Rugby Portraits

After a lifetime of painting and almost a lifetime of playing and coaching Rugby, I realise that I have painted enough good Rugby players to form a ”Dream XV” of all the talents.

The selection of the team [squad] has not been without its difficulties. I have my favourite players, I also have my favourite paintings. There are two world class tight head props and two No.8’s who would each rank in the pantheon of ‘greatest ever players’.

To begin with the front row, as ever!

I coached DARREN GARFORTH when he was a young man at Nuneaton RFC. I immediately moved him from loose-head to tight-head. I encouraged him to believe that he could, and would, play for England. His father berated me for giving his son ”daft ideas”. Darren played for England many times and he is still regarded by commentators as the benchmark for prop forwards and ‘King of the Ruck’. He tells me that this painting and his scaffolding spanners are his greatest treasures

In the 1980’s GARY PEARCE was the most capped England tight-head prop. A great scrummager, he was mobile and skilful in open play. The Northampton Supporters group called me to ask how much I would charge to paint Gary’s portrait. I gave them a quote. The following week, a small group arrived at my door with several buckets of small change; they had made an appeal and a collection in the crowd at a home game with Bath and amassed more than double my proposed fee! My last game of real Rugby had been against Gary, we ‘accidentally’ clashed foreheads going into a scrum. The painting was unveiled live on television before a home game against Harlequins. It was paraded round the touchline to a moving and sustained applause. I am aware that the applause was for Gary, but maybe a few of the claps were for the painting.

STEVE BRAIN was a freakishly strong hooker. England had a whole decade of world class hookers in Peter Wheeler, Steve Brain then Brian Moore. Each were very different to play against and to hook against. Steve played for Coventry. When I coached Rugby Lions I helped persuade him to join us. The portrait shows Steve with a collection of white Rugby shirts.

JOHN DAVIES played on the wing for Llanelli in the sixties. He moved to Nuneaton to work in the machine tool industry and converted to loose-head prop for Nuneaton. Intelligent and technically gifted he ”Shudda played for Wales”!

JOHN SHENK was a fine wing-forward for Minneapolis. He asked me to teach him how to hook. I did not teach him everything. John was a doctor, a ‘belly surgeon’, and though he was fiercely competitive and a great athlete, he had social and moral parameters in the darker areas of the game. He played for the USA Mid-West against a touring England team. We are close friends and some of my best paintings are of John and his family.

I painted a sketch of the Egremont team from the late sixties, which was a quite extraordinary collection of top quality players. The team was drawn from local farmers, iron ore miners, teachers, nuclear scientists and Sellafield workers. Four players represented The North and others went on to play Rugby League. GEORGE CRAYSTON and NEAL THOMSON were each as good as any prop I played with or against.

The Second Row

MIKE BROOKS was a big-old lumbering second row before the [official] age of lifting in the line-out. For all his lower body bulk, he could jump; high enough to give a good margin of error to the throw. Mike had good hands and a deep understanding of the biology and biometrics of a driving maul. He played on the left side of the scrum to give it stability and heft. Too nice a man to be a really good player. He played at Dartmouth College, Kalamazoo, Minneapolis. Coaches junior Rugby in Michigan.

WADE DOOLEY was a policeman on Blackpool beach. With his helmet on he was way over seven foot tall. That he played for England as a Preston Grasshopper always hit the headlines, but that belied a very distinguished international career. ”I got to play for England almost by accident. It was so exciting, the other players creating a great buzz, I wanted more of it. I needed to get very fit, very quickly, if I was to keep it going.” He was a great line-out forward for England in partnership with Paul Ackford, another policeman.

The Back Row.

Anybody who played in the Newport back row with Richard Burton has to be brought into the squad. DEREK WOODWARD had a better voice and diction than Burton anyway. Derek was a senior teacher at John Cleveland College, the alma mater of Graham Rowntree and Dean Richards. His quietly modulated tones could engage the thick of Hinckley and explain tectonic plates. At the end of the school day in stentorian tones he could command and corral a thousand 15-18 year olds on to 40 buses, for them to be taken home. Derek died during the 1991 World Cup.

TOM DARDEN was a classical open side wing forward, a dominator of opposing fly-halves. He played for Chicago Lions against a touring Northampton Saints side. Don White, the former England captain, coach and selector tried to persuade Tom to try his luck in first class English Rugby. A job in one of the great Northamptonshire shoemakers could be found for him. How Tom would have coped with a cobbler’s last between his knees, or with the boring tools he would have had to work with is anybody’s guess. Tom would have been a great asset to the Saints.

Two of the greatest players of the modern age, both No.8’s, are England’s DEAN RICHARDS and New Zealand’s WAYNE SHELFORD. They were exact contemporaries and totally different in the way they played. Dean appeared to the untutored eye to be a great lumbering beast, but a fierce intellect saw him read a game like no other and be quick to the centre of play to exert his unique control. The portraits of Dean, one oil, the other watercolour, were painted in the run-up to the 1991 World Cup in England. In one of the worst selectorial errors in international Rugby, Dean was left out of the England side for the final for someone called … Skinner! England played without shape or control and duly lost to Australia. I saw Dean and his wife Nicky on the Sunday after the final and there was no hint of bitterness or rancour. He still talked warmly of Geoff Cooke, the England coach who had dropped him. Such dignity transcends his many, many trespasses. For Dean, a stellar career in coaching followed his playing career. With Leicester Tigers he won four Premiership titles and two European Cups. So Leicester sacked him. He then got Harlequins out of the wilderness and back into the Premiership. Until ‘Bloodgate’. Dean had one of his players pretend to be bleeding so that he could be replaced by a goalkicker. For such a heinous sin, he was banned for three years by a group of businessmen from Dublin. Before Dean had served his three years the laws of the game had changed so that coaches can now change players with impunity. But ‘Bloodgate’ should not define the career of one of the greatest players and one of the greatest of coaches.

Wayne Shelford was just as fierce a competitor and just as profound a thinker about the game as Dean. Having served in the New Zealand Navy, Wayne [Buck] came late to first class Rugby and only made his debut for the All Blacks when he was 29. Nonetheless he had a 13 match run as the undefeated Captain of the Blacks. There was something nefarious in his loss of the captaincy and Wayne still spits when the Whetton brothers are mentioned. As Rugby was inevitably turning professional, Wayne’s arrival at Northampton Saints as a player/coach was ground-breaking. He transformed not just the on-field fortunes of the club, but the playing ethos. He made the players aware that ‘professionalism’ was not about being paid, but about playing values, the dignity of performance and the commitment to the community which the club serves. The then President of Northampton, Dr Barry Nuttall, asked me to paint Wayne’s portrait as a tribute to all the transformations he had made to the club and the game. ”Does Wayne want to be painted?” I asked. ”He will do.” said Barry. Wayne was always punctual for sittings. He would pose as asked as long as there was a full pot of strong black coffee at hand. After coffee we would talk while I worked and Wayne would tell his stories and pontificate about the game. He was a great pontificator and I learned more about the game from those few sittings than from all the coaching courses and ‘Twickenham Gatherings’ I have ever attended. Some years later we met at Webb Ellis Road when Wayne was coaching Rugby Lions. We talked in the car park as if continuing our chats in my studio. Three weeks later Rugby Lions sacked him. That sentence deserves repeating. ”Rugby Lions sacked Wayne Shelford”. The World of Rugby is still full of morons.

The Half-backs

JOE SHEITLIN was the best athlete I have ever played with or against. With ball in hand he had Rory Underwood’s explosive power and balance. He had Jeremy Guscott’s wonderfully selfish eye for a gap, or even a crack, in the opposition defence. Manu Tuilagi reminds me so much of Joe. He had a sprinter’s pace. In the late seventies/early eighties Joe played for Minneapolis when it was a top club. He played scrum half and wing for the USA. He played scrum half even though he could neither kick nor pass. Nobody wanted him to kick or pass. The tactics of any team in which he played was to give Joe the ball and to try and keep up with him. He told me recently that he did not regret his refusal to take up offers to play in New Zealand and England. I think he was lying. Joe would have been a glorious player in a top English club.

If a team has Rob Andrew as fly half, Jeremy Guscott at centre and Rory Underwood on the wing then you need a scrum half who can pass. RICHARD HILL could pass. Though not the most spectacular of scrum halves he was pivotal to the success of the England team in the early nineties. He could communicate with and drive the massive England pack. He didn’t wait for the ball to come to him, he went into the rucks and mauls and whipped it out to Rob Andrew with the minimum of fuss and time. He moved the ball at least a second quicker than any of the cluster of scrum halves England have used in recent years. What Owen Farrell would give for those extra yards Richard Hill’s pass would give him. After Richard’s playing career he performed small coaching miracles keeping a penurious Worcester club in the Premiership. Worcester had to pay a small fortune to his successor in order to get relegated.

JEFF EDGAR was a great fly half. He had captained England schools, England students, and almost every team he played for. I was in the sixth form at Whitehaven Grammar School when he arrived to teach chemistry. The buzz in the school and indeed the town was ”why has he come back to West Cumberland when he should be playing for England?”. So it was always daunting playing in the same team with ”Sir.” Jeff had all the gifts. He kicked prodigiously with either foot. Long raking kicks to the corners. Towering uncatchable kicks with wet leather balls. Jeff [North of England] orchestrated a running back division of Rodney Singleton [North of England], Harry Cook [North of England] and a string of future Rugby League players. Still there was always the whispered asides, ”Well, he should have been playing for England by now!” Nonetheless Jeff has a unique place in English literature which few players can match. He is ”Richard” in Melvyn Bragg’s autobiographical novel ”Crossing the Lines” where ”Richard’s” achievement of captaining England Schools was acknowledged [by their respective girlfriends in the toilets] to be greater than Bragg’s acceptance by Oxford University. Nonetheless, Jeff should have played for England.

The Threequarters

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.

Peter Burns, John Jackson, Jackie Purdham, Tom Weightman, Kneale Thompson, Harry Cook, Bob MacLean, Steve Parker, George Crayston,
Stan Reed, Geoff Stalker, Gilbert Finlayson, Norman Sherwen, Phil Clegg, Jeff Edgar

COREY FORD was a soldier, a writer and one of the great figures of USA Rugby in the fifties and early sixties. I had never heard of him when I was asked to paint a posthumous portrait for a new Rugby stadium at Dartmouth College. I went to Hanover, New Hampshire, where the ‘Corey Ford Archive’ was made available to me by a kindly librarian. What I found in that archive was evidence of significant, complex but fiercely private man. He had been a front line soldier in the Second World War. He had a ‘good war’! In the Korean war he had re-enlisted and took part in ‘special ops’! In his other life as a writer, he was part of the ‘Algonquin Set’ with Dorothy Parker et al. He wrote film scripts for Disney. He helped found ‘Sports Illustrated’ and was a regular contributor. Then one day in the fifties he inherited a substantial house in Hanover. Not far from his house he found a group of Dartmouth College students playing Rugby. He didn’t know much more about Rugby than the students, but he offered to help with fitness training and administration. Some of the players were on ‘post military’ scholarships and there was a natural affinity already established. Soon it was a successful team in a nascent ‘Ivy League’ competition. Then there was the ‘Tour to England’, arranged on a shoestring, with accommodation in British Army barracks. It was the first ever tour to the UK by an American team and the conditions in the army barracks were a shock. Corey telegraphed Sports Illustrated ”Pay for hotel accommodation and I will send 3,000 word article next week”. There were a dozen such stories about Corey Ford. When he died he left the Dartmouth College Rugby Club a substantial legacy. The College authorities were not happy about this. It was at the time another university which treated Rugby with contempt and disdain. They kept the inheritance but, to be fair, they invested quite wisely. About twenty years ago the Rugby club secured the funds and built one of the most beautiful Rugby facilities in the USA. A splendid field and solid oak panelling in the changing rooms. In this fantasy Rugby team I am allowed to bring Corey Ford back to life as coach/manager of the squad with a view to developing a film script, with perhaps more ”colour” than Disney would allow, of this imaginary gathering of great players.