Andy Ripley: Rugby union international who later became a champion rower and successful businessman

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Andy Ripley, who died on Thursday at the age of 62 after a five-year battle with prostate cancer, was renowned as a rampaging No 8 for the England rugby union side, but he was also one of those rare sports stars who transcended his youthful glory days.

This gregarious, funny and self-deprecating polymath was a man of immense energy and imagination, and he kept on popping up in new guises – runner, rower, businessman, banker, academic, linguist. The list goes on.

The first time I saw him was in 1974 when he was a member of the British and Irish Lions touring squad that went undefeated on its tour of South Africa. This 6ft 5in No 8 was always easy to pick out with his long hair and his inclination to run with the ball. He was later described as "rugby's first hippie" – a tribute not just to his hairstyle and sandals but to his open-minded embrace of all life's delights. While the rest of the squad would move in a pack, Andy would hive off to go surfing, and once returned with a pair of stray kittens that he nursed for the rest of the tour.

On that occasion he made the touring squad but not the Test team. When asked decades later whether he he'd been disappointed, he answered with his usual candour: "Disappointed? Into devastation and beyond."

I finally met him 23 years later at Cambridge, where he was completing an MPhil and doing his fervent best to make the Boat Race crew against Oxford. He was a month short of 50 but this didn't phase him. "Age isn't much of a problem," he insisted, "but what I'm really struggling with is technique because I'm new to rowing and the other guys have being doing it throughout school." The "other guys" were 30 years his junior.

He put his body through a daily four-hour, rowing, weight-training and cardiovascular routine, his weight dropped from 17st 9lb to 16st 5lb, his pulse rate fell to 38bpm and he made the 28-man squad, although as with the Lions tour he fell just short of being picked for the Varsity crew. He did, however, win four masters titles at the world indoor rowing championships and a world record over 2000 metres.

Six years later I spoke to him again and asked why he kept pushing himself in this way. He joked about his vanity before becoming more serious. "I do it because of my insecurity, I suppose," he said. "I have a need to prove myself".

Initially, rugby also fitted into the category of just another challenge. His school, Greenway comprehensive in Bristol, played football and it was only as a 19-year-old at the University of East Anglia that he wrapped his huge hands around the oval ball. Five years on he won his first England cap and went on to play 24 times for his country, including victories against the Springboks, All Blacks and Australia

In a bleak spell for English rugby , he excelled as an athletic loose forward who loved to break away and run with the ball – an inclination that served him well in the seven-a-side game (he represented the winning England side in the inaugural World Cup Sevens at Murrayfield in 1973, once running the full length of the field to score).

He was ousted from his England No 8 perch in 1976 and some said this was prompted in part by his bohemian, anti-establishment posture. The official England Rugby Football Union history simply notes that he was "jettisoned at his peak". However, he continued playing for his club side, Rosslyn Park, until the age of 41.

By then he had already made his mark in other sports. He emerged as a top 400m sprinter and hurdler, reaching the semi-finals of the UK Amateur Athletics Champions In 1978. He also won the BBC Superstars competition in 1980 and was competitive in triathlon, canoeing, sailing, water-skiing, tennis and basketball.

Somehow, Ripley found time to make good money as a chartered accountant and businessman. He worked in the City for a spell, ran a company for training accountants, another for marketing rugby kit and was a director of a group of London-based health clubs before becoming deputy general manager of the United Bank of Kuwait. Along the way he made a name for himself as an eccentric after-dinner speaker and as a rugby commentary on French television (in French).

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005 and threw himself into a role as ambassador for the Prostate Cancer Charity. Two years later he published his diaries as an award-winning book, Ripley's World: The Rugby Icon's Ultimate Victory Over Cancer. In the foreword he wrote: "Dare we hope? We dare. Can we hope? We can. Should we hope? We must, because to do otherwise is to waste the most precious of gifts, given so freely by God to all of us. So when we do die, it will be with hope and it will be easy and our hearts will not be broken."

However, the cancer spread and by early this year he was confined to a wheelchair and had lost his sight, but, at least in interviews, he remained as bouyant and enthusiastic about life as ever. His final public engagement was to collect his OBE for services to sport last month.

Andrew George Ripley, rugby union player, rower, banker: born Liverpool 1 December 1 1947; married Elisabeth (three children); died 17 June 2010.

Comments