Bath’s legendary number eight David Egerton talks through some good times at the Club, a winning mentality and the demands of the modern number eight position.
It takes special kind of person and a special type of player to be the number eight in any rugby team, let alone somewhere like Bath Rugby.
More often than not, the behemoth of the back row is the talisman for a team, and unlike many of the positions we have discussed on these pages this season, not much has changed in that regard as we stand here today in the modern era.
David Egerton was one such man during the eighties and early nineties here at the Rec in a hugely impressive career spanning a decade, yielding seven England caps. The charismatic, mobile and prolific number eight who averaged something like a try every three games between September 1985 and January 1995 today gives us an exclusive insight.
David opens by saying we should not harp on too much about the past, to his credit. He says,
“Sometimes I’m not keen about going on and on about our era, because it puts a lot of pressure on the modern day guys. Time moves on. We are in the past now and it’s about the future.”
That’s not to say David isn’t more than willing to delve into his vast vault of tales, an edifying and highly entertaining experience to which anyone attending the Swift Half pre-match this evening will surely attest. After half an hour on the telephone with the gentleman this week, your correspondent thoroughly recommends that readers make the visit this evening.
His debut in September 1985 saw the young man born in Middlesex but based in Bristol, quickly accustomed to an abrasive but rewarding first team environment under Jack Rowell, as many of his peers have detailed so far in our series. David argues that the great Head Coach had created a winning culture, and the baptism of fire was of huge benefit. He begins,
“As a youngster coming to training, you would be nervous, because you knew that if you didn’t give 100% on the training field, you’d get found out big time. And then the mickey would be thrown at you big time! You’ve probably heard the stories about scraps on the training field, it revolved around creating a sparkle, a bubble within the Club.
“Of course, that’s easy to do when you’re winning and on the up, in those days, all you had to be was slightly ahead of the game and it perpetuated itself. It was great fun.
“Bath had good backs when I arrived, the forwards had just started doing well - they had just won the John Player Cup against Bristol when I arrived. The two people who really made Bath Rugby Club really special during our era, were really making things happen were Roger Spurrell and Jack Rowell.”
David is keen to point out that it was a collective effort. Although Bath were blessed with a stellar cast, it was the sum of all parts which heralded and sustained the era of success in Somerset. He continues,
“People talk about Hally (John Hall) and Coochie (Gareth Chilcott) in the background but you know, rugby is a team sport, a collective sport. There is no one person who could have done it on their own.
“I think that every single player who played during that era was a special player, just to be able to get in the team in the first place. The old adage was, it’s not good enough to just be in the team, you’ve got to make a difference when you’re in there.”
Collected on the north Bristol motorway on wet and windy Wednesday nights for trips into the Welsh heartland were where David and his mates cut their teeth, forged that reputation and mental strength required to succeed in adversity on the field in the Blue, Black and White. And adversity was a familiar bedfellow midweek, he divulges,
“If the game wasn’t going well, which it frequently wouldn’t do, because on a wet Wednesday night in Wales it was a psychological challenge more than anything else, then you needed to be professional with a small ‘p’, because mentally you had to get prepared for what was going to happen.
“I can remember when I arrived, going over to Bridgend Sport, playing a bunch of little Welshmen in the forwards, we struggled. We had big athletic men in the forwards, people like John Morrison and Damian Cronin and myself all playing, and we couldn’t win a bloody lineout ball in the first half! We thought ‘What the hell is going on?!’
“That’s what toughened you up and tightened you up, no doubt about it. If things weren’t going well, Roger would do some subtle moves on the floor and then the next thing you know there’s a big punch up and we sorted it all out!
“We’d stand up, get in the huddle and he’d say, ‘Right, we’re in a war now!’ The adrenaline was pumping and you went out there and played.”
David is an advocate of the correlation between applying pressure in preparation, to ensure performance when it matters. He says Rowell was a master tactician in that regard, stewarding his ’sack of badgers’ in the squad, cajoling, baiting and demanding excellence of execution on the training paddock so that the ‘W’ would be registered at the weekend.
“Jack was in an enviable position in that he could choose the players who were made of the right stuff in the first place, but then he’s got to force them to make decisions and be confident at the same time," David recalls with evident fondness.
“If you manage people you have to prepare them. You have to put them in more extreme situations than you’ll find on the rugby pitch or a sales environment for example. That’s what Jack did.
“On the training field, well, you know the old saying, “It’s good enough for England, not good enough for Bath” - “you’re drifting mentally today Edge and all that sort of stuff - it was all designed to keep you on your toes. It also gave us a sparkle, because the rest of the lads would all laugh because they’d all had it as well.”
One particular tale in preparation for a league clash with Wasps springs readily to mind. Rowell mercilessly drilled his back row at training, in ever increasing disgust at the execution (“Jack wouldn’t smile or anything like that!”) - and lambasted his eight and openside Kevin XXXX, threatening to replace them if they didn’t execute David’s ‘Shelford Drive’ named in honour of great New Zealander Wayne Shelford, to his exacting standards.
David takes up the tale,
“I think I used to call it a ‘Shelford Drive’ - we all know what that was, a pick up from the eight and driving in field - it used to get a laugh, because he was more of a bull than I ever was at number eight - and I’d try to get to the fly-half. We’d either ruck it or I’d offload it.
“We did it four or five times, and Jack tells Kevin if he can’t do it, we’ll get someone else in for Saturday’s game etc. Kev would be past me in training, he couldn’t have been any tighter, it just wasn’t good enough for Jack.
“Saturday comes, 55 minutes in, second half, it’s a tight game, we’re up or down by two points and the pressure is on. We get a scrum on the 22, I automatically go for the Shelford Drive, pick the ball up sweetly, even if I do say so myself, popped the ball off my inside shoulder.
“So I managed to give it to Kev and he goes over and scores. I remember walking back and thinking, “You little ***** Jack!’”
David is fulsome in his praise for new England Head Coach Eddie Jones, and argues that the appointment of Dylan Hartley, a player with more edge than a Wilkinson Sword, makes a statement of intent.
“I think picking Dylan Hartley is an excellent thing. It doesn’t mean he’ll go through to the World Cup, but it’s a statement to the rest of the team that they can go out there and be themselves mentally and also play rugby."
We muse on the similarities between Jones and the great Bath man - obsessive about the game, psychological masters with the highest expectations of their players:
“If you want to do well, or win a World Cup, that’s what you want. You have respect, discipline, but you have to allow freedom of thought. Jack was good at that. Bath at that time was a flexible framework in which individuals could blossom. We’re all old timers. We’re all opinionated gits!”
The modern demands of the number eight position are many, but David contends that of all the positions on a rugby field, not so much has changed in terms of the need for impact, speed and responsibility. It has evolved from his day, true enough, with a bit in both the good and bad columns, in his opinion. He says,
“I think that something all the national coaches have to get to grips with, is the changing roles of players. If the World Cup showed anything, and it was fairly obvious to those of us in Hong Kong before we came over here, that you have to have two ‘jackalers’, or what other people call ‘fetchers’, it’s absolutely crucial.
“Look at the makeup of the Australian back row, Pocock and Hooper, whereas others will be more obsessed with a ball carrying number eight. If you look at New Zealand, they are different again, because they play this beautiful general movement style and Kieran Reid actually is more of an old fashioned eight. The thing about New Zealand is that they are all fetchers.”
“It’s evolved, it used to be rangy Mervyn Davies, I was more like that. Then you had powerful Shelford. Your number eight to me has to be the fastest player in the back row, because in phase play from the set piece, he has still got to get out to where the breakdown is. The blind can drop in when it comes back the other way in general play, but your eight has to be able to read the cut back in, or the wide ball, and he has to change his angle.
“That hasn’t changed for years and years. I think England have struggled with that, because we’ve gone for slower, more powerful number eights. The Australians, the South Africans, people like Parisse, they are athletes. The game has made players lazy now because they can defend in channels and attack in channels.”
If we had ten pages here today, we would not be able to do justice to David’s rich tapestry of anecdotes - a shining star is a tale about a diplomatic incident on an Argentina tour post-Falklands, dressed as Batman in front of Cardinal Hulme and other such luminaries.
If you want an explanation for our headline today, get thee to the Swift Half, or pick up a copy of Club Historian Kevin Coughlan’s excellent tome ‘After the Lemons’ for the full version!
In closing, David allows himself a comparison between the modern and amateur era - noting his metal shoulder and knee as internal trophies of his years in the trenches, proudly bearing the Blue, Black and White. He says,
“It was a war of attrition and psychology. It’s different now. The injuries nowadays are impact injuries. People used to say it was a contact sport and now it’s an impact sport. In our day, it was self-policing, you must remember that.
“Robbo and I, or Spurrell and I would get to the breakdown, you would tackle, twist, turn, lay on the wrong side and then pray that your second rows would get there before their second rows. Otherwise, our backs used to look like Spaghetti Junction with stud marks!
“People ask me a lot if the game is better or worse now, and by most metrics it has to be considered much better. It’s a cleaner sport, there is less thuggery, the ball is in play far more, people are fitter, from an economic point of view the business of rugby is doing well. The crowds are bigger, it’s more global, more participants etc.
“All I hope is that the game doesn’t lose the values that were instilled in me. Camaraderie, the love of the game, the social bonds it formed.”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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