Oakfield News: Great days remembered when Thurrock were in sevens heaven

  Posted: 19.07.20 at 14:20 by Ralph Henderson

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Ralph Henderson continues his off season remembrances of Thurrock RFC

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly - - - - - - - - and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat." - President Theodore Roosevelt in his speech to the Sorbonne in 1910.

THIS speech, which inspired Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment on Robben Island is often referred to as "The Man In The Arena". After the great man's release from prison and the aftermath of apartheid, Mandela decided to unify his country through the vehicle of South African Rugby and he gave his unstinted support to Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar and his team in their bid to win the1995 Rugby World Cup.

Mandela called upon his experience of imprisonment on Robben Island and how each day, he would reflect on Roosevelt's speech as well as reciting his favourite poem, "Invictus" by Englishman, William Henley. Of course the way in which he transformed his country through rugby is encapsulated in the film of the same name which starred Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman. Mandela drew greatest strength from the last two lines:

" I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul."

Nelson Mandela celebrates an iconic sporting moment.

The image of Nelson Mandela holding aloft the World Cup, wearing the same No.6 Springbok shirt as his captain, is one of the most iconic in history. "Invictus" means unvanquished or unbeaten and it was that spirit which drove Mandela to reach his destiny.

The RFU. published its "Return To Rugby Roadmap" last week scheduling the return of the community game. With close contact still being restricted (The Welsh Rugby Union has placed a blanket ban on scrums for the time being) there have been many changes to training and development. For example a lot of content will be theoretical and delivered via Zoom, Webinars and ELearning as schools implement programmes of "Blended Learning".

There are three possible dates for a return to Community rugby and everyone is hoping for play at the first available date. This means that currently training is conducted in groups of up to six, maintaining social distancing, no face to face contact, lots of sanitising, along with balls and equipment sharing kept to a minimum.

The key at the moment, is maintaining high levels of fitness and skills without peaking too soon. It is also important not to over-emphasise strength and conditioning and become over-bulky. Because S and C can be done in isolation, it is easy to become obsessed. In recent years many coaches have believed that bigger players are more successful, but this is not always the case.

A team needs a balance of abilities and size means nothing without complementary skills and techniques. If size were everything then surely the biggest would be the best kickers. This is rarely the case as technique and ball placement are often the preserve of the smallest half-backs.

One of the key issues surrounding sport's financial difficulties has been the suggestion that our National teams amalgamate on The World Sevens Series. This is anathema to me! Seven-a-side rugby really does place "Man In The Arena"! It is the place where players are exposed and where there is no mercy for those lacking in pace or skills. Little wonder that there are many who will not risk their reputations in the abridged version!
Conversely, what an opportunity to learn to think and operate at speed and under the greatest pressure. With far less contact, perhaps this is the way forward!

The original concept was the brainchild of Ned Haig and David Sanderson, who were Scottish butchers from Melrose in the Scottish Borders. The first-ever Sevens competition was held at Melrose's ground, The Green yards, in 1883. It was a fundraising event which became highly popular as players displayed their skill and pace in a carnival-like atmosphere.

Nowadays, administered by World Rugby, it is one of the most well distributed forms of rugby and vital to the game's global appeal. The First Sevens World Cup was won by an England team inspired by Lawrence Dallaglio and Andrew Harriman. Incidentally, Wales were the winners in 2009! Today, many National Bodies use the Sevens'Circuit to develop and hone their players' skills. Many of the world's greatest players, such as Jonah Lomu cut their teeth in Sevens.

Growing up in Wales, we were aware of games with reduced numbers as every street and park witnessed impromptu games, often with just three or four to a team! At a National level, I suddenly learned of The Welsh Sevens (known as The Snelling Sevens after Newport chairman, Reg Snelling) when my home town team, Abertillery, lost narrowly by 11 points to 8 against the all-conquering Newport in the final of 1957.

The Abertillery star was winger Peter Richardson, a former P.T.I. who lived in our street. From that moment I was hooked and determined to go to Cardiff to see the Sevens at first hand. Before embarking on a trip to the capital, I had the pleasure of watching the Miners' Sevens into which Collieries were invited to enter with one guest player. (Most selected a Welsh star from the nearest town).

At the Monmouthshire Qualifying Competition I was privileged to watch a 17 year old Dai Watkins, the man who, in my opinion, was to become the greatest fly-half of all time! (I know this is controversial, but a great discussion topic for next time?).

Dai Watkins had been the Welsh under 15 100 Yards sprint champion and his acceleration off the side-step made him untouchable. On that day, the young genius destroyed several International reputations and I couldn't wait to see him play for my home town team! Sadly he joined Newport and dominated the Welsh Sevens throughout the early sixties, as well as being the star of the Newport team that beat the otherwise invincible All Blacks in 1963. Dai Watkins became a legendary Welsh stand-off who captained the British Lions in New Zealand in 1966 outside Abertillery's Allan Lewis at scrum-half. In 1967 Watkins signed for Salford for £15,000 and had a stellar career with Great Britain in Rugby League.

Growing up in South Wales, it was every rugby player's dream to play in the Welsh Sevens at the National Stadium,Cardiff Arms Park. Thurrock legend, Clive Beynon had coached and played there for Glamorgan Wanderers in 1967 whilst at Cardiff Training College, a feat I was lucky enough to emulate the following year.

At that time, probably the world's greatest Club Sevens Tournament was the Middlesex Sevens. Qualifying competitions were held annually at venues around London where only the winners would be invited to the Twickenham Finals alongside two guest teams.

In my final year at Cardiff, the guest team were Public School Wanderers and the captain informed me that there was an opportunity to go to Twickenham. Unfortunately whilst playing for Abertillery a broken jaw and cheekbone put paid to that dream! The Public School Wanderers got to the final with the new star of the Welsh Sevens scene, J.J. Williams - the outstanding player alongside Ian Lewis. In the meantime, future Thurrock player Dennis Stone, became the hero of Tenby in their great run in the new National Sevens.

With such a severe injury and lacking confidence I thought my playing days were over, but having come to Thurrock to teach, Clive Beynon convinced me that the local team would provide new opportunities. Clive was that season's captain and with the likes of Trevor Burge, Mick Leckenby, Keith Richards and Graham Morris, Thurrock won the Essex Plate and Essex Games Sevens and my love for the short version was rekindled. I now became aware that Thurrock could enter the Middlesex Sevens, but there had to be a few staging posts on the way.

In 1973, Thurrock entered the prestigious Norwich Sevens, usually won by giants Saracens or Northampton. In 1972 Dennis Stone had starred in a Saracens victory. Norwich is a long journey and, on the day, it was only possible to find nine travellers (and one was manager, Kevin Hymas).

In those days people were often reluctant to travel: On one occasion, a ladder had to be put up to Steve Bowen's window at his house on the A127 before he could be roused. On another occasion, Lew Hughes and Kelvin Davies were picked up after a late party and taken to Loughborough, whilst the Thurrock team in the Sevenoaks Sevens Programme named Lew "Cowboy" Hughes on the wing!

Nevertheless, the team of Graham Morris, Bob Burt, Steve Nash, Ralph Henderson, Ray Page, Peter Worsfold, Geoff Wainwright and Kevin Furlong played some of the best Sevens ever seen (according to the Norwich Chairman). Thurrock dominated the tournament and celebrated long into the night and there were one or two unhappy partners when the team returned in the early hours of the following day.

Nevertheless, this was the springboard to move to the next stage; the World famous Middlesex Sevens!

The team was entered for the first time in 1974 at Beckenham. A powerful Thurrock team swept all before them (John White, Mike Sterling, Mark Suckling, Ralph Henderson, Ray Page, Peter Worsfold and Geoff Wainwright) but in the final Thurrock faced London Scottish with four Internationals!

Regardless, John White took the kick-off under great pressure before feeding the Thurrock scrum-half. He side-stepped and sprinted 60 yards to open the scoring. Shortly after a great solo effort by young star, Ray Page was disallowed as he touched down under the posts. Now, however, the Scots started to overpower Thurrock and deny them possession. London Scottish went to Twickenham and the local team was left to dream.

Over the next four years there were some outstanding additions to the squad in John Mahoney, John Magnurson, Ivan Whittall, Phil Cook, Austin Fitzmaurice and Graham Davies while newcomers Dennis Stone, Steve Bowen and Mick Marmion (father of Irish International, Kieran) were brilliant newcomers to the scene. There were some great victories such as those over Upper Clapton who boasted four Internationals in Charlie Dunsford, George Mackie, Steve Callum and Steve Jackson. That performance was one of the finest.

In 1976, Thurrock faced a star-studded London Welsh in the semi-finals of the Sevenoaks competition. Two length of the field tries by John Poskett had brought the scores level at 22 apiece before Thurrock were awarded a penalty. The difficult kick failed before a Graham Holbrook try was disallowed only for Welsh International, Keith Hughes to side-step his way to the decider.

Another famous victory was over the mighty Saracens containing future Thurrock stars Peter Worsfold and Chris Fuller. With the tie going to "sudden-death" Mark Suckling threw a trademark 30 yard pass to set up a drop-goal winner; highly unusual in Sevens.

In spite of these successes, the "Holy Grail" of the Middlesex was proving evermore elusive.

Time and time again Thurrock fell short against their nemesis London Scottish, invariably led by the great Scottish cap and Bill McClaren's son-in-law, Alan Lawson. So in 1979 the Committee was asked to change the venue to avoid the Scottish.

The move to Upper Clapton proved a masterstroke! At the first attempt the Oakfield team performed well until in the final they met a Loughborough team led by one of English rugby's all -time greats, Sir Clive Woodward! Clive Woodward was soon to be an outstanding England and Lions centre, but on this day the ball supplied by a lock from Neath allowed him to control the final. He was certainly more than a match for the ageing Thurrock fly half!

The following year was the Centenary Season of the Middlesex Sevens and Thurrock travelled to Upper Clapton more in hope than anticipation. Unfortunately injuries to Ray Page, John Magnurson and John Mahoney had deprived the team of some key players.

Luckily,Graham Holbrook and Martin Fahey were able to join coach and former Saracens captain, Don Harrigan in the squad. The rounds were navigated safely but the quarter-final went to extra time when a blind-side sprint saw Thurrock home. Sadly a back injury meant that Steve Putz had to miss the rest of the Tournament, but what a replacement in Don Harrigan.

This former Cardiff student set about the Loughborough students with a relish and along with Tim Rider and Trevor Burge started to provide a cornucopia of possession for Thurrock's prodigious backs. With Rob Howley's alter-ego, Steve Bowen pulling the strings and the mesmeric skills of Dennis Stone complementing the pace and power of Ivan Whittall, this was the complete Thurrock performance; they were just unstoppable! As Whittall went over for the final score, everyone experienced the elation that they were going to Twickenham to the Centenary Sevens and the mighty Loughborough, previous winners had been vanquished.

Two weeks later, Thurrock took their place with the great and famous at those Centenary Sevens televised live by Rugby Special. The same team took the field in front of a packed Twickenham with Thurrock being the "darlings of the crowd". They were not to disappoint.

Playing some outstanding rugby they went ahead through tries by Dennis Stone and a penalty try as the outside-half was taken out in the act of scoring! In spite of a bout of stage fright, Thurrock moved to the quarter-final to face their oldest Sevens rivals, London Scottish.

After a good start, Dennis Stone ran a perfect line to go under the posts, only to be brought back for an alleged forward pass. Although falling behind, Thurrock stormed back into the game and a magical try from Whittall brought him his moment of glory on Rugby Special! Now as Thurrock launched a series of attacks, the crowd was favouring the under-dog before an interception sealed Thurrock's fate.

Still there was no doubting that Thurrock had been magnificent in defeat and taking part in the World's most famous club Sevens Competition in its Centenary Season had been a real landmark in Thurrock's history.

This was by no means the end of the story. The following year Thurrock reached the final of the Preliminaries once again meeting the students of Loughborough. This time there was to be no fairy-tale ending. With time running out and the students leading 12-10, a freak storm drove all the spectators away. With the last play, Peter Worsfold completed a set move by making certain of the winning try.

Sadly the referee standing on the 22 metre line was unsighted and notoriously said, "Can't see it, can't give it, final whistle!" and so Thurrock were deprived of a second consecutive trip to H.Q.!

Now, as many of the stalwarts retired they moved into management and the success continued. Paul McCarthy, Ian Jones, Paul Stephens, Richard Gaches, John Steven, Barry Magnurson, Craig White, Richie Martin, Lawrence Webster, Julian Whittey combined with the outstanding Whittall, John Magnurson and Australian, Damian Roff to go back to Twickenham and win the Sevenoaks Sevens. More success was to follow in the Hika Reid era with another Kiwi, Wayne Hill leading the charge with Martin Eyles and there was success at the Essex, Sussex and East Grinstead competitions.

Thurrock has produced some phenomenal Sevens players over the years. William Edwards School has provided some exceptional players including all three Stanley brothers; Ben, Mike and Sam. Ben was the oldest playing a starring role in the William Edwards Sevens team which played some tactically shrewd and courageous Sevens to reach the Quarter Finals of the England Sevens in 2004.

Several of that team went on to become Thurrock regulars. As well as Ben there were the captain, Ben Timson (now making a welcome comeback), Aaron Burns, Rees Collins, current 1st XV captain, Charlie Russo, Reece Cunningham, Sean Cotter & Ryan Chamberlain. This team had been superbly coached by Martin Eyles and put some of the country's finest Public Schools to the sword before losing to Brighton College who had an England prop and former Harlequins and England centre Jordan Turner-Hall in their ranks.

Mike Stanley was a fantastic player, one of the best ever seen at Oakfield. He continued his rugby education in New Zealand before representing Samoa in the 2015 World Cup.

Sam Stanley played for England when just 15. Under contract to Saracens, Sam played a lot of Sevens at the highest level before being capped by England.

The great Jim Evans who played for Harlequins for 10 years represented England Saxons, but was a prolific Sevens player, having spent his Junior career as a back.

Thurrock Ladies have been outstanding for the last 20 years with the likes of India Harvey, Kay Wilson and Heather Fisher to the fore. However Emily Scott has won an amazing number of caps at fifteens and Sevens. Quite brilliant at both games she has been contracted to England as well as teaching locally.

Emily was outstanding in representing Great Britain at the Rio Olympics where G.B. finished fourth. Emily has achieved so much in her career including a Commonwealth Bronze Medal. She is currently the Coach of Thurrock Ladies. Of course it is impossible to mention the Ladies without the unforgettable contribution of the truly amazing Mercedes Foy.

Today, Thurrock's coaching staff still appreciate the benefits of Sevens and the development opportunities. Last season Thurrock played some outstanding rugby to reach the Final of the Essex Sevens once again. Jake Bedding, Joss Nunn, Henry Bird, Ben Stanley, Keiran Yeomans, Alex Jones, Callum Pluck, Lewis Cross and Jake Barrand were outstanding as they reached the final and lost out only to a brilliant British Army team featuring some Fijian and Rugby League experts. Other recent success saw the men win the Essex 7s in 2008 & 2015.

Sadly the Middlesex Sevens was forced to give way to the World Series and a great legacy was lost. This had been one of the highlights of the Club season and provided every player with the opportunity to play on the biggest stage of all. Twickenham was always full, yet last year for the World Series it was half empty. Perhaps it is time for a return to those great aspirational days when a player was prepared to "Dare greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."- Invictus, by William Henley.

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