News of the death of former England international Martin Underwood set PHIL WESTREN off down West Country rugby’s Memory Lane…
In 1961, I ran along the Penzance promenade with the gifted winger. Why? Well, it wasn’t a training run, as I was aged just 11 at the time. But it was of course to do with rugby!
Martin Underwood had featured in an England trial hosted at the Mennaye Field. After the game, I spotted him changed and trotting along the ‘prom’ with his kit bag. Recognising his face, I was keen to get his autograph, and he kindly obliged.
Raised in Worcestershire, Martin was later educated at St Luke’s College, Exeter (1958-1961), before taking up his first teaching post at Northampton Grammar School. He returned to Exeter in 1963 as a staff member at St Luke’s, where he remained for the next 40 years.
Martin’s actual rugby career started at centre and wing in a star-studded Northampton Saints team, He won his first cap for England in his first season of senior rugby with the Saints, and gained his fifth and last cap after moving to Exeter in 1963.
Injury cruelly ended his playing career at the age of just 23.
However as a highly successful coach, including 17 years as coach of St Luke’s, he was instrumental in the development of hundreds of first class rugby players, among them 35 full internationals and seven British Lions. He had remained Exeter’s last full England international for the next 48 years, until Tom Johnson was capped in 2012.
The England trial was actually played on December 2, 1961, when the ‘Whites’ versus the ‘Colours’ contest kicked off at 2.45pm. Cornishman Roger Hosen, then of Northampton, but who also played for Penryn and Bristol (and Stithians!) during his career, was selected at full- back for the ‘Whites’ in a side captained by Northampton scrum-half REG ‘Dicky’ Jeeps.
You can see on the programme page other star players of the time named in the line-up, including Phil Horrocks-Taylor (Leicester) at fly-half and Phil Judd at prop. A young ‘Budge’ Rogers (Bedford), yet to be capped, was on the flank. The ‘Colours’, captained by J D Currie (Bristol), included three Cornishmen in the pack – all from Redruth. They were flanker Paddy McGovan, prop ‘Bonzo’ Johns, who first had an England trial back in 1954, and hooker Ken Abrahams. All very good players, each narrowly missed out on full England honours, although Roger Hosen ultimately won 10 England caps between 1963-67.
Following the international trial, the Pirates and the Borough of Penzance received many letters of congratulations for what was a highly The 1961-62 season was at the time considered the most successful in the Pirates’ history. Under the captaincy of Johnny Thomas only nine 1st XV games were lost out of a total of 48! They topped the unofficial league table and scored more points than any other club in the South West, and retained the Cornwall ‘Sevens’ title.
Centre Gerald Luke scored 30 tries during the season. Gerald was a school teacher at Heamoor Secondary School, who created a natural rugby interest in students, as did Johnny Thomas at Lescudjack, and another ‘Pirate’, Bob Horne, at Penzance Grammar School for Boys.
There are many other fine Pirates one could recall from this time, including long-serving president, Mavis Lawry, who was awarded the BEM in the New Year’s Honours List.
George Luke (father of Peter and Mike) is also someone to mention, as he stepped in to ably fill the role of team secretary following ‘Scotty’ Millar’s departure from the area.
On the county scene Pirates had a number of players involved in both the friendly and County Championship matches.
Somerset, Devon, Gloucestershire were all beaten in the group games, and then Oxfordshire (27-3) in the quarter-final played at Iffley Road.
For the semi, to be played at Coundon Road, Coventry, against a strong Warwickshire team on February 3, Cornwall’s best knew that the sternest of tests lay ahead, and so it proved.
Despite losing 8-0, however, they held their own against the home team’s feared pack of forwards, with a young prop, ‘Stack’ Stevens, impressing.
It was an occasion when before the game a crowd of 15,000 also stood in memory of Harry Oliver, of St Ives, who had died just two days earlier at the age of just 37.
Harry had played 34 times for Cornwall, was an England trialist, and had been a county selector.
In March, 1962, in Penzance the never-to-be- forgotten Ash Wednesday Storm hit the seafront, inflicting terrible damage. A Mayor’s Flood Distress Fund was set up and late in the month the Mennaye Field hosted a fund-raising match played between a West Cornwall XV and an East Cornwall XV. The Mayor kicked the game off and many gifted players turned out.
As for England’s fortunes in 1962, they finished third in the Five Nations. In the match against France, Michel Crauste became the only forward in the history of the Championship to score three tries.
Martin Underwood played in all four games and Cornwall’s fly-half Richard Sharp in three, as did Cambridge University centre Mike Wade – who in 1965 wore a Pirates shirt, albeit briefly!