Rugby Special ~ Part One

Reading time: 20 minutes

…take great pride in the history of your club…achieve new success, set your standards high…make sure that the Centenary playing record of your club…will be the envy of all other Cornish clubs.

R.E.G. “Dickie” Jeeps (1931-2016), RFU President 1976-77, from the Camborne RFC Centenary Programme 1878-1978, by Philip Rule and Alan Thomas, 1977

…we drank beer, we chased the ladies, and played some rugby in between.

Player’s name withheld
PlayedWonDrawnLostFor Against
Falmouth201514331131
St Ives201514390172
Hayle201415288146
Redruth201316291138
Camborne201046226170
Penzance-Newlyn201037203174
Penryn206212204253
Newquay206113155288
St Austell206113116315
Launceston205114181313
Truro202018124411
Cornwall RFU Merit Table, final positions, 1976-77 season. Though both Falmouth and St Ives had identical records, and St Ives indeed scored more points, 390 to 331, than Falmouth, the title was decided by calculating who had the superior ratio of points for and against. Falmouth edged it with a ratio of 2.5 to St Ives’ 2.2. From the Packet, May 6, 1977, p34.

As it was…

At the conclusion of the 1976-77 season, Falmouth were undoubtedly the top Cornish rugby team. They had beaten Hayle 20-9 to win the CRFU Knockout Cup, which was then sponsored by John Player Tobacco1.

As we can see above, they were also inaugural winners of the CRFU’s “new official” Merit Table, a league formed to determine the team with the most success against their fellow Cornish clubs2.

The all-conquering Falmouth side of 1976-77. From The First Hundred Years: The Story of Rugby Football in Cornwall, by Tom Salmon, CRFU, 1983, p47

It had been a close-run affair. Falmouth took the title with their final game of the season, beating Launceston 31-3 to ensure a better points for and against ratio than their nearest challengers, St Ives. ‘The Hakes’ (as St Ives were known), had taken it to the wire a week previously, hammering Newquay Hornets 61-3 in a valiant attempt to improve their own ratio, but it was not enough, and they only had themselves to blame. They had lost at home 13-26 to Falmouth prior to their Newquay fixture – had St Ives won, the title was theirs. Falmouth, with a game in hand over St Ives (they beat Penzance-Newlyn 14-0), made no similar error against Launceston.

It was the end of an era for Falmouth. Their skipper, Graham Bate, and stalwart prop Bruce Cocking both retired after beating Launceston, and were chaired from the field3.

Falmouth’s back-row forward Stephen Lightfoot (who scored twice in that title-clincher against Launceston) told me that the squad were now

…lacking strength in depth in a number of key positions.

Next season, 1977-78, they were not going to be as tough a proposition. Likewise Hayle: long-serving half-back Dave Mungles was retiring, and several “vital” players would also be missing, said their centre Robert Tonkin. Hayle, therefore, were

…without a lot of experience…

Second-placed St Ives, licking their wounds, ruing the missed opportunity, and pondering the mathematical necromancy that saw them come second to a team who’d scored less points than them, must have fancied their chances.

All of which begs the question…

Whither Camborne?

Camborne 1st XV, January 1977. Back, l to r: Alan Truscott (Coach), Les Arnold, Mickey ‘Jesse’ James, Chris Lane, Chris Durant, Paul Ranford, Nigel Tregenza, Trevor Dunstan, Frank Butler, Selwyn Trevithick (Ref.). Front, l to r: David Kingston, Graham Johns, Nigel Pellowe (c), Dave Edwards, Derick Taylor, Robert Mankee, Chris Nicholas. Image courtesy Helen Wardle, Nostalgic Camborne, FB.

In January 1977, Camborne shared the top of the Merit Table with Falmouth and Hayle: P14, W9, D3, L2. Then they let it slip dramatically, winning only one of their last six games, thus leaving Falmouth, St Ives and Hayle to duke it out for the title.

They crashed out of the CRFU Cup in the semi-final to the eventual runners-up, Hayle. And that must have been a choker: their first semi had ended in a 3-3 draw, at Camborne, meaning a rematch at Hayle, which they lost 9-6.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Camborne lost their final Merit Table game of the season, at home, 3-7, to Redruth. To add further shame and ignominy, the game was televised on the BBC’s weekly Rugby Special4. (If you can remember the theme tune, ‘Holy Mackerel’, you’re humming it right now.)

Various reasons have been given for this distinctly underwhelming end to the the 1976-77 season.

Frank Butler, flanker and Players’ Secretary, attributes Falmouth’s success to their gaining half of the Penryn squad after a fall-out at the Borough. In other words, they had the manpower that Camborne didn’t.

Dave Edwards, wing, reckons that, though the team took “each match seriously”, Camborne

…didn’t really pay much attention to the Merit Table and its potential and standing.

Some perspective is perhaps needed here: Camborne had played an additional twenty or so fixtures to the Merit Table clashes; like many a Cornish team, they regularly entertained touring sides from upcountry.

Dave ‘Jumbo’ Reed, prop, blamed selection decisions:

If anyone walked into the club and mentioned they had been to Cardiff they were straight in the first team.

Paul Ranford, lock, reckons it was an absence of ambition:

…we…didn’t realise how good we could have been…

Ranford also cites a lack of fitness overall, which may explain the late-season fade.

Trussy…

1976-77 was Alan Truscott’s first season as Camborne’s coach, but he was no callow rookie. Having only retired as a player the previous season, he knew his squad intimately and, with a distinguished career for Camborne’s 1st XV, crucially had their respect too. Having taken up coaching in the late 1960s as a schoolteacher, and recently guiding Helston U15s to their County Championship, the club were keen for him to take the job on. His verdict on the 1976-77 season is emphatic:

…we were considerably underachieving…

Next season, 1977-78, Trussy reckoned, would be different. A young squad (mostly aged between 19-24), would be older, stronger, and (hopefully) wiser. The challenge, as he saw it, was to be the top club in Cornwall, a sentiment echoed by Paul Ranford. They needed to grow up, he reckoned, and

…not take any nonsense from any team.

The 1977-78 season had to be better. It had to be special. The 1st XV, from a squad, Truscott remembers, of around 35-40 players, had to improve. The expectations and pressure would be that much greater.

Why? Because the 1977-78 season was Camborne RFC’s Centenary Season.

1877…1977…

Six members of the 1877-78 squad. Sadly, no names. From the Camborne RFC Centenary Programme 1878-1978, by Philip Rule and Alan Thomas, 1977

From an inauspicious start in November 1877 (Penzance beat them by three tries to nil5), Camborne RFC had grown to be one of the senior Cornish clubs. It doesn’t take academic books of cultural theory6 to state the obvious, that the Cornish instinctively identify with the sport of rugby, and Camborne was, is, a rugby town. In the inter-war years, there was eleven rugby teams in the area, not including Camborne RFC itself, and featured such XVs as the ‘Camborne Unemployed’. Whenever a member of the Unemployed XV found work, he would have to leave the club, in a bizarre kind of economic revolving-door policy7.

Camborne RFC had prospered with the town; the Unemployed XV, perhaps thankfully, hadn’t, and were no longer around in 1977. Camborne was still a good town to find work in, the mines were still open, and some Town players, such as the hooker Malcolm Bennetts and the livewire scrum-half, Robert Mankee, earned their wages underground.

Of course, with a workforce of around 3,000, the big employer in Camborne was the world-renowned engineering firm, Compair Holman.

The Holman’s frontage in Wesley St. Demolished in 1989, there’s now a supermarket on the site8

Many of the Camborne RFC squad found employment there, such as Frank Butler, Derick Taylor (who, in 1976-77, scored a record 193 points in 24 games), Kevin Lean, David Reed, Dave Edwards, Paul Ranford, Dickie Wells, and Martyn Trestrail (who today is the club’s Fixtures Secretary).

Many of Camborne’s regular opposition also worked there, such as Paul Sweeney from St Ives, and Alwyn ‘Slats’ Smitham and Robert Tonkin from Hayle (all three had previously played for Camborne). If your team had lost at the weekend, keeping a low profile when on the shop floor was advisable; Robert Tonkin remembers that Dickie Wells “never missed the chance” to wind him up. He must have been one of very, very many.

The town, and population of Camborne was inextricably linked with its industry, and its sport. For example, when a Holman’s employee married in 1978, it was important to note that the

From the West Briton, June 15, 1978, p24

The season that The Lord St Levan built…

Treve Pascoe (left), Chairman Cyril Rowling, and Alan Truscott. Truscott is obscuring Alan Roberts. Courtesy Martyn Trestrail

The ‘Lord St Levan’ was the sobriquet of Treve Pascoe, Camborne RFC’s Fixtures Secretary. Who Camborne’s 1st XV would be playing in their Centenary Season was his brainchild, an entity, he claimed, that had taken six years to realise9. Luckily, as Alan Truscott recalls, Pascoe was the County liaison officer for all teams wanting to visit Cornwall, and could thus claim first dibs on the touring creme de la creme for Camborne.

Of course, a financial guarantee had to be made to these clubs, and, according to Frank Butler, the ‘Lord St Levan’ had a habit of arbitrarily booking teams without consulting the committee, and leaving the job of scraping together the cash up to them. It may be what the Assistant Treasurer, Terry Symons, is referring to when he good-naturedly describes Pascoe as a

…pain in the ass…

£600 was the target required – that’s £2,800 today. Camborne couldn’t rely on gate takings alone, and Pascoe’s manoeuvres led to such fundraising innovations as this, which raised £40010:

Courtesy of Paul White

(Remember, these financial guarantees were to the clubs themselves, not the players11.)

No matter how he did it, Pascoe had contrived a masterpiece of a season, and Frank Butler believes this is just as well:

…we would not have got as many good fixtures if all was needed to be agreed by the committee…[normally] big clubs would not play the likes of Camborne…

And what fixtures! The original list ran to fifty-four games, and would be more provided Camborne had a good run in the CRFU Cup: 35-40 games was the average for a season, reckoned Robert Mankee.

Besides the regular Cornish opposition in the Merit Table, Camborne would be up against such luminaries as Captain Crawshay’s XV, Pontypridd, Lydney, Plymouth Albion, Saracens, Coventry, South Wales Police, Gloucester, and Cardiff. Cardiff, for crying out loud: that meant Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, Gareth Davies, Terry Holmes…

The general reaction to the fixture list is summed up by Steve Floyd, a young fly-half then studying Ergonomics at Loughborough. The squad were generally

Excited. You could be no other…

Dave Edwards reckoned that, though Camborne had played major sides previously,

…this season we felt we were really competing…because of the expectation…to do something special…

Treve Pascoe would also take unilateral action when recruiting players. Back in June 1975, he called on a youthful Illogan Park player, who was newly married and returned home that very day from Cardiff College, where he had qualified as a teacher.

David May began his Camborne career.

Like a machine…

In the 1970s, rugby in Cornwall was a game dominated by its forwards. The “proper Cornish game”, wrote the journalist Jerry Clarke, is one

…in which threequarters are mere spectators.

The Packet, March 23, 1978

Camborne, by common consent, had the biggest, meanest pack in the County, and this isn’t just ‘Town’ old-timers talking themselves up. Practically all of the 25-30 people I’ve spoken to – players, fans, clubmen, deadly enemies – agreed on one thing: Camborne’s forwards were the best. Mickey Stephens of Launceston rates the Camborne fixtures as the

…hardest games of the season…

for this very reason.

And in the Centenary Season, Camborne’s pack got harder. Combining with the ever-dependable hooker Malcolm Bennetts in the front five were County players Bobby Tonkin (prop), and 6ft 4″ locks Chris Durant and Paul Ranford. The new recruit from St Ives was the Royal Navy tight-head prop Jock Denholm, a player Frank Butler describes as

…uncompromising and brutally strong. A very hard man…

With Denholm as immovable as Carn Brea on the tight, Tonkin was now free to exhibit his considerable handling skills on the loose. The “front 5 jigsaw”, said Alan Truscott, “was now complete”.

On the blindside flank was Frank Butler, a genuine terrier. In the days when players were permitted to play the ball on the ground, his job was to win possession, a task, he said, which meant he was constantly

…kicked and raked…

On the openside flank was David Kingston, a tough ex-Gloucester man. When I asked him his main role, the reply was unequivocal:

To kill the opposition half-backs…

Behind them at 8 was usually Richard Thomas, a highly-rated ball player and another County cap.

Whether they meant it or not, a further statement of physical intent was to be made in the man the players elected their Captain for the Centenary Season: Chris Durant.

“When Chris spoke, we all listened”, said Dave Edwards. Courtesy of Paul Ranford

This pack, remembers the ball-boy Tim Carr, would perform “like a machine”, week in, week out.

It was only in the final, and arguably most important, fixture of that long, long season, that the machine finally met its match.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The 1976-77 season was when the team “started to gel”, in the opinion of Robert Mankee. Two more Royal Navy men, hustled up by Alan Truscott, who lived near RNAS Culdrose, had complimented the squad. They were Bob Lees, a threequarter with sniping pace, and Tanzi Lea, a talented back with a sense of adventure. With another RN man from Camborne, PTI Barry Wills taking the fitness sessions (Come on fellas…), stamina became less of an issue, no matter how much the squad griped.

But the “hard edge”, as Frank Butler termed it, remained ever-present. It can perhaps be best exemplified in one of the relatively smaller players on the field…

Nigel Pellowe

A Camborne legend, County stalwart, and crowd favourite who played over a thousand games for the club, from the late 1960s on. A genuine all-round athlete with fitness to burn, in his youth he had been a promising boxer who had won the Junior ABA title, fighting at the Royal Albert Hall. (He never forgot how to throw a punch.) Legend (or rather, Alan Truscott) has it that, as a teenager, he won a cross-country race for West Cornwall, played for Camborne Colts that same afternoon (they won), and then travelled to Plymouth to box for Cornwall ABA in the evening. Needless to say, he won that too.

Nigel Pellowe in full flight, as the crowd cheers him on. From the Packet, September 14, 1977

On the pitch, his talent was such that Malcolm Bennetts reckoned

…he could have played anywhere, even hooker.

As a fly-half, he was 100% reliable, and many people have said he would tackle like an extra flanker. At full-back, he was a kind of Cornish JPR Williams – last in defence, first in attack, and full of aggression. Dave Edwards recalls his defensive work in the back line was “pivotal”, Jumbo Reed rated him the “best tackler on the team”, and Bob Lees told me he had the fundamental perquisite of any 15: a “safe pair of hands”. Offensively, Pellowe was in possession of a sidestep that, remembers Launceston’s Mickey Stephens, would

…torpedo straight through you.

Terry Symons, similarly, reckons he was

…like bleddy lightning…

Oh – and he could kick goals too. Whenever the opposition saw this man take up his position at the rear of the pitch, they must have known a tough afternoon was in the offing.

Bring it on…

Pre-season training, throughout the summer of 1977, got very intense according to Alan Truscott. Everybody wanted a piece of the action, to see how they measured up against some of the very best. That said, Truscott reckoned none of the squad were apprehensive about any of the teams they would be facing, Cornish or otherwise. On the whole, he said, the general attitude was one of

bring it on…

Camborne, then, were going to hit the ground running. They needed to. Apart from an inter-squad match on September 1 (which Martyn Trestrail recalls for the wrong reasons: Dickie Wells bested him in the scrums, and reminded him of this ever after), there was to be no gentle pre-season friendly.

Camborne 1st XV’s opening match of the Centenary Season was to be against the Cornwall County President’s Select XV…

…and you can read all about that in Rugby Special ~ Part Two here

Many thanks for reading

References

  1. The CRFU Cup had been held annually since the 1967-68 season. See: Tom Salmon, The First Hundred Years: The Story of Rugby Football in Cornwall, CRFU, 1983, p144. For 1976-77, it was named the Alan Barbary Memorial Cup after the recently deceased CRFU Secretary. See the West Briton, April 7, 1977, p20. Falmouth, as winners, received a £350 prize from the sponsors, John Player; Hayle got £250, or nearly £1,900 today, for losing. See the West Briton, February 17, 1977, p26. Falmouth, in the 1977-78 season, would then compete in the RFU National Knockout Competition – the John Player Cup. Overall winners that season were Gloucester.
  2. Quote from the West Briton, November 18, 1976, p28. The West Briton of May 6, 1976 (p20) shows a table of the inter-club matches played throughout the 1975-76 season amongst the senior Cornish teams. Falmouth were top, with 19 wins from 23, but fixtures were arranged on an ad hoc basis and their actual position at the top of this table meant little: Launceston and Redruth Albany had only played 17 all-Cornish games, while Penzance-Newlyn amassed 28. The Merit Table brought greater structure, and, as the winner went on to play in the South West Merit Table for the following season, it can be seen on reflection as part of the first steps toward a national league system. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_English_rugby_union_system.
  3. West Briton, April 28, 1977, p26, and May 5, 1977, p26.
  4. West Briton, February 17, 1977, p26, 24 February, 1977, p6, 21 April, p30, and 28 April, p26.
  5. Royal Cornwall Gazette, November 16, 1877, p5. Though rugby journalism was in its infancy, the necessity of recording any injuries or violent play is already entrenched. The reporter dutifully lists a couple of sprained ankles, plus scratches, bruises, and bloodied handkerchiefs, before giving the result.
  6. For example: The Cornish Paradox: Identity and Rugby Union, by Aidan Taylor, MA Thesis, Amazon Kindle, 2013.
  7. From “Between the Wars”, Camborne RFC Centenary Programme 1878-1978, by Philip Rule and Alan Thomas, 1977. Depressingly, one wonders how many sides could be formed among the unemployed of Camborne today.
  8. See: http://cornishstory.com/2021/02/10/holman-echoes-of-an-age/
  9. “Message from E. Treve Pascoe”, Camborne RFC Centenary Programme 1878-1978, by Philip Rule and Alan Thomas, 1977.
  10. West Briton, September 1, 1977, p26.
  11. All Rugby Union back then adhered to the amateur code. If any players actually earned any money from the game, it was only those playing at the very top, it wasn’t very much, and they kept very very quiet about it. Nowadays, the Welsh fly-half Dan Biggar earns a reputed £600K salary for Northampton; his 1970s counterpart, the late, great, Phil Bennett, worked at the Llanelli steelworks. Whenever Bennett represented his country, he lost money on account of not being able to work overtime on a Saturday morning. See: https://rugbydome.com/dan-biggar-salary/, https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/adidas-used-pay-bungs-welsh-1820555, and https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/work-rest-rugby-1935540.

32 thoughts on “Rugby Special ~ Part One

      1. Great start Francis. Looking forward to the next installments. Although all this happened 45 years ago I still get excited thinking about (a) what we achieved and (b) what a great group of players we had.

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  1. Fantastic read, these legends of the club were the players who inspired me to pick up a rugby ball, brilliant !

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  2. Great memories thanks. The year I started playing for Camborne Colts aged 15. The atmosphere in the club was brilliant with everybody proud and honoured to play for Camborne. Best wishes from Australia. Go Camborne.

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  3. Francis good start look forward to reading the next instalment. I have to credit the “Hard Edge” quote to Chris Lilley a great friend of mine who played for Bath and Coached the academy team for me when I came to Bath.

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  4. A well researched and enjoyable read. Great to read the names of everyone, really fond memories. I’m not sure where my description of being a South Sea Islander came from albeit I am now living in Australia (30 years) and closer to those Islands. Roll on Part 2.

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  5. Well! That was a great memory jerker! Some great rugby players. A lot of names in that article I knew or at least knew of away from rugby. Good friends of mine went to primary school with Paul Ranford & and I knew him through them. Nigel Pellowe lived opposite the fire station. He would come out to the greengrocer van I worked on a Saturday to carry in the veg & fruit for his mum. I had forgotten he was also a good boxer.
    Being a Redruth Grammar school boy and many of the ones of my age being Secondary Modern boys I can’t claim any of them as friends, although Dave Edwards I knew quite well at school.
    I also knew Bobby Tonkin quite well. He worked in Heathcoat Yarns & Fibres while I worked at Lastonet next door. We played squash at the Carn Brea Leisure centre some lunch breaks.
    Bobby kept pestering me to come & train with Camborne, but he was a big lad & I knew I would have to train really hard to play with or against the likes of him! So it never happened.
    My boss at the time was Brian Eddy, another Camborne player from the 60’s – I think with his brother.

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  6. Wow. So well researched and written Francis. Really enjoyed reading all the ‘memories’ from the players of that era.
    Looking forward to part two

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