Reading time: 15 minutes
(If you missed the Christmas Rugby Special, click here…)
…see where you are after Christmas…then you’ll know how well you’re doing…Martyn Trestrail offers sage advice
As it was…
It’s New Year’s Day, 1978. It’s been revealed that Starsky and Hutch star David Soul is dating two actresses. Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest are five points clear at the top of Division One. Compair Holman announces a massive sales drive in Germany and Italy, in order to benefit from the UK’s new membership of the EEC1.
Camborne have just played their fifth game in nine days, beating a Cornwall U23 XV 20-6.
Business as usual?
Dave Edwards, Colin Taylor, and Paul Ranford all crossed the line for Town, as did a debutant, called up from the Colts: Steve ‘Sparky’ Rogers showed much promise and pace on the wing.
So, all’s well with the Centenary Season then.
Or maybe not. Even though Hayle (or, rather, David O’Mahoney’s kicking) had done them a favour on Boxing Day by beating top-placed St Ives 9-32, Camborne had slipped to third in the Merit Table. Behind Redruth.
This was far from ideal for an ambitious Centenary club.
They knew they were good – but how good? Rolling over the likes of, say, Cornwall U23s, St Austell, or Penryn was fine, but where were the ‘statement’ victories?
At this point in the season, did the other clubs with a true interest in Table or Cup glory – St Ives, Redruth – genuinely fear them?
No one will like me for saying this, but probably not. Indeed, in the press, Redruth were being talked up as likely candidates for a Merit Table and CRFU Cup double:
The players would not have forgotten that, back in January 1977, they were in a similar position as regards the Cup and Merit Table. They came away with nothing3.
Camborne had yet to beat a touring club of note too.
Dave Edwards told me,
…as the season progressed, so the atmosphere changed…
From being a season where the celebration was a hundred years of Camborne RFC itself, it gradually dawned on the players that, at the end of it all, they might very well have something more tangible to celebrate themselves.
They were still in the CRFU Cup – though their next opponents, at the end of the month, were St Ives. A win would set up a semi-final grudge-match with Redruth.
The top of the Merit Table was still in sight.
They were in with a shout. Of something.
They had two big games coming up.
Plymouth Albion, the Devon team, were due to visit on the 7th.
On the 14th, St Ives were coming to the Rec.
If Camborne lost that, catching St Ives, and with it the Merit Table, would be practically beyond them.
It was crunch time.
First, though, were the big boys from over the Tamar.
Roger lay down a while…
As Robert Mankee was keen to impress on me, if a Cornish XV dared to challenge a side from across the border, they would find them a
…little bit fitter…
…and rather more prestigious. Plymouth Albion were the top Devon club of the late 1970s. They had expanded their fixture list to regularly include teams from London, the Midlands, and South Wales. In 1977 they had celebrated their own Centenary by winning the Devon Senior Cup4.
Steve Floyd, who played them that year, recalls that Albion
…weren’t usually on our fixture list…Albion ‘gave us the honour’ of playing them…we weren’t supposed to beat them…
No, in the normal run of things, if Camborne were to play Albion, they went cap in hand to Plymouth, rather than the other way round.
Merrill Clymo certainly rolled out the red carpet in his programme notes for the fixture:
We extend a welcoming hand to Plymouth Albion who have kindly agreed to come here today, instead of our travelling to Plymouth…
Town were possibly jealous of Albion’s status, and maybe felt somewhat patronised too.
Both of which are perfectly good reasons to want to beat them…
Yes, Camborne lost, but Albion knew they’d been in a game. With twenty minutes to play, Town led 6-4, thanks to two penalties by Steve Floyd.
Camborne were bossing it. Boasting a pack described by journalist Roy Standring on the day as
…the meanest in Cornwall,Western Morning News, January 9, 1978
they had control of their guests. What with Malcolm Bennetts winning strikes against the head, and Ranford and Richard Thomas dominating the line-outs, half-backs Mankee and Floyd could keep Albion pinned in their own half.
This wasn’t in the Devon XV’s script.
Albion’s flanker, a blonde giant ex-paratrooper from Launceston called Roger Spurrell, was
…beside himself with exasperation…Roy Standring, Western Morning News, January 9, 1978.
Spurrell, who Paul Ranford recalls as a “bloody lunatic”, gave his pack a very public, and probably very expletive-laden, dressing-down on the pitch. It had the desired effect.
Albion had always displayed the “greater inventiveness” outside5, and now their forwards began the fightback. Camborne, on the retreat, conceded two penalties, which Albion’s 10 Les Ware belted over from 40 metres. 6-10, Plymouth.
In the dying minutes, Albion’s victory was rounded off by a solo try from winger Ray Westlake. Ware converted to make it 6-16.
The game may have been over, but the battle wasn’t.
According to Albion’s historian, David Fuge, who was spectating that day, Nigel Pellowe late-tackled Westlake as he crossed the line:
…a silly thing to do…
Especially, continues Fuge, when you consider that a pumped-up Roger Spurrell was on hand to take retribution.
The referee claimed he was too far away to witness any infringement by Pellowe.
Westlake, badly winded, was stretchered off.
Before anyone could stop him, Spurrell had squared up to Pellowe…
Redruth man Brian Riddle has watched a lot of Cornish rugby – and therefore a lot of fighting. He told me, though, that only one player he ever saw
…knew how to hit properly,
and that was Nigel Pellowe. In the crowd, on a rest day, was Frank Butler:
Spurrell got hit six times before he moved his hands…
If anyone had informed Pellowe that Spurrell had been in the armed forces, it wouldn’t have made much difference. Spurrell was on his backside in a flurry of punches before he could even think about issuing a final warning. As Nigel told me, with a wink,
…Roger lay down a while…
Plymouth Albion went home, victorious but maybe not as proud. Roger Spurrell may have spent part of the journey wondering how a man who just about came up to his chin had so casually floored him6.
Camborne had a bit of thinking to do themselves. That same day, St Ives had beaten Falmouth 19-9 in the Merit Table7.
The brains trust for the 1st XV was Chris Durant and the well-respected coach, Alan Truscott. Although input from senior players such as Bobby Tonkin and Frank Butler was welcomed, the big decisions were the preserve of Chris and Alan.
Chris and I were in constant communication during the week and on Sundays after each match. We ‘swayed’ selection and discussed all training sessions.
Having the final word in selection meetings (“few people argued with Chris”, said Dave Edwards), and a trusted working relationship with Truscott was “very important”, Chris told me.
And the question that would have kept them awake at night in the days leading up to St Ives’ visit to the Rec was this:
What’s the winning XV?
Here’s the team they went with:
Apart from Nigel Tregenza coming in for an injured Frank Butler, the biggest change was moving Nigel Pellowe to 10, a position he hadn’t occupied for some time.
Pellowe, like Robert Mankee, was a demon tackler who could be
…unbelievably brave…Frank Butler
against even the biggest men – just ask Roger Spurrell. However, after several seasons at full-back he perhaps now lacked the distribution skills of a Steve Floyd or a Tanzi Lea.
As Dave Edwards put it, the tactic was to
…to ensure we didn’t lose…keep it tight…
“Tight” is also how Durant, with Truscott, wanted it.
Camborne were going all-in for a forward-dominated approach. The pack, in cahoots with Mankee and Pellowe, were going to suffocate St Ives.
Elsewhere, Bob Lees, more of a finisher, moved to the wing. David May was brought in at centre, for his “good hands”, and deft passing skills, recalls Truscott.
If the ball did go wide, May could put Edwards and Lees away.
Camborne were going to be tough to beat.
But could they beat the best in Cornwall?
Find out in Rugby Special ~ Part Eight here.
Many thanks for reading
- See the Sunday Mirror, January 1, 1978, p2 and 48; and the West Briton, January 5, 1978, p3.
- West Briton, December 29, 1977, p14.
- See Rugby Special ~ Part One here
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plymouth_Albion_R.F.C., and http://www.plymouthalbion.com/history/
- Western Morning News, January 9, 1978.
- Alas, Roger Spurrell has no recollection of the event. After a notable career at Bath RFC, he ran a Newquay nightclub and now has an interest in a lobster hatchery in the area. When I spoke to him, however, he was sat at home, watching Wimbledon.
- West Briton, January 12, 1978, p20.