Reading time: 25 minutes
(If you missed Part Eleven, click here…)
…it is going to be the most one-sided cup final ever seen in Cornwall…Jerry Clarke, Packet, April 19, 1978, p33
As it was…
It’s Wednesday, April 19, 1978. Barbara Windsor storms off the set of Carry On Emmanuelle, claiming it’s nothing more than “soft porn”. At Wembley, Ron Greenwood’s England are playing Brazil1.
That morning, Camborne’s scrum-half Robert Mankee is enjoying a coffee and a sausage roll at Terry’s Grill, on Commercial Square – it’s something he likes to do on the morning of a big match. But he isn’t interested in the soccer.
No. That evening, ‘Mank’ is playing for Camborne in the CRFU Cup Final, against St Austell, in Redruth. If Camborne win, the prize of a Cup-Merit Table ‘double’, the first in the Club’s history and achieved in its Centenary Season, no less, is theirs.
Mankee isn’t worried. Not much phases Robert Mankee, and the prospect of playing St Austell certainly doesn’t concern him.
Maybe Mankee is idly leafing through the sports pages of that day’s Packet; if he did, he certainly skimmed through Jerry Clarke’s preview of the evening’s match. Although perhaps affronted that Clarke hasn’t mentioned his name, he may have afforded himself a wry grin when he considered the headline:
Mankee may even have growled something like bleddy right under his breath…
…the major miracle of our times…
The language of Clarke’s article is almost biblical, and equally chock-full of hyperbole. If St Austell managed to pull off the inconceivable in Redruth that night – beat Camborne, lift the trophy – it would constitute
…the major miracle of our times.Jerry Clarke, Packet, April 19, 1978, p33
In other words, a St Austell victory would be deemed an Act of God, a marvel beyond all rational or scientific explanation.
The Saints had only won two Merit Table games all season, and conceded over 300 points. Camborne had been champions for just under a month.
St Austell RFC had only formed in 1963; they had only been a senior club since 19762. Camborne were one of the biggest, most successful clubs in Cornwall, and had been around for over a hundred years, facts which made Clarke believe their success was predestined:
Nothing now is going to prevent them from capturing the double.Jerry Clarke, Packet, April 19, 1978, p33
To reach the final, Camborne had had to knock over the likes of St Ives and Redruth. St Austell, in contrast, had hammered the decidedly junior Redruth Grammar School Old Boys in the quarters, and then scraped a 3-0 semi-final victory over Penryn at their Cromwell Road ground, a venue, Clarke noted,
…notorious for its levelling effect.Jerry Clarke, Packet, April 19, 1978, p33
There was to be no home advantage for the Saints tonight.
At the time, in Chris Durant, Paul Ranford, Bobby Tonkin, Richard Thomas and Nigel Pellowe, Camborne had five players with County experience. St Austell had none.
Clarke highlighted the Camborne front five of Jock Denholm, Malcolm Bennetts, Tonkin, Ranford, and skipper Durant as “fearsome”3, the best in Cornwall, and likely to make all the difference in the match.
Clarke could only single out the Saints’ captain, ex-Camborne prop Simon Woolnough, as one who would take the fight to Town. But, Clarke opined,
…I am absolutely certain that his all will not nearly be enough.Jerry Clarke, Packet, April 19, 1978, p33
Clarke, in fact, was committing the cardinal error of the sportswriter – that of gazing into their crystal ball:
…Camborne must surely win by 30 points. It would be a fitting finale to their most successful season.Jerry Clarke, Packet, April 19, 1978, p33
He wasn’t the only one convinced that Camborne would win, and to nail his flag to the post so publicly. The local artist Ernie Loze had sketched souvenir caricatures of the Camborne squad before the match:
Loze emblazoned his belief that Camborne would be crowned champions for all to see on his drawing…prior to kick-off.
Replete, Mankee strolls out of Terry’s Grill, and turns his collar up to the rain. If the precipitation continues, he probably reflects, he may have to employ a dive-pass later on, as opposed to his favoured spin-pass, and ask Derick Taylor to stand closer at 10.
But, whatever the conditions, Camborne will win. To continue with the biblical motif, victory for Town is graven in stone.
St Austell haven’t got a prayer.
Call for Jumbo…
As the hours till kick-off ticked by, it became apparent that Camborne might not have it all their own way.
Bobby Tonkin, The Smiling Assassin4, must have been relishing the prospect of tonight’s game. A big crowd, lesser opposition, a weak pack…yes, Bobby was itching to get on the pitch and lord it over St Austell.
Jerry Clarke reckoned him a “real force to be reckoned with”, who
…has had his finest season ever…Packet, April 19, 1978, p33
His great friend Paul Ranford described him as “immense” at loose-head. But he couldn’t play; indeed, a broken hand meant he would be out for the rest of the season. Although Jumbo Reed reckons Tonkin
…didn’t make a lot if it…
…he can’t have been happy. In contrast, Jumbo himself was ecstatic: originally on the bench, now he’d be starting.
Although on paper losing Bobby was a setback, Jumbo reckoned he was super-fit, and had “learned a lot” under the expert tuition of Tonkin and Jock Denholm both throughout the season.
Frank Butler backs this up, saying Jumbo always
…did a fantastic job when called in to cover…
David May rated Jumbo a “completely wholehearted” player, and could doubtless fill Tonkin’s boots admirably – he’d done it before, after all.
In any case, Camborne still had more than enough firepower for The Saints.
In Camborne and Redruth it had been raining heavily. I’ll rephrase that: it pissed it down all day. Terry Symons, preparing to go and cheer Town on, reckoned the weather was “atrocious”.
This suited St Austell perfectly – more than it suited Camborne.
Alright, rugby players aren’t especially adverse to wet, muddy circumstances on the whole. But if Camborne were going to win in the manner befitting champions – by, say, 30 points – agreeable weather conditions would have made this more achievable.
St Austell’s pitch at the time, Circus Field on Cromwell Road5, covered some of the old, flooded, Polmear Mine workings. This meant the ground itself was almost permanently sodden. Even in summer, recalls Simon Woolnough, the massive puddles stubbornly refused to evaporate. Woolnough told me that on Circus Field
…you had more chance of drowning than having a half-time orange…true to say, no other team liked playing there…
That night, Redruth’s Recreation Ground would be a home-from-home for The Saints.
Camborne would still win, just maybe not especially attractively.
Simon Woolnough today readily admits his team’s underdog status that night; reaching the Final alone had made their season. On the whole, his plucky XV were merely “happy to be there”.
Being happy to be there and letting your opposition win, however, are two mutually exclusive things.
St Austell had played (and lost) to Camborne twice that season, in October and December. They would have known Town’s game intimately.
Moreover, ‘Sharky’ Woolnough (so named for his swimming and water polo prowess) was an ex-Town man, and a vastly experienced, tough competitor. Jerry Clarke reckoned he was unlucky not to be capped for Cornwall6.
Sharky knew all the pressure was on Camborne, in their Centenary Season, not St Austell.
Sharky knew this was the first CRFU Cup Final this young Camborne side – indeed, any Camborne side – had reached. They’d play the occasion as much as play St Austell.
Sharky knew this was a two-horse race. To win a two-horse race, you’ve got to be in it at the end, and not let your opponent get away.
Sharky knew the location, and conditions, didn’t suit Camborne. They’d have to win the CRFU Cup in the mud, in the rain, and in Redruth.
Sharky reckoned his side were in “with a shout”.
Sharky, it must be said, was also one hell of a sportsman.
So inclement was the weather, and so similar were the finalists’ jerseys – Town, white with a single red stripe; Saints, red and white hoops – the match officials reckoned they’d have a deal of trouble identifying who was who in the downpour.
Reluctantly, the two captains, Durant and Woolnough, tossed a coin. The losing XV would play the CRFU Cup Final – in the mud, in the rain, in Redruth – in neutral kit.
(Judging from Paul White’s photos, I believe the colour of this strip was black. Or dark green. Or whatever.)
Camborne lost the toss. I’m glad I wasn’t there to see the look on Chris Durant’s face.
Simon Woolnough was there, and something told him that, in their Centenary Season, it was only fitting that Camborne should play in their cherry and white.
St Austell would leave their traditional colours in the changing room.
The two men shook hands, and went back to their respective teams.
It was the last favour Woolnough did Camborne that night.
Durant trudged back to Town’s changing room, and told his men they could keep their jerseys on. As usual, he’s hungry – he never eats before a match.
As usual, Jumbo Reed is being copiously and audibly sick in one of the stalls. He’s notoriously nervous before kick-off.
Jock Denholm, said David May, would be
…kicking holes in the wall and threatening anyone not focused…
Others testify that Denholm would in fact be punching the walls; several confirm he once made to grab the laid-back Derick Taylor and slap him awake.
Harder than Richard Trevithick’s statue…
…is how Dave Edwards remembers him.
As if this wasn’t intimidating enough, Denholm would never put his jersey or shorts on until the last minute. The only item of clothing covering his modesty was a jockstrap.
Not only did you want to avoid Jock’s piercing stare, but you didn’t much fancy an eyeful of his bare arse either.
I bet even that looked angry.
Then there was a knock on the door. It was time.
Both sides ran out, into the mud and the rain. Durant led Camborne out, followed by Malcolm Bennetts – Bennetts had to be second onto the pitch, no matter the game.
Mankee knelt to rub some dirt onto his hands, as was his wont.
The Saints had brought along a coachload of supporters, who, judging by the surviving images, huddled in the grandstand alongside Camborne’s faithful who, remembered Jumbo Reed, made up the majority. In any case, there were very few people braving the elements on the banking.
St Austell’s fans wanted their team to make a good go of it, Town’s, to see the double brought home in style.
The whistle blew.
Then it all went badly wrong.
…never a good Cup team…
According to many of the Camborne players I spoke to, this XV were never a good, or great, team in the CRFU Cup.
This belief would dog their knockout performances in the coming seasons.
It was a belief sown on that awful night back in April 1978.
At first, and possibly guilty of swallowing Jerry Clarke’s propaganda wholesale, Camborne tried to ignore the rain lashing in their faces and move the ball quickly.
Robert Mankee told me,
…nothing went bleddy right…
Passes were spilled, or simply fell short of the would-be receiver. The ball was knocked on. Players slipped in the mud. Lineouts were scrappy. Set-piece moves, honed and perfected since last summer, failed. No-one could see what the hell was going on. Hands got numb. In the threequarters, bodies were cold, saturated, and almost forgotten.
Frustration, and then doubt, set in.
St Austell were loving this. As a team that
…revelled in the mud,Packet, April 26 1978. Courtesy Frank Butler
they let Town have the ball, come at them, and fed off their mistakes. Indeed, they
…continually harassed…Packet, April 26 1978. Courtesy Frank Butler
their supposed betters and, when the opportunity presented itself, hacked horrible, skiddy kicks upfield that had Camborne gracelessly sploshing around trying to clear up. Dave Edwards remembers having to desperately clear one such unpleasant grubber that looked all-but certain to give St Austell a score.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t meant to be. St Austell were under no obligation to entertain or play like champions. They didn’t so much tear up the script that night as stomp it mercilessly into the sludge. When it really mattered, said David May, The Saints
…were good…we weren’t…
Jumbo Reed sums up St Austell’s tactics succinctly. They were
…in giant-killing mode, and stifled us…
Fear of failure set in for the Camborne XV. Dave Edwards said that David May twice
…made an outside movement in the centre to make space but each time failed to pass the ball to me…
May usually knew when to pass the ball, and you didn’t have to throw Edwards too many passes before he would score.
As Richard Thomas put it,
As I mentioned earlier, even in the lineouts, for so long the preserve of Paul Ranford and Chris Durant, possession was far from a given:
At half-time, St Austell were still in the race. Even better, they were winning. Full-back Roger Hawke, another ex-Camborne player, had slotted over two penalties for The Saints, to much excited roars from their damp contingent in the grandstand.
Under normal circumstances, a 6-0 deficit after forty minutes would not present too much of a challenge for Town. They’d recently come from behind to knock over Saracens7. But this was far from normal.
Back in the changing room, with moisture dripping from their noses and steam rising from their shoulders, Jumbo Reed remembers that
…Chris wasn’t happy…
How could he be? How could any of them be buoyed by their showing? However Durant “never raised his voice”, said Jumbo: Chris Durant didn’t need volume to make himself heard. Not much was said, but worried glances would have been exchanged.
Great teams find a way to win, no matter what.
Camborne needed to find a way – any bleddy way – to turn their possession into points.
St Austell were forty minutes away from a
…remarkable victory…Packet, April 26 1978. Courtesy Frank Butler
Or, if you will, a miracle.
The second half, in terms of spectacle, had about as much going for it as the first. But in terms of sheer engrossing, gut-wrenching, nail-biting tension, it was all you could ask for from a Cup Final.
Of Camborne’s gargantuan front five, Malcolm Bennetts is often the least recalled. But lest we forget, without his abilities in the scrum, or accuracy of throw into a lineout, Town’s much vaunted pack couldn’t win possession of the ball.
A diligent practitioner of his craft (when not training, or working at Pendarves Mine, he would practice lineout drills in his back garden), he wasn’t a confrontational player; however, when sandwiched between such abrasive types as Denholm and Tonkin, with Durant and Ranford nearby, he saw more than his far share of the action.
David May reckons that, like “so many on the team”, ‘Benny’
…did his job effectively…
So effectively, in fact, that Chris Durant rated him
…the best thrower-in I’ve ever played with…
Alan Truscott described him as
…unflappable…[Bennetts] rarely had a bad game…
Frank Butler called him a
…solid hooker with no frills…did a lot of unseen work…
In the years before scrummages were beset by a litany of regulations, and hookers would regularly compete to win the ball from the 9’s feed, having an effective ‘strike’ was an essential part of any no.2’s armoury.
Jumbo Reed describes Bennetts as a
…brilliant striker of the ball…
Unmentioned by anyone is Benny’s powers of endurance. In the years that followed, a certainty developed that he had appeared in every fixture that season. The truth is he featured in most, yet definitely missed the game against Eccles8.
But he was present on that windswept, torrential night in Redruth.
And it was here that his unseen work was finally noticed, and his scrummaging skills brought to the fore…
…thank f__k for that…
As St Austell’s 9, Clive Higgs, fed the ball into a scrum on St Austell’s 25-yard line, Bennetts sensed his opposite number, Mike Chantry, wasn’t quite as ready to strike as he should be.
That’s all it took. A momentary lapse. Bennetts’ instinct took over, and in a breath he’d snapped the ball back through Camborne’s pack.
A heel against the head. The crowd, or rather those that could see what was happening through a veil of torrential rain, turned the volume up in anticipation.
Suddenly, it was on. Camborne broke out of their stupor. Mankee, strangely becalmed until now, executed the move he’d become famous for: a blindside break. He didn’t need to think about it; he just did it. Fast.
Bob Lees, on the blindside wing, saw Mank dart quickly to his side of the scrum: he, too, sensed it was on. Lees did what all good wingers do: he stayed wide, knowing full well that Mank would draw the flanker, then pass to him, leaving Bob with only his opposite number to beat.
As Bob started to move, he flicked a glance at his opponent, Geoff Huddy. He looked panicked. He was where every defending wing hates to be: caught off-guard, isolated, with your back to the line, and knowing your attacker holds all the aces.
Especially an attacker like Bob Lees.
By the time Bob caught Mank’s pass, he was already in fifth gear. He no longer felt the rain on his face. He knew exactly where he was going.
20 yards. Veering ever wider, and appearing for all the world like he was going for a touchdown in the corner, Lees drew Huddy with him. The touchline was Huddy’s friend: if he could get there before Lees, he could barrel him out of play. Lees had already factored this in.
15 yards. Bob sprinted further over. Huddy followed. He had no option. 10 yards. Bob suddenly jinked to his left. 5 yards. Huddy was caught off-balance. He couldn’t right himself on the swampy pitch. 3 yards. Bob dived, and stretched for the line. Huddy’s desperate, flailing right hand caught nothing.
Bob splashed down into the mud, in the rain, and in Redruth. He’d made it. He heard the cheering, and looked behind him, with his mouth agape and chest heaving over the ball. Chris Durant was jogging up. Chris didn’t look jubilant. Chris looked relieved. A man of few words, he caught the moment perfectly:
…thank f__k for that…
Perhaps understandably, Durant missed the conversion, from an acute angle, in driving rain and a gale.
6-4, St Austell. Still over half an hour to play.
Under the sticks, Woolnough, The Saints’ “ace”, said Jumbo Reed, demanded yet another massive effort from his men. Sharky knew that now, Camborne were going to come at them with everything they had.
This wasn’t so much a game of rugby any more as a dogfight.
Camborne had forgotten all about winning in style. The fans didn’t exist any more. All that mattered now was winning. Keep it tight, wear them down, keep bashing on the door. They’ll tire before we do. They have to.
If these were despairing times for Town, The Saints were getting desperate too, and Woolnough knew it. His XV were absorbing tremendous amounts of pressure. His only hope was that Town would punch themselves out.
All his hopes were dashed when Camborne were awarded a penalty in the final quarter of the match.
Right in front of the posts.
Durant threw the ball to Derick Taylor. Derick Taylor, possessor of a massive kick. Derick Taylor, scorer of over 200 points last season, thanks to that sweet right boot. Derick Taylor, a man of calm, assured demeanour.
This was precisely the moment Derick Taylor had been picked for.
Derick Taylor missed.
Today, Taylor states he doesn’t remember the kick at all. Jumbo Reed, on the other hand, recalls the treacherous wind taking the ball off-course, and it striking an upright.
The effort was described as a
…nightmare miss…Packet, April 26 1978. Courtesy Frank Butler
On the Camborne side, shoulders dropped. Chests sagged. All that, for bugger-all…
Woolnough saw it. In that moment, Woolnough realised St Austell could win. He exhorted his team to go to the well once more. Durant did likewise. Both skippers knew their resources were all-but dry.
St Austell still led, 6-4.
…when the heat was on…
There’s ten minutes to play. St Austell could win, but Camborne still had all the possession. In the seventieth minute, they were handed another opportunity to convert their near-endless pressure into match-winning points.
A penalty, 35 yards out, on the touchline. Chris Durant didn’t much fancy running it. Durant, and his forces, were soaked through and exhausted. The faces of his men stared at him gaunt and pale.
Durant opted to kick it himself. He probably told himself that he’d kicked goals from a similar range and angle on this very pitch, in the semi final against Redruth9. In these conditions, though, 35 yards was more like 60. The ball had absorbed so much water it must have felt like a cinder block.
However, this was Chris Durant. Robert Mankee said of him that
…when the heat was on, [he] would take a crucial penalty…
Now was the moment. Durant put his boot through the ball and his piston-like leg followed, straight and true.
It’s testament to his accuracy and power that, in the mud, wind, and rain, he got anywhere close. But not close enough.
Like Taylor previously, Durant’s effort struck the woodwork. Not even he could win the game for Camborne.
6-4, St Austell. Minutes left.
…on another day…
Camborne were out of ideas, out of steam, and almost out of time. If Chris Durant couldn’t save them, who could? All they could hear from the grandstand was the St Austell fans, not daring to celebrate just yet, but celebrating anyway.
The Saints’ 10, Bill Reeve, belted another filthy punt into Camborne’s half, and scarpered off after it. Why not? Let Town come at them, in the wind and rain. They were practically out on their feet, and launching any kind of long-range attack now would be like running up a sand-dune.
Wearily, Dave Edwards ran to cover, with Reeve noisily stomping up behind him. As Edwards went to gather the ball, he appeared to slip.
10-4, St Austell. The crowd went beserk.
Except it wasn’t. The try was disallowed. The referee ruled that Reeve had obstructed Edwards. 6-4, St Austell.
Whether the try should have been permitted to stand or not depends on who you ask.
Jumbo Reed: it was
…definitely not a try…
David May: he could
…see nothing wrong…
with the try.
Simon Woolnough: the referee’s decision
…was a dubious one…on another day it would have been a try…
…I was tripped from behind…
But the decision that mattered was the official in charge of the game. No try.
Four minutes to go.
Fifty quid’s yours…
Yes, four short minutes. In the stands, Town’s fans are all but resigned. It wasn’t to be. Jerry Clarke is finding every word he wrote in his preview article nauseously hard to swallow. Ernie Loze is wondering if he can quickly sketch the St Austell players as they leave the pitch victorious for their souvenir caricature plate.
Until, that is, Saints’ flanker Richard Lamb is penalised in a ruck.
Right under his own posts.
There’s only one man who can kick this.
Chris Durant. All his team turned to him. They had nothing left. It was all on Chris.
As Frank Butler said, Chris was
…never going to miss…
You just knew the man Merrill Clymo singled out “first and foremost” for his leadership that season was going to slot this one over10. So did Simon Woolnough. Durant kicking that ball spelt defeat for him and his team. As Durant took a few steps back from where he’d spotted the ball and took aim, Woolnough spat something from his lips and murmured to him that
Fifty quid’s yours if you miss that f__king kick…
Today, Woolnough is coy about the remark:
…I may have said something like that…
But if he did (and Durant assures me the offer of cold hard cash was made), Woolnough must have known that he would have had a better chance trying to bribe Eliot Ness. It didn’t even work as a piece of gamesmanship, or distraction.
No. In the mud, in the rain, in Redruth, when all was seemingly lost, with fifteen pairs of hollow, ghoulish eyes willing him to pull a shank or hit a post (again), Durant kicked the winner.
7-6, Camborne. Jumbo Reed remembers the
as the ball sailed over. Not elation, mind. Jumbo was too far gone for that. They all were.
…we were lucky…
Camborne were the CRFU Cup Champions. But, said Dave Edwards, their
…performance had dampened things.
They had “squeaked it”, said David Kingston, and how. David May and Terry Symons agree that Camborne
to lurch over the line. So did Durant. Upon receiving the trophy in the grandstand, and hoisting it aloft for the benefit of Camborne’s jubilant – and relieved – support, he handed the cup to Woolnough, allowing him to do the same.
Durant knew how close Woolnough had come to beating him, and that St Austell had made the game.
Slowly, it sunk in. They’d done it. Camborne RFC, Cup and Merit Table Champions, Centenary Season, 1977-78. This feat would be talked about for years.
As they returned to the clubhouse on South Terrace, they were met with a guard of honour. Fans, players and clubmen lined the route to the bar, cheering and applauding their heroes all the way…
The celebrations continued long in to the night:
It wasn’t until the early hours that the trophy was discovered to be missing. As it turns out, Simon Woolnough, who with his team had returned with Town to South Terrace, nimbly climbed onto the roof of the building and had the cup passed to him through an open window.
The CRFU Cup returned to St Austell on the team coach. Woolnough generously left Camborne the lid to drink from.
They’d exceeded everyone’s, and their own, expectations. The Centenary Season would not have been as memorable were it not for their amazing success, and their achievements might not have been manageable were it not for that desire to live up to the expectations such a showpiece season had demanded of them. One fed the other.
Indeed, wrote Merrill Clymo,
What more is there to say?Programme notes, Camborne v Gloucester, April 22, 1978. Courtesy Alan Rowling
As it turns, out, there was plenty more to say. Most of it controversial.
Read all about it in the final Rugby Special here.
Many thanks for reading
- Daily Mirror, p3 & 30.
- See: https://www.pitchero.com/clubs/staustell/a/brief-history-of-st-austell-rfc-36100.html?page=1
- Packet, April 19, 1978, p33.
- See Rugby Special ~ Part Two here.
- Purchased in 1967, the club sold the ground to Asda in 1986, and of course now play their rugby at Tregorrick Park. See: https://www.pitchero.com/clubs/staustell/a/brief-history-of-st-austell-rfc-36100.html
- Packet, April 19, 1978, p33.
- See Rugby Special ~ Part Eleven here.
- See Rugby Special ~ Part Eleven here.
- See Rugby Special ~ Part Ten here.
- Programme notes, Camborne v Saracens, March 24, 1978.
6 thoughts on “Rugby Special ~ Part Twelve”
I for one seemed to always freeze when in a final – be it for rugby, football or cricket, and then kick myself after for failing to produce on the day. This was certainly the scenario for the Camborne Team that night (and indeed in future Cup Finals!); still, at the end, we were Cornwall Champions and no one could argue with our right to be called same. Great read Fran! Oh, and by the way……..it was no try, despite what St Austell (and many Redruth supporters) hoped!
Another classic Francis; see you on Saturday. I’m looking forward to a few beers with Father. Bob
He said he’s buying…