemen, farmers, firemen, teachers, solicitors, accountants and managers etc. A real eclectic mix who enjoyed their rugby, the friendships made and the everlasting humour associated with the game and to a greater extent VRFC.
My time at Ventnor from 1974 to 1981 was not as long as I would have liked. I really enjoyed the training sessions, always well attended and always followed by a few well-earned pints down at the Central afterwards. By the time we got to Saturday morning, any resemblance to the team we chose at selection committee was purely coincidental. We were not playing in leagues/divisions back then. All matches were so called ‘Friendlies”. Hardly ever that, but rugby played in the true spirit of the game. Personally I believe that Rugby Union today is a game that has lost its way, the game has changed beyond all recognition.
Every year the game gets a bit more technical and a little more structured. This all means that the game we watch and know today is vastly different to the one we so enjoyed playing. High fitness levels are demanded in order to
compete in a very physical game and players these days look like giants compared to us old boys. I was recently looking at an old team photo and the legs of most players looked liked “two straws hanging from a loft”.
The breakdown is the most significant and most obvious difference. Rucks used to be a bit of a mess by today’s standards but it certainly made for a better game to watch. Teams were not able to rack up points from holding on to the ball and waiting for the opposition to make a mistake.
My least favourite aspect of the game has become the scrum and the continuous resets which take up such an inordinate amount of time. The number of collapsed scrums giving rise to numerous penalty decisions has become quite boring. When I was stood at fly half behind the scrum all I wanted was the ball to come out as quickly as possible, where appropriate of course, and if the scrum did collapse, the referee would let play continue rather than dishing out a penalty.
Being a three-quarter when I played, you just wanted the forwards to do their job, win the ball in the scrum or line out (no lifting allowed) or hold onto it and make ground to get into a more attacking position. The backs used to see so much more of the ball as both teams looked to play a more open game, throwing the ball around and putting players into gaps, rather than trying to initiate contact. I think this was a far more exciting game to watch and results were never predictable.
However, not for one moment am I against change. I doubt very much if a team from the past could in anyway compete against a modern day team even with all things being equal. Teams today would be too organised and would grind their opponents down, wearing them out by forcing them to tackle and making sure they play the game in their own half.
With the current pandemic, I am happy to watch any recorded game on TV but there is one game I never get tired of watching over and over again. The match between the Barbarians and the All Blacks in 1973. The greatest try ever initiated by Phil Bennett from under his own posts ending with a score by Gareth Edwards. The try had everything that typified good open rugby, even a high neck tackle on JPR Williams. To add the icing on the cake, the commentator that day was our club patron and wonderful gentleman, the late Cliff Morgan. Roger Evans was
esponsible for introducing and inviting Cliff to the club after a chance meeting at Twickenham.
Whilst on the subject of Roger, I have many times thought how rewarding it was to play outside someone who knew exactly the right time “to give a pass”, to kick or take a hit. He made it so easy to find the gap. We were also very lucky in the early days to always field a strong back row, Emile, Kerri Williams, Derek Harvey and Bob Milton, to name a few. Always the guys you would sooner have on your side rather than against you. In the backs it was again
a pleasure to play with such characters as Foxy Fowler, Paul Cocker, Roger Bayliss, Mickey Burrows and the young lad on the wing who we spent most of the game trying to give the ball to, a nippy young boy called Marcus Evans. How could I not mention Wuzzy Godden. Great at tackling anything that came his way, but when playing scrum half, he used to send out some real testers around the ankles or two feet above your head. What a character.
In concluding this effort, and to quote the words of Rupert McCall, “I still bloody miss it!”. I am a walking( just about) advert for arthritis, caused through rugby injuries. Nora would always ask, when we were sitting in A&E, why I continued to play that game. It’s known as the virus called Rugby of course, it never goes away.