The position of hooker has evolved as much as any other in the modern era, undergoing a transformation from dogged front row enforcer with a decent throw-in, to an all-round exponent of every facet of the game.
These days, on top of the bread and butter at the set pieces, hookers are expected to be rampant in the loose, deft of hand, astute of mind, and dare we say it, possess a turn of pace!
Lee Mears’ 16-year career at Bath Rugby saw these characteristics germinate and flower quickly after his 1997 debut. Lee took the art to the highest level - 42 caps for his country, including the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, and the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa - a master craftsman.
As we have heard from our esteemed interviewees so far this season, the years following the advent of the professional game were a challenge for everyone at the Club, albeit after the European and league double triumph in 1997. Lee was in an unique position to learn a professional trade - his generation of players were very much learning on the job, as everyone found their feet as full-timers.
Lee joined the Bath Rugby Academy having played for Torquay RFC as a young man, and having attended Colston’s School. His age grade representative honours were impressive, a member of the unbeaten tour to Australia for the England U18 Schools side. He went on to represent the U21s in the World Cup in New Zealand too, a sign of great things to come.
But it sounds as if his advent to Bath was something of a ‘Likely Lads’ tale, with more than a few young men who were to enjoy illustrious careers in the Blue, Black and White, Messrs Tindall and Balshaw in particular.
“Me, Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw all arrived at the same time, and we had to live in a house together so we were sort of the young bucks that had to earn our stripes,” he recalls fondly. “I always got on with the likes of Kevin Yates, he's a good guy. Phil De Glanville was a fantastic captain. Ben Clark, obviously the superb Jerry Guscott. Those boys were always great fun to play with.”
Obviously as a new face, Lee was at the back of the queue when it came to a starting berth, but he was in a fantastic position to learn his trade. He relished every opportunity to soak up the experience and lifestyle of a full-time professional, he says,
“It was amazing. I turned up to Bath as a 17 year-old schoolboy. I had great hookers above me, the likes of Andy Long, who got his England cap that year. Mark Regan, Federico Mendez, Neil McCarthy. They were all in the squad, we had five or six and I just remember thinking ‘Oh my goodness!’”
As luminaries such as John Hall and Phil De Glanville have pointed out during our series, those formative years were tricky for Bath, having enjoyed such sustained success during the nineties.
Maintaining the position at the head of the English domestic – and indeed European – game was a sticky wicket as the sport underwent that professional metamorphosis. Lee was one of a group of pioneers who only knew professional rugby, but that didn’t make the job any easier, he admits,
“I think the teams started to catch up, the salary cap evened the field out. That first squad that I played with I think you pretty much had internationals everywhere. I don't know any other squad that had Dan Lyle, Eric Peters and Steve Ojomoh; you basically had an American international, an English international and a Scottish international in the squad at number eight – it was crazy.
“I just don't think you could ever replicate that, but at the same time, I think there were probably only two seasons out of my 16 where we didn't feature in a final. So yeah, I think although we didn't win as many as we would have liked, I think in those big games, we still had the passionate Bath crowd behind us and got into those games all the more.”
One would need several pairs of shoulders the breadth and power of Lee’s own to bear the sizeable haul of silverware Bath had enjoyed in the previous decade, true enough. But over a magnificent 268 appearances wearing the Blue, Black and White, Lee says there were some great memories nonetheless.
Of course the joy was punctuated with some pain - and Lee says one match in particular, the 2004 then Zurich Premiership Final against today’s opponents, Wasps, was a stinger (forgive the pun).
“The one that got away was that Premiership Final at Twickenham against Wasps,” Lee recalls ruefully. “I don't think I've played in a game where we had so much ball and still lost. I think we took their lineout to the cleaners that day and then one intercept pass really killed us.”
Wasps’ victorious captain that day, the great Lawrence Dallaglio, was a little more blunt in his assessment post-match - “If you're going to win all our lineouts and then kick the ball you're going to make it easy for us to stay in the game,” he said, but then again, if you’ve won the double you can say whatever you like. Bath coach John Connolly for his part had “no complaints.”
The score, 6-10, was in fact the same as when the sides met that February at the Rec, so given last weekend’s humdinger at the Ricoh Arena, it’s plain that today we shall watch merely the latest chapter in a storied rivalry between these great bastions of the English game.
Lee has plenty of memories to file under ‘fond’ of course. He got to taste European glory on two occasions - arriving to the famous win over Brive in 1998, and then the Challenge Cup victory in 2008, Bath’s only win in that competition. He expands,
“There are loads of good memories. I think my fondest memory was winning that European Cup Final in ’98. It was pretty impressive, even though I was just a young buck in and around the squad! But to do that was pretty cool.
“To win the European Challenge Cup and give Borthers [Steve Borthwick] a good send-off. Obviously he was a fantastic club stalwart, so I think that was a fitting send off for him. So yeah, winning that game meant a lot for the boys.”
To the intricacies of the position of hooker, then. Lee agrees that these days a number two has to play like an extra back row forward - every major nation now boasts a man who can carry the ball and affect the breakdown, influence far more than the set piece and and rugged passages of play.
If we needed any more convincing of the fact we are likely to see a perfect example of the versatility required in Wasps’ Ashley Johnson this afternoon. The South African has made the switch from a superb back row operator to hooker this season, and seamlessly while he’s at it.
Lee agrees in typically generous fashion - “from what I can see so far, he offers so much throughout the field and his lineout seems to be okay. It's good to see him doing well.”
The 36 year-old says that ability is characteristic of the demands placed on hookers in 2015, stating,
“I think as a hooker that you are the extra back row. You're expected to get over the ball, you're expected to carry. Then you've got that war of attrition in the front row. Trying to tire out your opposite number.
“Over the years, I think that lineouts have become more and more prevalent. I think that hookers have gotten better and better at their throwing in. Then scrummaging, obviously the rules have changed over the years. You have to adapt quickly. Some will adapt, some will get better at cheating!” he laughs.
“I always tried to emulate, to watch the guys that create different angles and use different techniques. So it's always evolving and the bonus bit is everything else that you can do around the field.”
Any advice for the young pretenders out there? Lee certainly has, and any aspiring hookers would do well to listen to him:
“I would say to practise the basics and get those right and then enjoy any time you're anywhere near, or get your hands on, the ball. It's a wonderful game where you make friends for life and the reason that everybody loves playing it is that there's something special about rugby. It’s about the people and the friends that you make.”
Mention Lee Mears to any rugby supporter and a smile will be swift to surface - very much in the fashion that the man played the game. His diagnosis with apical hypertrophic cardiomyopathy after an abnormal ECG in January 2013 called time on his excellent career. In hindsight now, premature as it might have been, Lee has no regrets.
He muses, nearly three years on,
“I suppose part of me thinks ‘Oh God, it was short, it ended really quick, did I ever get to say goodbye properly?’
“And then part of me thinks, well, you never know how long you're going to wear that shirt and I was very lucky to play my last game in the number two shirt and finish off my career having loved every minute of it.”
“Sometimes I suppose you look at professionalism now and think at 33, it would still have been a good time to go. Would I have carried on if I wasn't being played? It certainly was starting to hurt. And would it have been two more years of sitting on the bench and not even being picked?
“I still miss the big games, I miss the buzz, I miss the boys, but I can't say I miss waking up on a Tuesday and still being sore from the Saturday!”
That send-off was against Agen in January 2013, for the record.
Lee’s industry on the field is matched in his career these days: a motivated and prolific entrepreneur, notably in his joint venture with Matt Stevens, café chain Jika Jika familiar in Bath but also at London Euston. His charitable work for the British Heart Foundation, Wooden Spoon and the NSPCC speaks for itself.
He has now qualified as a pilot too, and says his focus these days is on executive coaching as well as busy family life with wife Danielle and sons Isaac and Sonny.
“If you remember me playing, it was always with a smile on my face. I think you've just got to see the positives in it and I loved every minute. I made so many good friends. You can either sit there and think ‘If only, if only.' Or you can look back and think ‘What a great time and what's next?'
“My main focus is executive coaching. I work for a firm called Preston Associates. A long-term bath rugby supporter, David Scotland, introduced me into the world of executive coaching. I finished off my degree and did a post-grad training certificate in it.
“I’ve always been quite entrepreneurial with my businesses, but I realise that there's quite a good link between business and sport and sport and business. where the lessons can cross over both ways.”
As for being back here this afternoon for the second instalment in this thrilling double-header, Lee says he will be buzzing with the raw anticipation of it. The Rec holds a special place in his life, he says, adding,
“Sixteen years is a long time in your life and I love bumping into people and chatting. I still live in the centre of Bath, so it's definitely a part of me. We always mess around, Matt Perry and I. But we do say that if they did cut us open, it would be Blue, Black and White inside.”
Interview by Patrick J.Lennon
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