History and Philosophy
‘In The Beginning…….’
In September 1977, yet another season of rugby at Kenilworth RFC had commenced. The more senior members had delayed their start to the end of the month in order to allow the ground to soften a little. Still clinging to their visions of youth, despite staring menopause in the face, Jack Pilbin and Mick Wheatley travelled to Lichfield with the 4th. XV to experience their annual introduction to pain and oxygen starvation.
Having come to terms with relegation to 4th. XV company, they both hoped that some of the team could play, if not drink, and that some could drink, if not play. As it transpired, they were deeply disappointed on both counts. On an unpleasant afternoon, their unsmiling hosts took grim joy in administering a royal stuffing. After the event and over a plastic cup of tea and a shared fag, Jack muttered “There was only three of us in that mob who could play – you, me and that new kid from Rugby (Jim Turner, who had just joined the club and who was swiftly elevated to the 1st. XV). We can’t be putting up with this every week. We’ll have a bath and a beer and have a think about it……..”.
So it was that the veteran twosome hatched a plan to form a 5th. XV, consisting of some mates then retired, some talented younger elements to provide some speed and cutting edge, plus hoovered-up left-overs of the 4th. XV. This, they hoped, would form the basis of a consistently winning side.
Enter such stalwarts as Chris ‘Honkers’ Holmes and Johny Coates, both ex-Coventry players, Mike ‘Dad’ Taylor from Coventry Welsh and ‘Nobby’ Hirons from Standard RFC – all soon to become influential in introducing further players from the Coventry catchment area. Also around this time, the 5th. XV metamorphosed into its more enduring imago – the ‘Pirates’ – befitting their future nomadic, rapacious reputation!
Among the Coventry recruits was the Pirate’s first international, Chris Wardlow. He would have been the Pirates first British Lion as well as he had been selected for the 1971 tour of New Zealand, but he picked a fight with Moggie Campton in a match playing for Northampton against Coventry, had his jaw broken, and had to withdraw from the tour! Chris would be followed in later years by Barry Ninnes (a One Cap Wonder for England), Colin Grimshaw (an OCW for Ireland), and Jim Broderick (Barbarians and England). Out of retirement came ex-1st. teamers such as ‘Ced’ Holbrook, also an ex-Richmond centre/fly-half, Bob McCleavy, ex-Broughton Park, Mike ‘Gropers’ Springthorpe, ex-many bedrooms, Dave Fish, Ian Watson and ‘Drinking Eric’ Kennel. The younger element included Simon Bloxham, Maurice ‘Moggie’ Bennett, Adrian ‘Prinny’ Prince and Paul ‘Pine Tree’ Donaldson. Unforgettable recruits were John ‘Tshombe’ Chambers, leaping in the second row complete with scrum cap and black waistcoat, and John ‘Dead Legs’ Gilbert, the lightning-fast hooker. This eclectic mix relied on the Midlands pool system to provide opposition and, consequently, became rugby gypsies – always travelling and rarely welcome. This, however, had the advantage of providing ample opportunities for the Pirates to drink their way home! The Club soon became aware of this lost revenue and so made every effort to provide a home pitch, despite running six sides on a Saturday at that time. When a home game did materialise, the pleasures of the Cow Patch were inflicted on a side whose aspirations still inclined towards running rugby.
At that time, the only pitch behind the Spinney Woods was the ‘bottom’ pitch – a bit of an oxymoron as it was principally bottom-less. Only ten years on from being grazing land, it soon revered to farmyard texture and odour in the monsoon season. Dad Taylor is still sure he saw a gun carriage and dead horses emerging from the ooze one winter! As it was illegal to lift in the lines-out in those days, anyone actually capable of leaping out of this morass received a deft nudge from the opposition, the nudgee usually spilling the ball and ensuring possession for the nudger’s mates. The counter to this ploy was the ‘tap off the top’ towards the scrum half, often guaranteeing the early demise of the No. 9 as the ball landed at his feet closely followed by bloodthirsty opposing forwards. Nevertheless, having racked up nine wins in the first ten games, Pirates rugby became suddenly attractive to more ex-1st. teamers, such as Billy Jenkin, Graham Fewkes and Taff Phillips. ‘Captain Beaky’ Wheatley was also penning a weekly report in the Kenilworth Bugle for the amusement of the locals, which caught the eye of Dave Castle, recently moved to the area, and of Notts., Lincs. and Derby experience. Chris Holmes, now vice captain and recruiter-in-chief for Coventry retirees, had also secured the services of Pete Jordan, a very large prop, Ian Darnell, a big second row, Robbie Cardwell, a fast and aggressive Ulster flanker, and Stevie Oliver, another lean and hungry flanker originally from Loughborough College. Later recruits included ‘Big Bob’ Orlidge, an ex-Bristol lock, and Alan Fisher, an ex-Nuneaton and Coventry centre, up-grading from Kenilworth 1st. XV.
The Pirates philosophy of rugby football as laid down by the ancient founders is perhaps best encapsulated by the first official fixture under the ‘Pirates’ flag. This was against Long Lartin, a maximum security prison housing at the time one of the Kray twins and John McVicar. The Pirates suspected the fixture was only arranged as the opposition weren’t in a position to cancel pleading previous engagements! Long Lartin’s captain and team organiser was one of the warders, a Mr. Barraclough (no, not that one), who was an ex-rugby league player with a car crash face, Neanderthal body and a forgiving nature. Watched by a few dozen lags, several wardens and some hungry Alsatians, the game was going well until a scuffle broke out on the touch line, apparently caused by bets on a conversion attempt. A couple of heavies minding the bookie defused the situation. The next incident actually took place on the field, caused by Jack Pilbin tipping a scrum and occasioning a small brawl, calmed by a very apprehensive Society referee. Jack, however, found himself grasped warmly by the throat by Mr. Barraclough’s very large hairy hand and, broken nose to broken nose, the latter was heard to enquire of Jack if he was trying to cause a riot or was just being a bleeding nuisance? “Sorry, Sir” was Jack’s meek reply.
Nevertheless, it couldn’t have gone too badly, as, after cups of some very dubious tea and HMG sandwiches, the Pirates were invited back for a Boxing Day fixture. That game would give rise to further Pirate tales, woven around how the lags played rugby that day fuelled by an alcoholic concoction of potato peelings and boot polish!
The results of these epic clashes? Probably immaterial according to Pirates philosophy, but the more curious and numerate can find them elsewhere on this site under Match Reports.
‘The Later Years…….’
The Pirates have proved to be a lasting phenomenon, if mostly in aspiration rather than performance. Saturday sides were being fielded right up to the mid-1990s, fed by regular injections of ex-1st. team players. Notable among these were ‘PC Plod’ - Bruce Doe – a judicious 2nd. row with a calming influence in moments of on-field stress, and Captain Beaky’s brother, Chris Wheatley, who had previously played for Coventry and Warwickshire, and joined the Pirates in 1983. “The best centre never to play for England”, according to one who should know – David Duckham. Meanwhile, Beaky himself had given up the captaincy at the end of the 1982 season, pleading the need to spend more time with his family and had gone to play at Harbury for a season’s sabbatical. His tenure as captain hadn’t been helped by significant opposition to the Pirates concept from Kenilworth RFC ‘alickadoos’ with accusations of a “club within a club” being thrown around. The accusations were mainly based on the probability that the Pirates would stuff the 1st. team of that era. Fortunately, Beaky soon returned to carry on playing for the Pirates until 1999, while the poisoned captaincy chalice passed to, successively, Dad Taylor, Colin Turner and Alan Pare.
The on-set of professionalism in rugby in the mid-90s began to spell the end for regular Pirate appearances - not, it must be said, because of recruitment demands for Pirates from semi-professional sides! These sides ‘required’ increasing numbers of substitutes to sit on the touchlines, almost instantly reducing the pool of available players, and, as a consequence, cutting the numbers of sides clubs were able to turn out. The Pirates thus began to suffer from a shortage of recruits and opposition and became principally a touring side.
Tours had begun in 1983 with Bideford 1. Bideford 3 took place in 2008 on the 25th. anniversary of the first tour! In between, Bob McCleavy and Robbie Cardwell organised annual tours ranging from Darlington to Sidmouth, and from Llandudno to Scarborough. In recent years, tour management has fallen on the narrow shoulders of ‘Perky’ – Paddy Flavelle – whose deliberate mistakes in organisation are glumly awaited by the tourists as the end result is usually a mis-match against 20 year olds. Pirates skills are still in evidence, however; often from ‘Pinky’ – Glyn Owen – another ex-Coventry centre/fly half, whose nickname reflects his inseparability from Perky and probably, being Welsh and a teacher, his politics. Another comparative stripling is ‘Benno’, Mark Bennett, an ex-Coventry winger retaining some of his pace and all of his reluctance to part with the ball.
Some Saturday fixtures are still being undertaken, together with grander showpiece events such the 2008 game against The Wooden Spoon Society team, boasting one Martin Johnson in the second row. There is a photo on the site somewhere of Chris Wheatley attempting to tackle the aforementioned!
Ah well, on to the next 30 years………..
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Written by Mick Wheatley