It Was Never My Ambition To Become A Hooker - free extract

"WE WERE IN THE PREMIERSHIP!"


An extract from IT WAS NEVER MY AMBITION TO BECOME A HOOKER by Neil Clark and Stephen Manning


There are many memories that will stay with me from the night of 26th May 2010. They are moments that, whatever happens in the rest of my battered career or in the history of Exeter Chiefs rugby club, will remain for ever. One of those memories is of rain, rain and more rain. Rain and cross-field winds are the nemesis of the hooker. The crowd of 11,850, the highest in the Championship’s short history, had not wanted the rain either because so many parts of the Memorial Stadium are uncovered.

The second memory is pressure. And God, was I under pressure! This was my return to my former club, Bristol, the club which I felt, and still feel, had discarded me and treated me disgracefully. It was the second leg of the Championship play-off final which would decide who would be promoted to the illustrious Premiership, the elite of the English game. It seemed that every punter had Exeter Chiefs down as finishing second, despite our precious three-point lead from the home fixture. The match was to be televised live on Sky and it was hoped it would be a real showcase for Championship rugby and all that was good in the game.

So with the record crowd, live television coverage, the weight of expectation and my return to my old club, the pressure upon my shoulders was very real – and on top of all this came the rain!

The Exeter Chiefs head coach, Rob Baxter, later said that he welcomed the downpour when it began within a few minutes of kick-off. He felt, correctly as it turned out, that it would reduce the amount of running rugby and produce a forwards battle which he knew we could win. From as early as the previous January, Rob had put so much thought into this last match that he had probably pre-ordered the weather for that May night. All I knew, as the player wearing the number two shirt of the Exeter Chiefs hooker, was the last thing I wanted or needed was a wet ball at every precious line-out throw.

I had been pleased with my performance in the first leg of the play-off final, played the week before at the new home of Exeter Chiefs, Sandy Park. Financial fortune, or rather the over-inflated property market in the south-west, had allowed Exeter to offload the marshland that had been the County Ground at the height of the market. It created sufficient funds, with the support of the city council, to build the new 10,000 capacity stadium on the edge of Exeter near the M5 motorway. Exeter had a Premiership ground, we just needed Premiership rugby to put in it.

As I say, I felt that I had done my bit to ensure that we had moved a little closer to that Premiership dream during the first leg. Sport is full of statistics and sportsmen and punters love to analyse them to the brink of obsession and beyond. Rugby could have been designed by an actuary. All those yards won, distances kicked, tries scored and penalties converted are manna to those who love to process such information, whether to improve their own game or just bore the pants off everyone else! I suppose after fly-halves, the number tens who have the fearful responsibility of kicking and who live or die by having a success percentage in the high eighties, it is the hooker who is next most-obsessed by statistics. Of course, I would argue that there are many factors out of my control that can adversely affect my line-out success rate. Wind and rain can really blight my day, but so can crap line-out decisions and bad calls – and the opposition sometimes like to intervene to ruin my afternoon too. It is also about me – my frame of mind, my consistency, my nerves and whether I have prepared myself mentally and with my usual routine.

I am sure every hooker has a different approach, a slight variation on how he prefers to line himself up for the throw. On most occasions we play with a Gilbert ball and I always try to line up the word ‘Gilbert’ with the length of the line-out so I am aiming down the middle, or slightly towards the side where my team-mates are positioned but so slight the referee won’t call it ‘not straight’. Before I throw, I take a deep breath to compose myself and settle my body movement. Then, when I am totally happy, I pull the ball back over my head, move my arms forward and release the ball. On a good day it sails majestically into the waiting and grateful hands of my allotted colleague. Well, that’s the plan, and I always believe I can nail every throw. You have to. Any doubt would be to admit defeat even before the ball had left my fingers.

In the home leg, the plan worked. I had a line-out success rate of 100%. Even with my E-grade GCSE Mathematics, I know that is hard to beat. I thought that I had carried the ball well, not lost it in contact or knocked-on. Furthermore, my front row comrades and I had been like three musketeers and played ‘all for one and one for all’. Although we had not exactly smashed the Bristol scrum, we had certainly dominated. Even so, despite my efforts and those of all my Exeter colleagues, including Gareth Steenson who had kicked all our points, we had only a three-point lead to take to the second leg. The match had also been televised on Sky and their armchair critics, and later the newspaper so-called experts, claimed we had been too nervous, too tentative, too worried to take risks and seize the game. Many considered three points was simply not a big enough cushion. Sure we would have liked to have scored tries at Sandy Park, to have given something to our loyal fans, but Bristol had been tight. They and their supporters who made the short journey down the M5 appeared relieved, even confident, that they could turn us over back at the Memorial Stadium.

The next week was a real departure from our usual training regime. Rob had the foresight, which I thought at the time was madness, to completely alter our routine. We now trained under floodlights at night to re-create the conditions we would face in the second leg, although even he could not provide torrential rain for the training sessions! Our body clocks switched to when we would be most active up at Bristol, our eating patterns changed too as we set ourselves and our bodies into the timings we would face the next week. I certainly enjoyed the comfort of the morning lie-ins, something I was not used to. After the second leg, I mentioned our training plan to some of the Bristol lads who claimed that this was something they had not considered. I don’t know whether the night training improved our performance at Bristol, but it certainly brought us together even more as a team as we all focused on what we had to do in that second leg.

Usually a very positive person, I must admit I travelled to Bristol thinking, in my heart of hearts, we would lose. I can hear the gasps across Exeter as loyal Chiefs fans read this shocking disclosure. Please don’t get me wrong, I have always given my all in every game I have played. But as I journeyed up the motorway in the team coach, I had a nagging doubt that, just as the punters predicted, a three-point lead would not be enough. Furthermore, as we neared Bristol, what had been a beautiful sunny day began to cloud over with heavy, grey clouds. Surely it can’t rain, I thought, not on top of everything else!

With ten minutes to go before kick-off, before the rain had started to come down, we completed our warm up and were seated in the away changing rooms. I had my ultra-large headphones on, an attempt to calm myself and get into my private zone as well as to drown-out the noise of Brett Sturgess throwing up in the bin, as he regularly does before a game. I have learned you can block out the sound of retching, but not the smell of its results, which has the effect of making all the players, nervous or not, slightly nauseous. Then the changing room door was flung open and in strode a clearly angry and indignant head coach. A few faces around me began to look angry too, so I quickly tore off my headphones.

Rob had let slip he’d just seen two crates of champagne being taken into the home dressing room. The arrogant Bristol you-know-whats! They already thought that the game was won! The howls of disbelief from the Exeter players raised the ceiling.

‘How dare they!’

‘So Bristol think the game is in the bag, do they?’

‘Well, we’ll show them!’

Or words to that effect. So motivated were we that I now thought we could win and should win – we would show them! As a man, as a team, we left that changing room determined to show that Exeter had what it took to be a Premiership side. We were pumped up... it was only much later that I discovered Rob had made up the whole champagne scenario! Clever, very clever.

So Exeter ran onto the pitch determined not only to win but to win well. We were met by a wall of sound as around 8,000 Bristol and 3,000 Chiefs supporters erupted. I have played in front of much larger attendances but the noise the crowd made that night was still ringing in my ears days later. As ever, the Exeter supporters, the so-called Tribe, did us and themselves proud. Although outnumbered by close to three to one, the Devonian voices could be heard right from the start of the match, when the local fans were still in fine heart. Towards the end of the second leg, when we were in control of the match, all that could be heard was our supporters’ extensive repertoire, including our classic ‘oggie oggie oggie, Chiefs Chiefs Chiefs!’

In our two short years in the Premiership, both the players and fans have thoroughly enjoyed living the dream and, home and away, the Exeter support has been a significant factor in our success. We go on about the fans being the sixteenth man, but I can truthfully say that the Tribe is right on the pitch with us. I do think Exeter have the most imaginative chants in the Premiership. Certainly, Gloucester’s cry of ‘Gloucester, Gloucester,’ sang with a long, lethargic, almost bored, West Country drawl and Bath’s posh rendition of ‘Bath’ don’t really have the same impact.

So, lined up and standing in our allotted positions, we waited expectantly and nervously for the referee to blow his whistle to start the game. Not that I heard it over the sound of the crowd. The first I knew that the match had begun was when the ball swirled up into the air. We were off, nerves forgotten, focused on victory. We expected an initial onslaught from the Bristol boys, but something unexpected happened. I don’t know if they were suffering from nerves, although they must have been to some extent. It’s easy to forget the pressure and expectation Bristol were under. They were favourites and had led the league table for the whole of the season. I also think that our slight three-point lead had, subconsciously perhaps, made them think that they would have to chase the game from the start. Whatever it was, Bristol were nervy and with nerves come mistakes and penalties. Suddenly Gareth Steenson had put us three points up, which was six points on aggregate. We really had a game on our hands. And then the rain came.

With the rain came the forwards battle, one which we began to dominate and win. Even though I took a massive hit from my old Bristol colleague and good friend James Phillips which knocked my breath away, I had the opportunity to step on his chest during the next ruck and the message was clear – friends again only after the match. The rolling maul was certainly our territory and Brett Sturgess, Hoani Tui and I were getting the measure of the opposition. Bristol brought the maul down, another penalty, another three points from Steeno’s boot – a nine point lead on aggregate! The line-out was going well, my throws were finding eager Exeter hands, and what’s more the Bristol line-out was looking shaky as we stole two from them in quick succession.

Us front boys were now really beginning to smash Bristol in the scrum. As I always impress upon Hoani and Sturge, success in the scrum is all about the hit; the timing of the hit, the power of the hit, the speed of the hit. After about fifteen or twenty minutes of the game we had the decisive scrum of the match. I don’t know whether we engaged a bit early and the referee missed the infringement or not, but we drove the Bristol boys back, rocking them off their feet, and the ref awarded us a penalty which Steeno kicked deep into their half for a line-out. One of rugby’s greatest delights is being part of a scrum that is dominating the opposition. It pumps you up to push that little bit more while it deflates them, knowing that they are the wrong side of a beating. Your pack advances, keeping its shape, the opposition loses theirs as they are pushed back, twisting and rupturing as bindings are lost, and the result is usually a penalty against them. This moment is what all the hours spent in training are about; it’s what you work and aim for.

The whole Exeter scrum was so excited and pumped up by this particular scrum and we were thumping each on the back. James Scaysbrook, who is always in the zone, always so passionate, slapped me hard in the face. I could have done without that, but he certainly got his message across – we had Bristol in the scrum. We all knew the old rugby saying, if you win the scrum, you win the game by being able to control the ball. We were jubilant, Bristol crestfallen. Result!

Just as I was beginning to think we were nicely on top, disaster struck. The ball emerged from a ruck, popping out as it sometimes does, and a grateful Adrian Jarvis seized his moment, darting through before offloading the ball to Luke Arscott. I could immediately see the danger from the other side of the ruck but I thought Hoani had it covered. However, a tight-head prop is no match for the speed of foot of a full-back, especially those belonging to Luke, and the Bristol player sidestepped almost effortlessly around the flailing arms of my front row colleague and we had conceded what had to be considered a fairly soft try. Tom Arscott, younger brother of Luke, made the conversion to complete a family double-act and our lead was cut to two.

Doubts immediately filled my mind. The panic that I sometimes feel after a try has been conceded rose up from the pit of my stomach to gurgle somewhere around my throat, gripping it tightly and causing my brain to focus on dark thoughts, the first of which was, oh God, that has probably opened-up a floodgate. As Tom Arscott lined up the conversion, we grouped in a huddle behind our posts to hear our captain’s words of wisdom. Tommy Hayes is always calm, never panicky. There was no bollocking to endure over the try, just the reassuring words that we were still in the lead, Bristol still had to chase the game, and if we kept up the pressure and intensity they would make mistakes. At the re-start, with the Bristol fans roaring in my ears, all I could think about was trying to be strong, trying to keep Bristol out – somehow.

Tommy was right (of course I never had any concerns really… honest). It was Bristol who cracked, showing ill-discipline and a lack of composure, and a further two penalties were awarded to us. Steeno really had his kicking boots on that night and both penalties, including a monster of some 55 metres, were slotted. Steeno’s fantastic first-half performance was superbly rounded off with a neat 30-metre drop goal. Although there is no denying that this was Steeno’s game, my forward colleagues and I would like, for the record, to stress that we won the penalties and we supplied the ball. I think it is called teamwork.

When the half-time whistle went we were 15-7 up on the night, a lead of eleven on aggregate. The match was ours to lose rather than Bristol’s to win. This is not a position some teams, including Exeter, like to be in. Some of our best performances in recent years have been when we have been chasing games. So the half-time team talk centred on whether we let Bristol bring the game to us or whether we chased it. Tommy, Scays and Steeno expressed their views and I think we all had an input to a greater or lesser extent, but Rob Baxter, of course, had the final word and that was to pressurise and keep slotting the points at every opportunity. Extend that lead until we reached the point when the clock and the aggregate score, would see us home.

We returned to the pitch to the exhilaration of happy Chiefs fans and a few rather muffled and dazed chants from the home supporters. From Bristol’s position, it was clear they needed the lifeline of an early score. Although we did concede a penalty to them in the 56th minute to reduce the deficit by three points, they never looked like breaking the line again. Perhaps the turning point of the second half was when Adrian Jarvis struck the post with a crucial penalty attempt only for Steeno to strike another 50-metre thunderbolt to restore our eleven-point advantage. I remember thinking at that moment that we were going to win.

With nine minutes to go I was substituted for my old mate, Simon Alcott, an impact player who assumed the number two position. From the sidelines I was able to watch Steeno punch through a sixth successive penalty. With the clock running down, Bristol would need two converted tries just to draw level. Then the ultimate blow, another stunning drop goal from Steeno! The bench went wild; Rob, who normally does not display his emotion on the sidelines, threw his clenched fists into the air in an early victory salute. A bucket of water was poured over the shocked head coach who, in the upbeat circumstances, laughed it off. The noise from the Chiefs fans was truly amazing, stunning, awesome, all that and more, and the victory was clinched right at the end when, pushing for the Bristol line, the Chiefs hooker (no not me!) managed to ground the ball for a try. It did not matter that Steeno missed the conversion, although it would have been great for him if he had maintained a wonderful 100% record on the night. The final act of the game had taken place. The referee raised his arms and blew his whistle. The match was over. We had won 10-29 on the night, 16-38 on aggregate. More importantly, Exeter Chiefs were in the Premiership.

Bedlam, madness, anarchy ensued. To give credit to the Bristol stewards, none of them worried about health and safety or the state of the pitch, none were party-poopers; they freely allowed the bench and the nearly 3,000 Chiefs fans to invade the Bristol turf, an outpouring of emotion in the torrential rain. Players were crying, fans were crying, the coaching and backroom boys were crying. So much planning, so much hard work, it had all been worth it. We were there, we had won. The scenes were magical and the memories will last forever.


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