ANYBODY who has played rugby for different clubs will understand how the game can be a stranger.
Different attitudes, different playbooks, different strengths and weaknesses.
So when I played my first game for Newbold on Avon back in the early to mid 1990s it was one to forget.
Pitched in at fly-half, where I’d been used to playing for a couple of Coventry clubs, I found the style of play a little different and I struggled.
Of course, I struggled because of nerves anyway. I think I kicked all my restarts out on the full for one, giving our opponents a win they didn’t really deserve. My kicking, once a strength, gave them a pass time and time again. I never did it again, in any game I played.
Desperate to make up ground, I ran with ball in hand when I spotted gaps. In my mind I was very unlucky not to score a couple of tries. In Lloyd Bale’s mind, I couldn’t pass off my left hand.
I cut a dejected figure after that defeat. I knew I could do better. I knew I’d let myself down, but more important the other guys in the team.
Lloyd was one of three Bales in the red and black that day, along with brothers Malcolm and Alan ‘Bish’.
And Lloyd let me know what he thought before buying me a beer. It wasn’t nasty, it was a joke, but it still speared me because while I knew it wasn’t true, my performance had made it look that way.
But one thing had happened, the Bales had welcomed me to Newbold.
What came to strike me, as I played more alongside them, was that they were a mischevious trio, always smiling, enjoying the sheer pleasure of playing the game. On the pitch, Lloyd at openside was a real annoying bugger for the other side. He got everywhere, got his hands everywhere, and smiled as if he’d just lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy. Or snuck it in his bag after the final whistle had gone.
Come rain, shine, snow, muddy bath of a pitch, Lloyd revelled in the game. Bish, at scrum half, had twinkling eyes that off-set his smile. You’d sometimes see him roused to what looked like anger, but with a wink, you’d know he was acting for effect.
While Malc, inside centre or restored at fly half when I was banished to the back of the field, reminded me of a schoolkid involved in playground games, ducking this way and that, doing outrageous, silly manoeuvres I’d rarely seen – and most of them coming off.
I’d like to say we became thick as thieves at times, although I rarely played with a smile. They were as hard-edged as I was, as disappointed in defeat as I was crushed, but they just loved playing. The smiles were never far from their faces, if they ever left.
Whether it was rugby, or just playing the fool, they were in the thick of it. I remember playing at Stewarts and Lloyds, Corby, and Lloyd and Malcolm pouring bubble bath on the ref’s hair in the showers.
I’m sure Bish was involved somewhere along the line. The ref, who had had a bloody awful game, spent quite a few minutes trying to wash the bubble bath out of his hair. It was hilarious, like watching the Marx Brothers at their devastating best.
Often, their own team-mates bore the brunt of their jokes and fun, including me.
I like to think that after a poor game, or poor performance, they went out of their way to lift their team-mates up. Nothing stayed too serious when they were around.
I was to play cricket with Malcolm, notably in a period of reasonable success in the 20 over midweek format, when Newbold managed some cup finals and top table finishes.
Even without Bish and Lloyd, Malc was a handful on his own. Young players coming into the first team had to be on their mettle. I stopped playing rugby for Newbold when serious illness meant an operation that took a chunk of my back away. The wound left behind took six months of cleansing and repacking and it was three years before I played rugby again, this time up in Yorkshire, as I’d started to move around work-wise.
I had a brief period at Hull Ionians, and one season at Norwich, but neither had characters like the Bales. They had great club men, which the Bales were, but no-one came clo to the madcap fun they brought.
I miss those days, but I have very fond memories. I’m glad they played a positive part in my life, added to my love of the game and proved great club men for a great club.
Bish, dearly departed a few years now, already had a starting berth in the Newbold past XV elsewhere. Now Lloydy has gone to join him.
I can just imagine the fun and the chaos and the smiles.