It has been interesting to look back some 50 years to what was undoubtedly a purple patch in the history of the OWs. Much of the credit for this was undoubtedly due to the Captain, Tony Berry, who led from the front and was not afraid to give younger players the chance to shine in order to play more open running rugby.
I had always enjoyed playing open running rugby on Sundays whether 15 or 7 a side. But these teams were chosen at the last minute from whatever players were willing and available to play. Certainly, I had little hope or expectation that I would be selected for the OWs main representative sides until Tony Berry became captain. His approach quickly showed results.
As Bob Hammond acknowledged in the Old Wandsworthians Newsletter of July 1969, the 1968/69 season saw the 1st XV set up the best post-war results for the club (22 wins, only 3 defeats, no draws and over 450 points scored), and the 7 a side team reached new heights which set the scene for further success in subsequent years. In May 1969, Alan Burton, second row, battled through to win the ABA Heavyweight Championship of Great Britain. In October 1969, our new club house (replacing the one burnt down) was officially opened by the President of the RFU, Mr. D T Kemp. A purple patch indeed.
I have fond memories of all these events and every reason to be glad that Tony Berry was not deterred by my lack of size from giving me a chance in his sides. I did my best not to fail his confidence. It was great to be with so many good players, including such young turks as Roger Haywood and David Millen, two fast determined runners. And when I was lucky enough to be selected for the first 7 a side team, it was good once again to be playing alongside Peter Dutch and Stewart England who had been with me in the school 7-a-side team in 1958 that won the Canterbury Cup.
If memory serves me right, I first played in the first 7 a side team at the Bec Old Boys Tournament on 13th April 1969 and that we didn’t progress very far. This was quickly followed by the Middlesex 7s Preliminary Rounds on 26th April 1969 at Thames Ditton. So, there wasn’t much time for me to settle in. Because of the number of teams involved we played an extra preliminary round to most of the other teams. All the games were hard fought but we beat Ibis 15-0, Lensbury 13-5, Barclays Bank 16-0, Old Hamptonians 5-3 and Metropolitan Police 12-0 to win our chance to play on the sacred turf at Twickenham. My abiding memory was periods of high tension, euphoria at each win and impatience to get back on the pitch to avoid stiffing up between matches.
The magnificent support we received throughout helped greatly. But we didn’t get much chance to celebrate as we were due to play in the Surrey County 7s at London Irish’s ground the next day. There we beat KCS Old Boys 13-0, Richmond 15-5 before losing narrowly to Rosslyn Park 8-13 in the semifinals. So that was quite a weekend and not one easily forgotten. But I don’t think any of us were prepared for the media attention this generated. We were dubbed the Minnows of the rugby world and received coverage in national as well as local papers. The BBC’s Rugby Special also arranged to come and film our training session at Claygate. I didn’t particularly like this as it prevented any serious attempt to train – and I only had my very tatty spare shirt and shorts to wear. My good gear being saved for the great day.
“Minnows of the rugby world”
And so, to Twickenham; I think I went by train carrying my gear and met up with the others there but my memory may be playing tricks. As we were one of the first matches on, the crowds were still arriving as we warmed up in the car park area. Soon the time came to enter the arena. An official warned us all that there were two or three steps up onto the pitch and said an International had once tripped on them and not made it onto the pitch. So, we all concentrated hard so as not to make the same mistake. In fact, it was a lot of rubbish designed only to help us over any nerves when first appearing before the crowds. It certainly worked for me. And once play started, you were not really aware of anything else. We didn’t get off to the best of starts quickly conceding a try to our opponents, Cheltenham. As Chris Munton our colourful touch judge, ran around behind the goal posts for the conversion attempt, he called out that we should adopt plan B. Of course, there was no such plan but when talking to our opponents later it certainly seemed to have impressed them. But tries by Roger Haywood and Tony Berry and three goal kicks by Stewart England meant we were eventual winners by 13 to 8 points. Curiously when we returned to the changing rooms, we saw London Welsh, with such internationals as John Dawes and JPR Williams, moving with their gear into another changing room. Was this a coincidence? Or had we been expected to lose our first match and had upset the changing room arrangements by winning?
So, to the next round. I think we all knew this would be harder against St Lukes College given their previous successes in the tournament. But we gave it our best shot. Although we lost 13 to 5, a superb try by David Millen which was converted by Stewart England, whose goal kicking had been excellent throughout the entire competition, showed that we were worthy opponents on the day. Frankly I don’t remember too much of what followed. Whether this was down to the beer laid on for players at Twickenham, or the celebrations back at Claygate afterwards I don’t know. But clearly, we were all on cloud nine! Injuries then started to take their toll. Our Captain, Tony Berry and Mike Burris, were both out of commission. We were a late replacement for Bath in the Cheltenham 7s on 7th September 1969 but in desperation on the day had to ask our colourful touch judge, Chris Munton to make up our numbers. We lost to Penryn in the first round. Tony Berry was still unavailable when we played in the Haberdashers 7s that same month. Unfortunately, I sustained a broken arm in our first match (Dick you may remember taping a rolled up programme round my arm to act as a splint so that I could finish the game).
The OWs beat Old Dunstablians 19-0, UCS Old Boys 8-5, Old Westcliffians 6-5, Old Caldeians 15-5, before losing to Old Maccsonians 8-15 in the final. I remember getting back from the local Hospital just in time to see the final.
My broken arm meant that I missed our own 7-a-side competition at Claygate at the end of September 1969, which OWs won for the third time, and the Met Police competition at Imber Court on 5th October of that same year.
However, I made it back in time for the Esher floodlit Sevens on 15th April 1970 where we beat Oxford Thursday 11-8 in the first round but lost to Richmond 11-5 in the next. On that occasion we were without Stewart England whose place was taken by Ernie Muller. That was I think more or less the end of my 7-a-side time although I may well have turned out for a social game occasionally. But a knee injury had taken its toll!
FOOTNOTE: On 18th December 1971 Stewart England played fullback for the Combined London Old Boys against the South African Proteas Touring side. No doubt his skills during our various 7- a – side matches had helped in his selection for this honour.