My Short but Glorious Rugby Career

“If you played for your primary school football team, come and stand over here.”

I proudly went and stood over there. So did three quarters of the class. The prefect who had been tasked with helping to stream the first year into equal ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups scratched his head and consulted the master. Then he pointed to McKenzie, the tallest boy in this large elite.

“You, come and stand here. The rest of you, stand next to him in order of height, tallest on the left.”

There was much jostling and preening in the middle ranks, but I knew my place, and went straight to the right. The cut was duly made two thirds of the way along the line, and I was consigned to the B-stream.

Watford Grammar liked to rub shoulders with prestigious private schools, and rugby was key to that strategy. The absence of football was the cause of periodic unsuccessful protests at the school. We started the term playing hockey, which I quite enjoyed, then after half term we were switched to rugby.

It was easy for me to stand out in this group. Most had no talent and no interest. I was fiercely competitive – with reasonable ball skills, and good acceleration. Mainly, I cared – I was determined. My tackling technique was sound: if I wanted to stop a boy, even a large one, he was coming down. Mr Morgan looked in despair at the kids trying not to get dirty, running away from the ball, shirking tackles, standing there shivering – generally ninnying about – and declared “Edwards is the only one of you with any guts!”

I was promoted to training for the U12 team. Dad thought I’d make an excellent scrum-half, but that position was taken. I can’t actually remember what position I was assigned – I certainly wasn’t part of the scrum – probably the wing, as I was given the job of throwing the ball in at the line-out. We worked out our signal: if I was told to throw long, I should throw short, and vice versa. I wondered how long it would take our opponents to crack that code.

The Saturday in January dawned crisp and cold. So cold that when Dad dropped me off at the school that afternoon, a master was waiting there to tell us the match was cancelled as the pitch was frozen hard. My debut would have to wait.


Dad loved rugby. He had played for London Welsh second team in the late 1940s, and captained their third team. He was of average height, and not heavily built, but fast and skilful. He recounted how, after he had once scored a try, a teammate had said ‘I knew we’d score as soon as I saw R.A.’s head go back.’

Eventually, though, he suddenly realised, as he was standing one afternoon on a muddy pitch in driving rain, that he wasn’t enjoying it any more, and retired from the game. He would sometimes go to Twickenham with his brother when England played Wales, but mostly watched on TV. My brother and I once had reason to be glad of his enthusiasm: after watching a thrilling Wales win, Dad leapt from his chair and said ‘Right, is Moore’s still open?’ and we rushed down to Mill End to buy the secondhand moped Rob and I had been eyeing up.

Rob’s unusual left leg restricted his running, and had ruled him out of playing football or rugby competitively. Dad would love to have a rugby playing son, and I was his last chance.


So far most of my rugby had been played against kids who were small, or uninterested, or both. When training resumed for our next school fixture, I had a taste of playing against larger boys who actually cared. At eleven years some had entered a rapid growth phase, and the gap in height and weight seemed to grow by the week. For a while I continued to hurl myself at them, but soon it occurred to me that I could get hurt, and my conviction started to waver.

So at the training session I spoke up and confessed to the coach that I didn’t want to be in the team. I just wasn’t enjoying it. He was disappointed: I had been chosen for my competitive spirit: where had that gone? But he accepted it, and asked if anyone else didn’t want to be there. A boy called Mark took advantage of the opportunity to make a more low key exit, and as we walked away he confided ‘I wish I had the gift of the gab like you.’ My brief spell in the U12s was over, and I now played rugby on Monday afternoons only.


When Dad died in 2015, I went through his address book to make sure everyone had been notified. One card went to Richard, about my age, the son of one of my Mum’s best friends. In his reply, after offering condolences, he wrote:

I will always remember how he gave me his old London Welsh rugby shirt when I started playing for them. I carried it around in my sports bag for the next five years as a good luck mascot.

I never knew that. I couldn’t have reached the heights of London Welsh. But I thought, if that fixture hadn’t been cancelled, had I stayed the course, Dad would have loved to give me that shirt.

Losing My Religion

Mum used to say that it was about Rob and me getting experience of religion, being exposed to it so we could make up her own mind, and we believed her, at least until we had young children of her own. Then we understood it was really about getting the parents a brief respite every Sunday from noisy kids.

As a six year old, I didn’t enjoy Bushey & Oxhey Methodist Sunday School: one morning on the car journey there, in my apprehensive mood I pressed my offering – a brass threepenny bit – so hard into my leg that it left the clear impression of its portcullis on my thigh.

Three years later, Rickmansworth Crusader class was much more fun. The leaders were younger and jollier, the choruses we sang were short and lively, and I became good friends with some of the boys – more so when some of them turned up in my class in the first year of Watford Grammar.

Crusaders had fun activities. There was poddox, a speedier form of cricket – perhaps exclusive to Crusaders – where each wicket consisted of two stumps with one bail, and a bowler was posted at each end to lob the ball underarm in alternating directions. The batters wielded rounders bats: if they hit the ball they had to run, and there were no boundaries. The heavy bat could propel the small ball a long way across Scotsbridge playing field, and it wasn’t unusual to score eight or nine off a single hit. Poddox was a great way to spend a Friday evening in the summer.

There were excursions like the trip to see Cliff Richard (wow!) perform at a gospel concert, like the five-a-side football tournament. Most of all there were the summer Crusader camps, usually by the seaside.

The days were full of fun and games and new friendships: after dinner was a prayer meeting where, tired and happy, we were receptive to hearing about God’s love. Then an evening walk followed by late night cocoa, and the magic of sleeping under canvas. (Crusaders are still with us today, having rebranded as Urban Saints in 2007.)

The experience of feeling safe and happy away from home and family was magical and intoxicating. The night I returned home, after volunteering to do the washing up I told Mum and Dad that I had accepted Jesus into my heart. I meant it, and at the age of twelve I regarded myself as a Christian. I tried diligently to read the prescribed Bible passage every night, and to say my prayers.

Watford Grammar was not diverse: in my year of about 120 boys there was one Asian and two Jewish boys. There was also one Catholic in our class who was excused daily assembly, which included hymns and prayers: the rest were all of white Christian Protestant heritage. But seeds of doubt were soon being sown in my mind.

Our Divinity master was Mr (later Dr) Raper, a scholarly but approachable man. When the class had got over sniggering at his name, he started teaching us about each different religion in turn. By the end of term, he had taken us through the basic principles of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Shinto and Sikhism, and offered objective comparisons with Christianity.

(Dr Raper was later to raise his head above the parapet during the pupil rebellion against a new school rule banning long hair in the summer of 1971. In a morning assembly he parsed the word education, arguing that education should bring pupils out rather than up. How many boys understood this coded message of support is unclear, but it wasn’t lost on the headmaster, Mr L K Turner – known to us as Trog. Raper had gone by the next term, and I still wonder whether he was firing a parting shot because he was already on his way, or if this incident caused the headmaster to encourage him to move on.)

My Christian faith should have led me to reject the other religions as simply wrong. But I regarded myself as rational, and this posed a dilemma. Having seen the contradictions in the beliefs and customs of the major religions set out so clearly, favouring one over the others seemed merely a tribal choice, like supporting a particular football team. Surely the only reasonable conclusion was that they must all be mistaken?

My faith was further shaken by my Scripture teacher the following year. Mr Lister, who for unknown reasons had the nickname “Fanny”, was terrifying. An austere, thin figure, he was probably in his sixties, although he appeared at least ninety to us: he had white hair and a white moustache, and was one of the handful of staff who persisted in wearing a gown. In my mind he was an older version of Bunter’s Mr Quelch.

Our Scripture lesson was first period on Thursday morning, which made for a restless Wednesday night. Lister would set us a passage of the Bible to learn – maybe fifteen or twenty verses – and set us a ten question test the following week. The passage would be from the Authorised Version, usually from the Old Testament, and full of obscure and difficult names. If there was any spiritual content, I never discerned it.

The pass mark for the test was (I think) 7/10, and you could get a detention for failing. Of course we all crammed the text into our heads on the way to school on Thursday morning, so it was all completely forgotten by the weekend. We shouldn’t blame God if some people dedicated to spreading His word are uninspiring or downright scary, but I felt my faith weakening again.

Science lessons also encouraged religious scepticism: physics and astronomy, chemistry and biology – especially natural selection – pointed to the origins of the universe, the Earth, and life having natural origins and could explain our world without envisaging a supreme creator.

The coup de grâce was administered at Crusaders when I was fourteen or fifteen, a trivial blow which proved decisive only because my commitment to Jesus was already wavering. One of the junior leaders, a fellow in his early twenties, told a story one Sunday afternoon: he had been with friends, on a road trip in the United States, when their car ran out of gas, and they pulled up at the side of the road. They prayed for God to help them, and soon a friendly motorist stopped and gave them enough gas to get them to the next filling station.

This story was offered as proof of God’s love, and the power of prayer. It seemed absurd that His priority, with so much pain and suffering in the world, would be to deliver these young Englishmen from this annoying inconvenience. Of course this was just one man’s daft story, but years of growing scepticism welled up into a wholesale rejection of Christianity, and I stopped attending Crusaders. The decision may also have been encouraged by a wish to reclaim my Sunday afternoons.

I embraced atheism with the certainty of youth, and for a while adopted an aggressively anti-religious stance. This has softened over the years: I have met many kind and thoughtful people for whom faith clearly provided support and inspiration. Christ’s teachings are wonderful, but I don’t believe in him as the Son of God. I certainly dislike the angry modern strain of atheism which carries hints of the zealotry and intolerance which, ironically, characterise the nastiest aspects of some faiths.

A friend of mine is a lifelong Christian, who was once told by an associate that his faith was misguided, false and selfish. What must that have felt like? Imagine having a fragile ornament in your house, which you love and think beautiful. Then a guest comes to your house and says “I’ve done you a favour, I smashed that hideous ornament of yours.” What right did he have to do that?

My friend’s experience set me thinking about Mr Raper. He hadn’t, as far as I know, set out to turn us into atheists, but he did provide a framework which encouraged us to question our beliefs. Had the outcome been positive for me? Had I acquired truth at the cost of faith and a large portion of hope? Would I have been happier, or a better person, had I remained in that apparent fool’s paradise?

Pascal’s Wager points out that the cost of believing in God if there is none might be some wasted effort in adjusting one’s lifestyle and in attending church – while the cost of not believing in God if He does exist could be eternal damnation. Pascal concluded that it was rational for a doubter to behave as if there was a God.

In this spirit, I reserve the right to allow emotion to override reason, and to be born again late in life. But God, please could you allow me a bit of notice?

Silly Mid-Off

cricket

WBGS u12s fifth wicket down. Time to pad up. Sit down, standing up shows a lack of confidence in the boys at the crease. Waiting. McKenzie and Wright are doing OK. I bat at number eight and I don’t bowl, so I don’t know how I got in the team. I guess the best batsmen are also the best bowlers. My stomach is churning. I hate this part so much. Only six overs left, perhaps they’ll bat it out. Or perhaps not.  There is a shout and my chest tightens at the small distant movement of wood.

I’m vaguely aware of Colyer saying “good luck” and slapping me on the back as I get ready to go. It’s a long walk out there. Please god, let me score one run, and I won’t be the worst. I nod at McKenzie as we meet. He got fourteen, not bad. As I reach the wicket Wright raises a hand to acknowledge me, but has no wisdom to impart. I ask for middle and leg and make my mark.

The visiting captain orders a boy in to silly mid-off and he tries to stare me down. Suddenly I’m not nervous any more, my blood is up. He’s trying to intimidate me. Got that wrong hasn’t he? He might catch me out, but I could knock his teeth in. Legitimately.  He tries again. “They make ’em small in Watford, don’t they?” I glare back, flexing the bat. “I’m going to play my shots mate. Try not to get in the way.”

The bowler runs in fast, but seems to lose momentum before he bowls. It’s a loose one, thank you god, and I clatter it to the leg side. There’s a loud thwack – I didn’t time it well – but it’s good for two. I’m on my way.

– – – – – –

WBGS u13s. A hot Saturday afternoon. Twelfth Man. Some kids hate it but I don’t mind, it means I can be part of the team without having to do anything. The visiting team has only brought eleven.

It’s not going well. They bat first and reach 124, and we struggle to 78 for 9. One of the fielders twists his ankle, and the umpires consult. Mr McCabe calls me over. “Edwards! You’re fielding for Latimer.”

I look at the captain, and he sends me to silly mid-off.  Cowardly, he wouldn’t go there himself, he won’t even order one of his own team there. I take up position and he motions me still closer to the bat. Paul Green is at the crease. I give him an apologetic grin, and he nods back. Three balls pass without incident. The fourth he plays forward, and it’s nothing, it just bobs up a little.

Before I can ponder my loyalties I have sprung forward and got my right hand under the ball. Green looks at me wryly and shakes his head. There’s a smattering of embarrassed applause from the visitors. As we head for the changing rooms, the visiting umpire seeks me out and gives me half a crown. “Well done son. Buy yourself a shandy.”

The team are all right about it, I tainted the opposition’s victory a little, and we were going to lose anyway. I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. Not quite sure what a shandy is, though.

– – – – – –

WBGS 3rd XI, 15 June 1974. A large windy field, Tiffins School. It’s not going well, we’re 42 all out. But get this, I scored 15 of them, no-one else managed more than 5. Mr Roxan told me I was the only one in the team to play a straight bat.

They get to 39 for 3. I’m in the outfield, and suddenly, it’s a high fly ball, Charlie Brown. Time slows down as the ball arcs down into my waiting hands. And out again. It dribbles over the boundary. Match over, with no chance of redemption.

That summer afternoon in 1974 was the end of my competitive cricket career. I missed it a little. But how I felt when I was next in, no, I never missed that.