RODNEY WEBB played on the wing for Coventry and England in the late sixties and early seventies. Tough as boots, with long-striding pace, he was a star player for England when there were a lot of star players [Duckham, Spencer, Doble et al] but no real team. One of life’s natural businessmen, if that is indeed a complement, he ended his playing career and took over the running, then the ownership of ”Gilberts Rugby Footballs.” Gilberts were based in the town of Rugby, right opposite Rugby School. They made beautiful balls of pure and aromatic leather. Sensuous and tactile to hold on dry days, they were useless when it was wet. Other ball companies like Adidas and Mitre had begun making ”plastic coated” balls. Rod Webb fought fire with fire and initiated a series of developments of ”pimpled” balls. He changed the shape of the balls by changing the shape of the four panels. He used local universities to test the balls in smoke filled wind tunnels. Finally his masterstroke was to replicate the weight distribution of the old leather balls with their heavy valves and laces; a heavy rubber bung was incorporated into the bladder at the inflation point so that the ball’s centre of gravity was a few millimetres away from the geometric middle of the ball. These developments made the new pimpled balls fly straight when kicked out of hand and fly about fifteen yards longer than the old leather balls when kicked for goal. With the alignment of the pimples, these balls were [theoretically] undroppable. I tell this story because though Rodney Webb made a great contribution to the game by playing for England, he is arguably the man who has made the greatest contribution to the game of Rugby throughout the world in the last fifty years. Union presidents, law-makers, fantastic, legendary players and coaches have all made their mark, but none have changed the game for the better as much as Rodney Webb, from, of all places, Rugby, the Home of the Game.
At about the time that the new balls were being developed I was laughingly known as ”Gilberts’ Design Consultant”! Which basically meant that I owned a good camera. I designed the catalogues and the advertising. Rodney Webb was keen to get into the Rugby League market and had developed a range of match and training balls with all the pimples and shaped for Rugby League play. At the same time MARTIN OFFIAH was the greatest player on the planet and the Great Britain Rugby League team was beating Australia in Sydney by big scores. In his brief time playing Union with Rosslyn Park, Martin had been christened ”Chariots” Offiah by the B.B.C.’s Nigel Starmer-Smith. So after Rod had made all the arrangements with Martin, we drove up to Widnes to take some photos to be used in adverts. I set Martin up holding as many of the full range of the new Rugby League balls as he could hold and took a cheery photo. To make the photo into an advert we simply added the caption ”Great Balls”! [as in Great Balls Offiah, geddit!]. It was a very successful advert in commercial terms, it resonated with the wider Rugby League community. Fifteen years later my wife Sandra and I were at Twickenham for an England game. Before the game started we were aware of three guys with Bolton/Burnley accents talking about the ”Great Balls” advert. ”It cocked a snook at the public school/Oxbridge undertones of ‘Chariots’ Offiah.” Later, after the anthems, ”It put two fingers up at Twickenham!”…”We are at Twickenham, aren’t we?” I wanted so much to turn round and say to the three Lancastrians that I had designed the advert, but I had an attack of shyness. So although the picture of Martin Offiah is a photo and not a painting, it is indeed a work of art and Martin Offiah is certainly good enough for selection in this particular team.
I painted JEREMY GUSCOTT in the run-up to the England v France Grand Slam decider at Twickenham in 1991. At this time Jeremy was a media star, male model and T.V. personality. I went to Bath one wet evening to meet with him. I arrived early so that I could watch him train, get sweaty and muddy. I was impressed with the ferocity with which he trained and his focus on the small details of the group drills he and the other Bath players were running through. ‘Sweat’ was to be the underlying motif of the portrait. That he was a world class centre with immense talent goes without saying. But lots of players have ”all the gifts”! What set Jeremy Guscott apart was that delightful arrogance and selfishness that allowed him to take ownership of any game he played in. ”If this game has to be won, how best do I win it?” In the final minutes of a British Lions game in South Africa, he kicked the winning drop-goal. Of all the Lions’ backs, he was the last player you would want to try a drop goal. I doubt that he ever kicked another drop-goal in his career. But in that moment, three points were needed, he had the ball, so he just took the responsibility and kicked the goal. That was who he was.
BOB MASSEY was a hard tackling, strong running centre for Nuneaton, Coventry and Moseley. He was feared and respected throughout the club game in England. He asked me to paint his new-born son James. Little James had not been consulted on the matter and was not minded to sit still. Mother, Annette, was brought in to both hold James and be part of a nice, mother and son portrait. All went well until Bob came to the final sitting. Bob, with his background in compositional elements of seventeenth century Dutch portraiture, was convinced that there was enough room in the background space for him to be included in the portrait. Nonetheless Bob Massey would have been a superb centre partner for Jeremy Guscott.
RORY UNDERWOOD holds most of the try-scoring records for Leicester Tigers, England, the British Lions and of course the RAF! But it is not the number of tries he scored which define him as one of the great wingmen in the history of the game. For all that he was a gentle, considerate and engaging man off the field, he was a player of immense strength and physical courage on it. His explosive power and fierce acceleration got him out of so many tackles, but it was his ability to relax in tight situations and trust in his instincts and his reflexes which marked him out as very special. So often in Club and International matches, he was ‘double-marked’ and targeted for ‘special attention’. He took some fearful smackings, often at great speed. He was hard as nails. When I began painting Rory’s portraits, he was still an amateur player and a professional RAF pilot. However he had always been professional in his approach to Rugby. It must have taken a different kind of courage to be a non-drinker in the macho, hard drinking Rugby environments he often found himself in. World class in every sense.
There are more boys, and girls, playing High School Rugby in the USA than in any other country. Kids are not allowed to play in organised games of Rugby if they do not have an acceptable level of health insurance. Consequently, poor kids, black kids, ethnic kids don’t figure highly in the USA High School Rugby statistics. A small percentage of USA universities treat Rugby as a proper college sport. Most American universities however treat Rugby with contempt and offer only cursory financial, administrative or medical support. If World Rugby wants the USA to be a major player in any future international league tables it must address these issues first. Nonetheless I was privileged in 1999-2004 to witness a small explosion of Rugby talent in the Rugby backwater of Minnesota. A dozen or so boys were given the opportunity to fulfil their potential by playing for the USA in the Under 19 [now U20] Junior World Cup. Others came to England to play a high level of Club Rugby. The best of these was a centre, Chris Thorson. He had been a top collegiate American Football player and an academic high flyer. His Rugby skills gave colour to his journey through Boston Law School, Boston Wolfhounds, Oxford University, a driving job in South Leicester and corporate lawyering in Seattle.
Senator Dean Barkley was that rare thing, an independent American politician, free of corporate financial pressure. In 2003 when President Bush was trying to get his ”Homeland Security Bill” through the Senate, Dean, through a freak balance of the political numbers, held the casting vote. An invitation to the Oval office soon arrived on his desk and Dean went with a shopping list of five Minnesota projects which needed Federal funding. When the President had shown Dean around the room and had identified Kennedy’s desk, then Lincoln’s desk, then indeed his own desk, he said. ”You are a Rugby man, Senator Barkley. Who did you play for?” When Dean told him that he had played full-back for Minneapolis, Minnesota and the Mid-West, George ‘W’ said that he had played full-back for Yale. A ten minute meeting was turning into a fifty minute chat about Rugby. A scheme was hatched to have a Minnesota Under 19 team play a Texas Under 19’s under the guise of a ”Senator’s XV” versus a ”President’s XV” with Senator Dean and President George W as temporary coaches. It nearly happened! Only security costs and conditions got in the way. Dean left the Oval office with three of his five Minnesota projects ticked off and funded.