Six decades of rugby – Memories of College rugby and a Rugby Sevens success at Twickenham

Honiton rugby action

Honiton rugby action - Credit: Archant

Continuing our rugby memories from Terry O’Brien who remains very involved in rugby to this day through his association with Sidmouth RFC.

In September 1967 I arrived at St Luke’s College to start a teacher training course in Physical Education and Chemistry, writes Terry O’Brien.

The college campus was situated on Heavitree Road in Exeter on the site now occupied by the Exeter University Medical School.

For any young sportsman, St Luke’s was an ideal environment and particularly so for a rugby player.

The 1st XV could compete at first class level and in every year included future international players.

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Two contemporaries, who became good friends, were John Bevan and Peter Knight.

John kept the great Phil Bennet out of the Wales side for a season, went on the 1977 British Lions Tour to New Zealand and coached Wales for three seasons in the 1980s.

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Peter played on the wing for England when they beat the Springboks in South Africa in 1972.

During our first year, I found myself marking John Bevan when Sidmouth played St Luke’s Extra 1st and learned the trick of covering your thighs in Vaseline as he slipped through my tackle and slipped in for try.

There were 10 applicants for every place on the PE course and I would like to think that my rugby talent got me selected.

In fact, it was three A levels (nowhere near as common as in the present day) which was the decisive factor.

It qualified me for the new Batchelor of Education degree course for which the college was desperate to gain credibility and full acceptance with the university.

Despite there being six rugby teams, I was unable to gain selection and so I continued to play for Sidmouth. However, in such an environment I could not help but absorb knowledge of the game.

The rugby course run by ex-England wing Martin Underwood was as good as any advanced coaching course. While watching an outstanding team when I could and mixing with top class players furthered my education.

I have mentioned in a previous article the influence of St Luke’s in the development of rugby in Devon.

They showed how to exploit the extensive law changes made at that time, the development of the ruck introduced by the All Blacks and the use of the full back as an attacking player.

Graduates would go on to teach in Devon schools and play for Devon clubs spreading their knowledge.

The highlight of the college season was the annual match against Loughborough College played on a neutral ground in London.

At least six coach loads of supporters would travel to the game followed by a night in the bright lights of the capital city.

I was lucky to see my college win the two games I attended against a side which included the great Fran Cotton, Keith Fielding and other future internationals.

However, my highlight as a college rugby supporter was watching them win the Middlesex Sevens at Twickenham in 1969, a national championship in all but name.

Even better that they beat Loughborough in the final. After the final, somehow, I made my way into the changing rooms to join in the celebrations.

In my second year I did manage to get selected for the Extra 2nds (4th Team) for a few games, but decided to return to Sidmouth, where I could play against better standard opposition.

In 1969 I became Sidmouth captain. With the club struggling there were no other candidates.

I felt that my experience gained at St Luke’s equipped me to lead tactically and to organise training sessions, which was the job of the captain in those pre-coach days. Man management, on the other hand, was very much a work in progress.

I was elected for a second season considering myself as a stopgap in the role before finishing college and leaving the area for work.

However, I was appointed to teach at what was then Hele’s School in Exeter and remained to lead Sidmouth for another four years.

In 1973 Sidmouth were drawn to play St Luke’s in the Devon Senior Cup. The St Luke’s side included two future British Lions in Mike Sleman (England) and Jeff Squire (Wales) plus future England flanker Mike Rafter. Not playing that day were John Scott (33 games for England) and future Irish full back Frank Wilson.

We did well to score three in a 59-3 defeat.

In 1978 St Luke’s was amalgamated with Exeter University as the School of Education.

It now exists only as a brief note on Wikipedia and in the memories of its aging alumni.

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