High Wycombe RFC Veterans Speak To 50connectPosted on: 15 April 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
Veterans from High Wycombe Rugby Club recall the time they were pitted against London Wasps.
These days rugby union is a professional sport at the highest level, but cast your mind back 20 years and things were very different.
The game was in the dizzy heights of amateurism, the ideals of which have always been centred around hard working men ending the week with a rugby game on a Saturday afternoon. If you were an elite player, you could represent a top amateur club and play for your country, without remuneration of course, whist juggling an off-field career in between.
But looking back over time, the sport has accelerated and celebrated the professional era at an astonishing pace.
Playing for your country in today’s game takes priority over club matches despite Premiership clubs controlling players’ salaries. However, these Premiership clubs have stayed strong during the international periods as they capture the brightest young talent at school age, nurturing the youngsters into modern day professionals. A far cry from the amateur era where local players would play for their local clubs, and if they fancied a crack at the top clubs, you could simply sign up and give it a go.
So imagine London Wasps, perhaps the most successful professional club side in the northern hemisphere who now play their games at Adams Park in High Wycombe. Believe it or not, a little under 20 years ago Wasps were pitted against High Wycombe in the third round of the John Player Cup - rugby’s equivalent to the FA Cup in football.
A match up between the two is unthinkable in today’s game. Wasps compete for the domestic title as well as the European cup and a domestic cup. High Wycombe on the other hand are languishing in mid-table six levels below in South West 2 East, despite being crowned Buckinghamshire County champions.
But a match up between Wasps and Wycombe was not a nightmare scenario for High Wycombe RFC who went head-to-head against Wasps, Leicester and Gloucester within the space of eleven years from 1981 to 1992 according to former skipper Kevin Titcombe. Wasps ran out 32-3 winners, Titcombe lined up at full back that day in what was a remarkably experienced Wycombe team.
“It was quite amazing in the way that, despite us all being High Wycombe local lads, plenty of the team had high level rugby experience so we weren’t too fazed about playing,” he says.
In fact, Titcombe had rejoined Wycombe after spending eight years with Wasps.
“It was an experience I’ll never forget and one of those games that really sticks in the memory. To be able to lead my local team out against Wasps, the club I spent most of my career with was really special. I remember the tannoy announcer introducing us as we came out the tunnel and looking around the ground. There must have been about four or 5,000 people there; it was a very proud moment.”
Despite the defeat, a name on the Wycombe team-sheet stood out to the watching scouts and national press – Nick Beal. The 20-year-old former RGS student made the grade at Northampton a little over a year after the game before winning 15 caps for England and a trip on the British Lions successful tour of South Africa in 1997.
Despite not remembering too much about the game itself, Beal believes the Wycombe experience spurred him on to achieve bigger and better things.
“I was a local boy playing for my local team, a very good team at the time. Playing Wasps would have been the highlight of the season, I don’t think I did too much that day but there were plenty of people watching."
“A few came back to see some more of our games but I probably would never have achieved anything on the scale of what I did if it wasn’t for High Wycombe.”
Beal was lucky enough to experience the first few years of rugby’s professional era and admits things have changed vastly.
“When I was at Northampton first, I’d travel up to training twice a week from Wycombe. We played because we loved the game and looking back it does seem a little strange. Once I signed professionally with Northampton I moved up, things had to change.”
Change they did. The size, speed, power and athleticism of modern players mean match up’s between professional and amateur clubs are almost impossible.
“I don’t think it could happen. For the safety of the players,” says Beal.
Mike Cussell lined up for Wycombe at number 8 against Wasps, opposite Dean Ryan. Ryan was regarded as one of the most competitive and robust forwards of his generation and has since moved on to a successful career in club coaching.
Cussell who played his entire career with High Wycombe recalls the encounter with Gloucester’s current head coach.
“The one memory that sticks out amongst the others was how big the Wasps pack was. They were just huge. Dean Ryan was a monster and I personally had never come across a pack so big and powerful.”
Fast forward to 2008 and a new breed of rugby player. It’s not abnormal to find so-called “monsters” out on the wing. Today’s players are built for the battle and the thought of a cup tie between the two is not even worth considering according to Titcombe.
“Rugby can be brutal at any time. It’s a tough sport played with tremendous heart and passion. We were lucky enough to be playing Wasps. Wycombe Rugby Club had some fantastic cup draws but the professional day means that’s not possible anymore."
“We’ve all got our memories and the stories to tell. None of us made careers from the sport like nowadays we simply played our matches and went back to work on Monday, with plenty of aches and pains.”
Kevin Titcombe (47 years old) and works in I.T.
Mike Cussell (46) is now a partner in B-Loony, the UK’s largest balloon wholesaler.
Nick Beal (37) is now a financial advisor.
For further information about High Wycombe Rugby Club visit http://www.hwrufc.com/.
By Mark O'Haire
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