Pen Portraits

By Roger Dearling

I have little recall of the matches and our extra curricular activities in my time with you all even though I was on a club tour that hit Paris and crossed the border into Germany where I vaguely recall spending a very long time under a tree being sick after making the mistake of thinking I could drink copious amounts of  schnapps.

I remember myself in those days as a somewhat arrogant character who vastly overrated his ability  as a rugby player generally and a place kicker in particular.

But I do have many happy memories of the club and the many gifted players and characters  I knew there such as the sadly departed Hewison, Prescott, Gwyn Howells and the Aussies. And I always regarded you as the epitome of all that was best about the club, an outstanding player & marvellous clubman off the field.

Later Hampstead arrivals, Gwyn Thomas and Johnny Big Time, were good friends as we were regulars at the Blenheim pub (today a Cafe Med) in St Johns Wood, played rugby happily together for a pretentiously named Sunday side called The Inn Crowd and knew each other through our Saracens connection.

I have only the vaguest recollection of matches I was involved in. Still lingering in the memory is Pranger hitting the tryline after a one of his typical wing surges only for a linesman ruling he had a foot in touch thus depriving us of a place in the Middlesex Sevens Finals.
And recalling my rugby days I am occasionally haunted by the recollection of myself losing a sevens match in deepest Wales after failing to touch the ball down after crossing  the tryline as I was over concerned about evading an oncoming tackler.

But I do have vivid memories of the club characters. Did the extraordinary Mike Flynn really believe his masterplan to buy a Hampstead mansion and place the 1st XV pitch in the garden grounds would ever come off?

I also remember Pranger living up to his nickname being a passenger when he was driving a wreck of a van around NW London with one hand on the steering wheel and the other waving the gearstick in the air that had somehow  come out of its socket.

Bomber Brown is probably the most amusing rugbyman I have ever encountered – I regret  not taking a voice recorder to our 2015 Mayfair reunion recording his hilarious speech towards the end of the evening.  Get what he said that evening into print and you could be onto a winner.

I can recall asking him what was it like playing his one international for Australia against the All Blacks.  “My main aim was to spend the game avoiding any contact with Colin Meads,” was his reply. And when I asked him why he didn’t treat himself to a pair of rugby boots with decent studs after he had spent a muddy afternoon trying to scrummage wearing a pair of long running shoes with their inadequate tread grip, I have never forgotten his reply: “Jesus Ross, a man of my pace and power doesn’t need mechanical aids.”

I also recall the superb artwork on those distinctive yellow leaflets one of our number (was it Ramsey?)  produced advertising club discoes and beer festivals. Cliff Morgan remains in the mind as our guest speaker at Hampstead Town Hall silencing the rowdier elements at a club dinner and then reminding us of the greatness of a rugby magician by telling us Barry John had “the kind of magic Merlin had”.

For some reason I can still recite every word of  the rabble rousing song “We’re the Hampstead RFC.” Entertaining though  it was as an example of self-mockery  in the hands of a choirmaster such as yourself or Roger , viewed in the cold light of day in print the lyrics would probably be regarded as suitable evidence for a jail sentence by the PC brigade in Britain in the year of our lord 2019.

Looking at what you have in mind detailed in your e mail,  you have produced  a really first rate template for the book and I’d much enjoy seeing the end result.

Despite having the pleasure of Peter Jones reminding me of my Welsh Sevens calamity, I much enjoyed what I thought was a memorable Mayfair reunion back in 2015.

What I have found staggering is the fact judging by the website the club today appears to be such a thriving enterprise with very  successful women and youth sections as well the male teams.

Frankly I thought the club would have been long since gone under without a pitch, clubhouse or any facilities of its own. But as Gwyn Howells astutely pointed out to me, the one great advantage the club has it has no overheads to bear.

Even so I think the fact the club has survived remains a terrific tribute to rugby as a great amateur sport even though Flynn’s gradiose vision of creating a new major club never came to pass.

Pen portraits of major club figures such as Flynn, Bomber, Dearling and yourself with the  then and now angle you suggested and no doubt others I know little about would be an interesting feature of the book. Could not Bomber provide an action pic from his glory days playing for Queensland, conquerors of the jet-lagged 1971 Lions, to place  alongside a Hampstead pic of his good self?

Maybe in the book you could make use of Roger Dearling’s remarkable record playing the game for the best part of five decades offering an interesting insight into how rugby has changed.

With the incredible high technical standard of television standard I find top class rugby compulsive viewing. But there is too much of the intriguing gruesomeness of the Roman colosseum about the game with players involved in a Darwinian perversion where power all too often outweighs skill.

I find it somewhat sad the way IRB/World Rugby have woefully mismanaged the game in the professional era in  their misguided quest to match the flow of rugby league. The fact rugby is union is more popular than ever has thrown a smokescreen over the fact that rugby at the top level is a dangerous sport.

As Sunday Times rugby correspondent Stephen Jones has written: “The boom at the top end is bogus and robbing the sport of its ethos. And which is worse? Bankruptcy or ushering players to an early grave? “

Is it any surprise there is an unacceptably  high injury count with players playing brick wall rugby? Allowing tackled players to manhandle the ball and tolerating solo clear-out charges and other illegalities have ended the breakdown as a fair contest for possession. So you have  20,30, 40 phases with the tackle count in a single game three times as high as the average in the amateur era as players continually crash into opponents knowing the odds are heavily in their favour retaining the ball.

Why also World Rugby has ignored the obvious common sense route to making rugby a safer & simpler sport by returning the game to its heritage as a 15-man game sport by allowing just injury subs is beyond my comprehension. In both medical and rugby terms, it is a nonsense allowing as many as 46 players to take part in a single 80 minute game played on a 100-metre long field.

As Prof John Fairclough, rugby’s leading medical expert who pioneered knee surgery, said:  “ No one  should be going on to a rugby pitch who can’t last 80 minutes.”

The game’s mismanagement is far from  restricted to what happens on the field of play. The way the English Premiership, a bankrupt sporting model with over-priced salaries kept alive by millionaire backers and RFU largesse, has been allowed to warp the Lions tour, rugby’s most successful product in both commercial and popularity terms, is a disgrace.

Forgetting  the financial apartheid the richer unions operate against the gifted but poverty stricken Pacific Island rugby countries, the RFU has showed its misguided priorities squandering £90 (?) million creating a corporate Valhalla in Twickenham’s East Stand while making widespread redundancies affecting the grassroots game that is so vital to the sport’s future well-being.

An  interesting indication of the inadequacies of

those controlling the game is the fact that in 2016 World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper voiced the absurd view that “rugby is safer than ever” . And a year later, December 2017 from  World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont came the equally ridiculous view rugby union needed to continue its role  “a leader in sport in the prevention and management of injury.”

Women’s rugby may be prospering with numbers rising but the decline in kids playing the game seems to have escaped the attention of those controlling the sport.

This has been happening even in New Zealand in the past three years. In the words of New Zealand Herald rugby writer Gregor Paul:   “A world league of rugby or whatever nonsense in regard to the world rugby calender is being conjured up in Los Angeles is not going to save the game in New Zealand. Rugby is categorically not the game of choice for boys aged 13-18. There is a massive hole in the hull and just like the Titanic, the game here is in danger of sinking.”

Before Christmas I was in a coffee bar in Stratford-upon-Avon and a young couple were discussing what rugby kit to buy for their son. He played mini rugby with 20 other kids in his year every Sunday at  a Cotswold rugby club.

I asked if he enjoyed the game. They replied he really looked forward to his weekly rugby outing. But the mother added firmly that when his year group switched from touch rugby to realt tackling, they would “stop him playing the game.”

On a happier note, I can provide some memorabilia ftrom our time.  Gwyn Howells has a rather good photo of Bomber Brown’s Hampstead XV taken in Regent’s Park where we trained plus various Ham & High cuttings I sent him.

I can’t pretend my coverage of the club in the paper offered an objective view as I played for Hampstead.  But they do show the clubs we played against and results.

I also kept some of those striking yellow posters advertising club events including one for a disco with a striking line drawing of a dolly bird’s face that reflected the fact we lived in what Time magazine described as  Swinging London, the world’s most exciting city.

I can’t remember whether I passed on the posters to Gwyn. If I didn’t and they are of use, I daresay I can dig them up from among the masses of newspaper cuttings and articles linked to major events I have kept over the years.


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