School Rugby

Haberdashers' Aske's 1st XV unbeaten run: 65 matches from October 1973 - December 1977

It is forty years since the start of this unbeaten run against School opposition, a feat never before or subsequently achieved by a Habs School 1st XV. To mark this achievement we are including copies of the Skylark rugby reports for each season and some personal recollections from players. The OHA organised a reunion for the players and coaches from all four years in November 2014, to read a report on the reunion and see photos please follow this link and scroll down, the events are in chronological order.  

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 To read the complete report for the 1977 season from Skylark, please follow this link.

 

The Unbeaten teams

 

1974

1975

1976

1977

H Stevenson

H Stevenson / T Beare

T Beare

T Beare

A Goff

S Alterman

J Gibb

J Feldman / J Gibb

R Bailey / K Blackwell

K Blackwell

D Breuer

D Breuer

P Cull

M Rawlinson

K Blackwell

P Foster

K Jones

A Cornish

N James / C Lenton

C Lenton

H Wilson

H Wilson

M Weston

M Weston

O Chan

O Chan

J Thomson

J Thomson

A Cornish

K Jones

M Archer

M Archer

N Crame / E Yun

E Yun / D Foster

P Lidington / D Foster

D Foster

N Cowan

N Slater

M Jones / N Slater

M Baker

T Leigh

N Kaufmann / C Grayson

C Grayson

W MacFadyen

N Slater

N Cowan

S Weston

S Weston

M Farnfield

J Avery

J Avery

I Cottam

C Grayson

N Iddon

N Kaufmann

N Kaufmann / D Sayers

M Gardiner

D Sadler

D Sadler

T Parker

 

Personal Recollections

Andy Goff (1974)  Our year had always been good we had gone 7-2 and 8-2 for the u 15 and u 16 years.  We had always had the talent but had always lost a couple of close games which would spoil the season.

When we got to our 6 A year many of us had already played for the first XV and were ready.  The first thing that was done was making Nick Crame captain.  The best captain anyone could ask for.  Smallest chap on the team.  That north London accent. Working class background. None of it or all of it mattered.  He was never in doubt and never gave up.

The games - we pretty much destroyed everyone.  The closest games were Bedford Modern 16-0 and Berkhamstead 29-7.  We were home to Bedford and they had beaten us the year before.  Very close first half with no score.  At one point near half-time they were camped on our line.  I remember tackle after tackle holding them away.  Finally there was a ruck maybe 3 feet from our line and the ball popped out on our side.  Nick flipped to Matt Gardiner who proceeded to boot the ball almost to midfield.  You could see some heads down and slumping shoulders from our opponents as we trudged to the line-out. Second half we put them away.  I remember from a line-out a three quarter move where they missed out Mike Farnfield and Matt came into the line, took out the last defender and smoothly passed to Tim Leigh who scored in the corner.  Great stuff.  That particular try was caught on video by Matt's Dad I think.

Berkhamstead - the Daily Telegraph used to print  recap of the local schools games (don't know if they still do) and Berkhamstead had an obviously good PR department because they would always get 2- 3 lines including names of try scorers, while down near the bottom there would only be the line "Haberdashers wins again".  This stuck in our craw somewhat.  Anyway the match was supposed to be at home but it had rained the previous week and the pitch was unplayable.  Dai picked up the phone to inform his counterpart that our field was waterlogged and he suggested instead that we play on their field.   That's how much Dai wanted us to show them up.

The first half was the best rugby I have ever been part of.  We led 23-0.  In the second half we allowed the infamous try only because Matt had dislocated his shoulder (I am surprised that injury has not evolved to become that his arm was broken in several places and was amputated on the field!).

My last point is that while the 74 team had a ridiculously great record - 12-0, 443 points for and 16 against, 9 shutouts - I have to tip my hat to the subsequent teams as the pressure on them to keep the streak going must have been incredible.  

Neil Slater (1974 – 76) It's important to emphasise the unbeaten run was against school opposition. We did lose to an invitation XV in 1974. In 1974 Tim Leigh broke the try scoring record. 30 tries I think in 15 games. His brother and parents brought champagne to the final game even though he still needed 3 tries; he got them of course. We were friends from age 11 and he became a physician in Sussex. It might be interesting to dwell on the tight matches.

From memory there were no truly close games in 1974; the team was a real juggernaut. We were worried about Bedford Modern, even did extra training, but found on the day we were fitter and faster and won 16-0 I think. I gave Keith Blackwell a scoring pass which he knocked on; missed a real open goal! He'll love being reminded about that. I had my collar bone broken by a cheap-shot shoulder barge against Emanuel but that was in the last few minutes of the final game so I didn't miss anything.

In 1975 there were more close games, more injuries and absences with Oxbridge interviews. Berkhamsted was very tough but Nick Kaufmann in his first or one of his first games scored a great long range try. I remember too a Dave Foster charge down that led to a try that won a game we were losing, might have been St Albans. And QE Barnet was the usual ill-tempered, foul-mouthed slugfest. In the last game Simon Alterman broke a finger against Emmanuel and I told him to play on which he did to his great credit.

By 1976 we'd lost the really great players like Otto Chan and Huw Stevenson but we hung on and Dave Sadler kept racking up points. He could get penalties from half way and considering we played with old-style heavy balls that was phenomenal. No surprise he got an Oxford blue – for soccer. QE Barnet was tough and very close but Kaufmannn won it again and their kicker lost it. St Albans was a 9-9 draw and I remember their kick to win it going the wrong side of the post by a yard. Dave Foster was in tears afterwards because we'd only drawn.

I captained two years – '75 and '76. I might have played in more games in the run than anyone else but I don't want to brag; it certainly wasn't about me. I played the final game of 1973, a win against Emmanuel, the entire 1974 season, all of 1975 except for Bedford Modern which I missed through illness, and all of 1976. That would be about 45 games against schools all won bar 1 draw. I never lost to school opposition in a Haberdashers' 1st XV jersey.

Best player for me in the ’74 – ’76 teams was Otto Chan; an astonishing athlete and wonderful ball player. Best forward: Huw Stevenson/Keith Blackwell. Best finisher: Tim Leigh. Fastest: Nick Kaufmannn. Best tackler: might have been Mike Farnfield or myself. Best kicker: Dave Sadler. Most creative: Mark Jones.

Mark Archer (1976-78)  I first played for the 1st XV in the Lower 6th in 1976 and then captained the team the following season, the season which sadly saw our run of 65 unbeaten games stretching back to October 1973 come to an end in the final fixture of the term when we lost 0-3 to Emanuel.

My memory of 1976 is one of feeling in awe of the calibre of players in the team from the year above, many of whom were veterans of the unbeaten run already. Dave Sadler was a class act at full back. As well as being a hugely efficient penalty or touch kicker, his pace and timing meant he had a beautiful way of ghosting into the back line to create the overlap at key moments. Neil ‘Snoopy’ Slater was an inspirational captain and outside-half while Clive Grayson and Nick Kaufmann each had electrifying pace on the wings. From our own year Tony Beare at prop was already showing the technical skill and superb ball skills which would see him win a Varsity rugby blue. That year also saw John Thompson, Mark Weston and me combine together in the back row and we were to play through the following year too. John and Mark were a huge pleasure to play with – fit, fearless and technically hugely competent – and I like to think the back row was one of the strengths of our game over those two years, indeed both Mark and I were to play for London Counties U.19 XV.

In my Skylark report on the 1977 season I said that ‘the general opinion was that we were indeed better than last year’s team’ which seems arrogant considering that they preserved the unbeaten record and 1977 team lost it, but presumably there must have been some foundation to it. The season got off to a shaky start when, hit by a rash of injuries, we were losing 8-9 to Lowlands VIth Form College in injury time in the opening game, before Ian Cottam scored from a Richard Woollerton chip-through. The 1977 team were fortunate to call on some of the veterans in their Oxbridge term. Dave Foster was a huge source of ideas and energy at scrum half, even if he didn’t always communicate his next move to his fellow players. Dave Breuer at loose-head was a true Haberdasher eccentric and had a gender-bending habit of wearing black eye-liner so as to intimidate his opposing prop. On the wings we were blessed with Nick Kaufmann for another season as well as exciting runners in Dan Sayers and Will MacFadyan. Ian Cottam and Si Weston were superb complementary centres and Martin Baker at fly-half was a fearless crash tackler with an unquenchable will to win. Tim Parker at full back was a worthy successor to Dave Sadler and amazingly unflappable under high balls. In the scrum Paul Foster and Chris Lenton were terrific in the loose even if they weren’t two of the heaviest lock forwards on the field. Finally, against Emanuel’s immensely powerful pack, we could only just hold our own. Stalemate resulted, broken only by penalties. They had three and missed two. We had two and missed both.

As you can imagine, I was not looking forward to having to announce to the school assembly that we had lost the unbeaten record! It was a grim task but to my surprise the whole school got up and gave us a prolonged standing ovation, the clapping only dying down after 5 minutes or so. In my time at school the healthy cynicism of Haberdashers’ boys was one of their most endearing qualities but, at that moment, they surprised everyone, including (probably) themselves, with a spontaneous display of pride and generous-spiritedness about what the Ist XV had achieved over the last four years.

Dave Foster (1975 - 1977) Snowdonia training camp was a superb way to start the season. It was some serious pre-season training and an early guide to fitness and selection, grinding it out up Snowdon or evening fitness training on the beach. It always gave us a flying start: we would be fitter, better drilled, more bonded and cohesive than our opponents (much easier to fine tune the team after a few good wins than after a few losses), and those wins helped settle the nerves and burden of expectation.

Snowdonia also gave us some great memories: Hearing the story of when a group of Police Cadets were waiting to be rescued by helicopter from foul weather, and Dave Mushin and co. in rugby shorts and T shirt, walked up past them and offered to help. Or the water fights (thirty of us versus Doug), charging the length of the hut behind a mattress barracade and locking Dai into the end dorm. Or Arch getting exposure on Tryfan and having to hunker down in a bivvi with Ralph Warmy. Or Keith Blackwell soaking those ramblers as we drove past them on the bridge, with the soda syphon he’d nicked. (One indignant beauty chased us down in her car a few miles down the road and in soaked T shirt, gave Dai an earful. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he tried to hide his laughter). You knew then it was going to be another good season.

As for that unbeaten run, the passion and commitment of the side was always there and we took it into every game we played... and that growing record behind us and on our shoulders, gave us both confidence and fear. Sometimes we felt we could not lose, but always we felt we must not lose.

Nick Kaufmann (1975 - 1977) Being in the team for most of three years with teammates from the two years above and below as well as one’s own, guardians of the unbeaten record together, receiving and passing on the baton (burden, honour?) created an extraordinary sprit among us. It was more than the natural camaraderie in any team sport even one as physical as rugby where you are battling for each other from match to match. It was more than a cup run. This was a generational campaign from season to season. The weight of ‘history’ for the most part helped us to preserve the record right up until that last game against Emanuel, when, I would argue, at last it proved stifling and it was broken by a single penalty kick.

Perhaps one could compare this to the extended ascendancy of a Liverpool or a Manchester United in their great periods – and so too the regime of Dai Davies and Doug Yeabsley to those of Sir Alex Ferguson and the Anfield boot room. They shared the critical ability to blend the new and old while instilling and maintaining the same vital spirit across the generations.

Outstanding personalities and performers

Some boys played three seasons, long enough to bridge the first to last through person-to-person inheritance. Neil Slater or Snoopy as he was known for his love of the Charlie Brown comic strip was a key personality. Centre in 1974, mainly fly half in 1975 and both in 1976, as well as Captain in 1975 and 1976, he had a great will to win and a driving playing style on the pitch. Off the pitch he was the chief storyteller, enthusiast and chorus leader. Not for us bawdy rugby songs on our coach journeys but the heart-breaking “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love” and the Beach Boys, especially “Sloop John B”. Tall, strong, fast (for a centre) and with a huge boot from hand, Neil had a creative spark for making plays, bringing in his team mates as well as scoring solo tries. He could run a game better than any other I played with, instinctively knowing when to run the heart out of the opposition pack with his raking cross field kicks as on Merchant Taylors’ great big pitch, charging up the midfield channels, spreading the ball out wide through the hands or bringing the wings inside. I would say that Snoopy was the individual who had the biggest influence on the transmission of the winning DNA of the unbeaten 1st XVs, inheriting the will to win and sprit of panache from the likes of Otto Chan in 1974 and 1975 and passing it on. While the 1974 team seems to have been regarded as perhaps the best of them all, key players (like Nick Crame, scrum half and Captain, and Tim Leigh, record scoring left winger) were in their final year and so could only start the journey but not see it through its later stages.

Otto Chan was a phenomenon. He was not big for a wing forward (which kept him ‘only’ as an England reserve) but immensely strong – his power-weight ratio must have been off the scale and his body hardness unparalleled. He had the hardest handoff I’ve seen (but luckily not experienced). Otto had a great engine, acceleration, the quickest reactions, flare, handling as good as any centre, a sidestep, a sharp rugby brain and imagination. He dreamed up moves and manoeuvres. A 10 yard penalty: he picks and goes but not in the usual way. Somehow he dives horizontally like an Exocet just above the ground towards the feet of the startled defending pack who can do nothing to stop him from scoring. That typified his cheek. He was always gaming the ref, right on the line of legality in breaking from the scrum or lineout towards the hapless fly half. He was the most talented player I ever played with. And there was always a smile on his face and of those around him.

One special feature of the era was the surprising incidence of flare among the props. I played with both Huw Stevenson and Tony Beare. They were both wonderful ball players with soft hands and were heads-up inter-passers – and so brilliant Sevens players too. Huw was taller and was the principal kicker in 1974! He had extraordinary stamina – I remember him coming fifth in the House Cross Country – not bad for a sixteen (?) stone prop. He is still playing – at wing forward I believe! Tony was more powerfully built and also had a turn of sprinting speed. He could play the rampaging prop as well as anyone – he would charge into the opposition front-on, lowering his shoulder almost to his knee so that any would-be tackler would simply bounce off either his shoulder or his shin. (He must have learned this training against Buffalo in his native South Africa.) Tony’s low centre of gravity kept him from stumbling over the falling bodies in front of him. But quite unlike any other prop he could do the most extraordinary running moves. Tony’s most spectacular exploit, briefly described in Snoopy’s Skylark report, was when he took the ball from a line out on the right between their ten yard line and their 25 (?) (I think peeling from the front and possibly taking the tap-down), running straight across the three-quarter lines of both teams, selling two dummies on a double dummy scissors move, and then turning sharp right between their outside centre and winger to run all the way to the line and score the most astonishing try. Not surprisingly, both Huw and Tony went on to get their blues at Cambridge and Oxford respectively.

Another prop I remember vividly was Geoff Marsh of Queen Elizabeth’s, Barnet. He was immensely strong - an England U19 player and also a top shot putter. Once he entered the back of a maul, burrowed all the way through and came out on our side with the ball and charged off to score. I think the try was disallowed because the ref said he could not believe that anyone could have done this legally. But he did!

Dave Sadler was an elegant, willowy full back. An immaculate kicker from hand and ground, a brave tackler and a good timer of runs into the line. His coolness under pressure landed vital kicks that single-handedly preserved the record (two from the half way line against St Albans I think).

Tim Parker was a hockey player. I don’t remember him ever playing rugby in the years up to the Fifth. Then in 1977 all of a sudden he’s the 1st XV full back. Where did he come from? An inspired selection. Another great kicker - outstandingly so as he was really quite small, without Dave Sadler’s long levers. Tim injected a great dash of pace when he careered into the line and got to the South of England. He could also tackle. He might have passed a bit more to me though…

Ian Cottam – an example of the pressure of the unbeaten record working to our advantage. Ian was probably the most consummate ball player of the period (a football and basketball wizard) but he was not always solid in defence. Then one match we are really under the cosh and all of a sudden here is a kamikaze Ian flying around tackling everything before reverting to character and scoring the match winning try …

Miscellaneous

Rugby training camp – climbing mountains in the morning, singing rock and roll in Snowdonia, training on beaches in the afternoon… The legend of the rescue of Met Police Cadets on Snowdon. Mark Archer getting exposure on Snowdon. Great team building adventures.

Wymondham College – it was always an intimidating experience travelling out to Norfolk. They would let us run out on to the bleak windswept pitches while they stayed in the changing rooms and performed some kind of ‘haka’. The blood curdling chants swirled out to us as we shivered in the cold. They would then start the match in a frenzy and we would have to batten down the hatches until we weathered the storm.

A particular highlight for me was the Barclays Schools Sevens in Autumn 1977. We won the trophy with a little over 200 points for and just 3 against for the whole tournament! We had often done quite well at Sevens over the years but this was the one time when everything clicked and we fulfilled our potential. Our passing and running was so good that hardly a hand was laid on us.

Understandings

I enjoyed great understandings with teammates like Dave Foster, Si Weston and Snoopy.

With Dave Foster we shared little glances when we decided to go blind from a scrum. The best blind side try Dave and I scored I think was one at home, playing away from the coach park (maybe vs. QEB?). We won our scrum, quite a way in-field, and Dave (as usual passing right to left) spun round and fired a long hard pass way out in front of me on the right wing. I had started off at just the right time, full acceleration, full stretch of my arms, just catching the ball and still a way to sprint, squeezing over in the top right corner. Not an inch of margin: perfect pass, perfect catch and run, perfect score. Strange how clearly you remember some things. I think that was the match where we were lucky to squeeze out a win. Snoopy wrote that “the backs combined well to put Nick Kaufmann over for the try” but I remember it was just Dave Foster passing to me (though I may be confusing two different tries).

Dave’s favourites were a little different, understandably: “I too remember that glance that said we were going blind and right. The scrum had to be just in the right place - enough room to work with but not so much that the oppo put two men blind. Crucial was telling Bakes or Jonesy and the FB to stay open, and take the defence away.  The key (and thrill) for me was pace off the base to outstrip their 6 and run straight at the wing to draw him. A pop pass, then our winger’s pace would do the rest. Glorious when it went like clockwork.”

Dave and I went to Twickenham for the London Sevens a couple of weeks ago.

First matches knock outs

My first match for the 1sts was in the early Autumn of 1975 against the Met Police Cadets. I have a very clear memory of two key events in it, even though the first one should have made me remember nothing. The Met were giants. They had a lineout on our right side around about our 25 (yard line in those days). I was the blindside wing, standing all alone, little suspecting. All of a sudden one of their big second rows was bearing down on me. He had broken clear of the lineout and it was all down to me to stop him on my debut. I crouched down face on to take him low. I distinctly remember him driving his knee into my temple. I confess I do not remember the next moments. But I do remember coming to, lying on the ground with everyone standing around looking worried and Dai Davies sloshing his magic sponge on the back of my neck.

I said I was ok, got up and was accompanied from the field. At the half-time changeover I was asked how I felt again and if I wanted to come back on. Of course I was and did! A little later, there was Otto Chan dancing all over the place near their line. He came across me and we did a scissors. He passed the ball inside to me and I scored a try. He could have dummied and scored himself but I think he wanted to make up for my knock and give me a nicer souvenir of my debut for the Habs 1sts. Thanks for the memory, Otto (who I still see occasionally)!

I think I was filling in for Clive Grayson who was injured and so I played again the next match against Berkhamsted. It was a tight match and I cemented my place in the side (in the end for the next three years) by scoring the try that broke the deadlock. I got the ball on about halfway, swerved one way to beat the first guy, the other to beat the next and then sprinted to the corner with 29 people on my heels. It felt as though they all dived on me as I dived over the line. Having Rawli (Mark Rawlinson) calling “magic” in my ear was a special moment. Rawli’s and my family shared a rota for the drive to school every morning and he, two years my senior, was my mentor. I still see him too, occasionally.

Last match knock out

And then came that end of the streak at Emanuel. I just made it to the match on time, getting the train back from my (unsuccessful) Oxford interview on the Saturday morning to Paddington, changing into my kit in my dad’s car on the Kingston by-pass. Not an auspicious prelude. Emanuel were inspired by their star wing forward, Francis Emeruwa (later of Wasps, England A and a career interrupted by gangrene from a broken leg).

We had chances to draw or even win but key players, myself included, felt inhibited rather than inspired by the ever-looming unbeaten record. We stumbled into opponents rather than eluding them. We let the guy who had run almost the length of the pitch and been brought up just short take the ensuing penalty in front of the posts – only to see he who never missed, now exhausted, miss this final chance to save the day. My understanding with Dave Foster didn’t help anymore. I just dried up of ideas from his last minute tap penalty on our 25 and stumbled into a defender instead of breaking into the space that was there.

So in the end, I think the record became too heavy to bear and its weight crushed our spirit. So often before, it had helped us, urged us on to find one effort, one piece of magic to summon up a victory or even just a draw in a tight match. And now, we could not perform even up to our average standard and it slipped away. With a whimper.

It had been great while it lasted and as you can see it is all still fresh in the mind’s eye and in my blood. Why is it so fresh still? It may be that for me, my rugby career came to an end soon after through injury. My school rugby memories did not come to be overlaid with new rugby memories in my twenties or later still.

I was abroad in a snowy winter in my gap year and then my first year at University was interrupted by injury (as usual). I played for OH over Christmas 1978, a bit with the LSE and then half a season with Saracens - reaching their 2nd XV and then their 1st/2nd Sevens teams – whereupon I suffered serious knee ligament injuries at the Norwich sevens (which we won). I had knee reconstruction surgery the next day.

Swansong

And that was that. I never played again apart from just once some years later in a lovely one-off reprise. I attended Dai Davies’ retirement dinner and as sentiment (wine) got the better of me, I was persuaded to ignore the doctors’ advice and my lack of playing time and turn out the next day for OH who coincidentally were hosting the National Old Boys’ Sevens tournament for that year at Croxdale Road. I played. I did not get injured (phew). We got to the final but then lost. Not too poignantly what-might-have been.

As well as rugby, I was also advised against skiing and I did stop throughout my twenties but I took it up again and now get lots of speedy thrills from skiing, which is some compensation for the lack of rugby.

So those memories are all I have, cherished over the years... And this has meant nothing could replace the intensity of that unbeaten run. The pain of the final loss has faded to a bitter sweetness. It brought a wonderful story to an end, as all good things must. 

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