It is 1975 and I’ve left my sleepy New Forest home for the bright lights and persistent rain that was Bristol University to study law and life. I had a lot to learn.
Arriving at University, it was a chance to reinvent myself. I had this notion that I could pretend to be a decent rugby player and blag my way into one of the University teams. At this point – 1975 – Bristol University had a pretty decent reputation as a rugby university, outside of the prima donnas at Oxbridge. Loughborough were consistently the best but Bristol was in the top group.
Maybe seconds then…?
At the Faffy Squash – freshers to most people, but in Bristol speak ‘find a friend first year’ – all the clubs and societies presented their wares. Bristol University Rugby Club was no exception and I signed up. I have a recollection their coach was there, asking about experience and didn’t seem to rate mine much – he was too shrewd frankly, seeming through my charade. But still, I had the first date for some pre-season training at the university gym and trotted along with my plimsoles and PE kit.
Never have I had my delusions so rapidly and comprehensively unwrapped and paraded for the world to see. The session lasted somewhere between an hour and a decade and a lot of it required me to carry so bemuscled boulder in shuttle ‘runs’ – more staggers, than sprints – and while doing squats that were meant to build my thighs but merely expelled my patellas from their previous placements, like an over-vigorous use of toothpaste. The final section involved is breaking into two groups and jogging in opposite directions around the sports hall. When you met at the far corner you turned and sprinted the diagonal before jogging to the next sprint. Back then I was a decent back – small and flighty – so I had a fair bit of natural pace. Even though by then I was running on fumes, I managed a couple of credible sprints against a couple of rock-humans.
The coach – Bob Reeves – wasn’t impressed and began bellowing. And then picking on people to do small egregious tasks. ‘Drop for twenty’ being one such. By this time the ‘drop’ component was a doddle but the ‘twenty’?
As we sat around the gym walls, even the fittest looked like they had auditioned for the Night Of The Living Dead. Bob and some weasily minion called people out and took some details. I was one of maybe a dozen not called. We’d not touched a ball yet he’d pretty much concluded who’d be in his squad.
I did turn up for the trial games, which took place at the sports ground, and I did okay, albeit I was asked to play out of the positions I was familiar with. And I did attend more training and I did get fitter. But something of the spirit had gone from me. That year I played rugby for my hall, a ‘turn up and giggle’ sort of fixture, which was fine. And when I went home for a weekend and at Christmas I turned out for my old club, far fitter than I’d ever been. I sort of gave up on University Rugby…
Then, when I started my third year, a different more confident Geoff by then, I turned up for training. I’d already decided that there were teams I could play for locally, if not the University and this would be an excellent way to stay in shape. I trained during the summer so wasn’t as unprepared and I knew what Bob’s approach was and could laugh at its absurdities. If only the 18 year old me had realised standing up to it, not letting it matter was the best approach, I wouldn’t have waited three years to enjoy a season playing some of the best rugby I was to have. Mostly I formed part of a solid group in the University third XV but as the season progressed and people were injured, dropped out or weren’t as good as thought, I guested for the seconds. I trained sometimes with the firsts and it was abundantly plain that their standard was neither a small step nor a giant leap away for me, but something more akin to galaxy hopping. I understand and accepted my limitations.
The Textiliste, with whom I was an item in that third year watched one game.
Our fly half broke his leg in three places that day, easily the worst injury I ever saw live on any sports field. She never came after that and though I played until I was a year shy of forty, never watched me again. Her take that day was pretty understandable: ‘If that could happen to you, I’d rather visit you in hospital when it’s been set, that see it from start to finish’. I couldn’t blame her.
It didn’t put me off though…