Orwin's country pursuit

The former England captain has become a village person.
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WHEN THE game went open three years ago, coarse rugby suffered a blow to the solar plexus. At the top end of the market, the clubs with clout embraced professionalism with a headlong enthusiasm matched only by a lemming approaching the White Cliffs of Dover.

Even the Extra Bs, the beer guts at the fag end, decided that ambition rather than oblivion would have to be the watchword. No more Mr Useless Guy. Committees up and down the land told suitable cases for liver transplants that their lost weekends against Old Rottinghamians were numbered.

Datchworth, affectionately known as The Greens and buried in the heart of Hertfordshire with a village population of 1,500, are a case in point. Once prime coarse rugby territory, they now boast five senior XVs, a youth section, six mini-squads, four pitches and a promotional poster featuring the great Irish centre Mike Gibson as the standard-bearer.

They even train twice a week - under floodlights. No longer can the likes of London French, the Bank of England and Old Verulamians deride Datchworth as "country bumpkins".

"Our ambition," declared their chairman, Jeremy Gillham, "is promotion." Gillham, a middle-aged solicitor with a waistline commensurate with his age and station, would once have been at the heart of the coarse movement. However, even he and his enlightened committee were taken aback when they placed an ad in Rugby World last month for a part-time player-coach. They did not expect a response from a former England captain.

When John Orwin applied for the job he had no idea where Datchworth was, let alone what league they were in. "I was a bit apprehensive when I looked at the map and found a tiny dot in the middle of the countryside," Orwin said. "I wasn't sure what to expect, but once I came down I was quite impressed. Without being big-headed about it they seemed fairly keen to get me."

For a modest weekly outlay, Datchworth in Herts-Middlesex Two - several thousand leagues below national level - have a man who played 300 games for Gloucester, won 14 caps between 1985 and 1988 and led England on a tour to Australia. In a first-class career spanning 15 seasons he captained the RAF, Combined Services, Gloucester, Bedford, the Barbarians and England. And now he's with a bunch of farmers, policemen, labourers, insurance salesmen and builders. From the famous Cherry and Whites to The Greens. "What surprised me about the place is that it's a little hotbed of rugby. It's a nice club and the people are extremely friendly. They're doing things right here," Orwin said.

When Orwin was a 19-year-old aircraft mechanic in the RAF he asked to be stationed at Brize Norton so he could play for Gloucester. After leaving the West Country he compiled a useful CV. He captained Bedford for three years, during which time they gained promotion, and then moved back to his home county of Yorkshire. He took Morley to the second division before joining Wibsey, near Bradford. He was born 50 yards from the ground. Under Orwin, Wibsey, promoted three years on the trot, went up to Yorkshire Division One and won the Yorkshire Trophy. In 1996 he was appointed player- coach of Altrincham and they won successive promotions.

He also ran a garage, with considerably less success. A petrol price war forced him out of business, which is a touch ironic considering that when he was one of the country's top second rows the only remuneration he got out of the game was petrol money. When he asked Altrincham for a rise they looked at him as if he was descended from Oliver Twist.

Orwin's wife Diane, who comes from Bedford wanted a move back south. "The biggest problem is that the money that would buy you a house in Bradford wouldn't buy you a garage in Hertfordshire," Orwin said. For the last month he has been a guest in houses of various players and club members, and has been doing odd-jobs on building sites to supplement his wage. "I have been farmed out as a lodger. People have been very kind." Have toothbrush and boots, will travel.

Orwin began his rugby life as a rugby league full-back with Bradford Northern juniors and almost signed professional terms in the days when union viewed money in a way the undead look upon a sunrise.

At Gloucester he looked like Black Beard. Now, at the age of 44, and putting 21st into the Datchworth pack, he is as grey as Desert Orchid. In a couple of friendlies, The Greens were eaten by St Albans but put 50 points on UCS Old Boys, who are a division above them. They open their league campaign next month against Wembley. "I don't think people will worry about playing against me," Orwin said. "They won't recognise me." Nevertheless after 80 minutes they might be asking: "Who the hell is that guy?"

On the training field next to the village hall, his forwards are learning to drive. "That was great lads," he exhorts. "You found the weakness and drove straight through the middle." What he will not teach them is what Digger Morris, one of the Cherry and Whites folk heroes taught Orwin when the young serviceman joined Gloucester: "You're shoeing them all wrong. When you put the boot in don't use the toe end, you'll hurt yourself. Use your heel." And Digger was a committee man.

Back at the clubhouse on the village green David Muncaster, the new captain, is excited. "John's a breath of fresh air," he says. "He didn't come charging in telling us to do this and that. He's gradually built enthusiasm and there's a little buzz about the place." Will the crowds improve? "It depends how many people are walking their dogs," Muncaster said.

If Datchworth gain promotion it will be the ninth time in 11 seasons that Orwin's hand has lifted a club. "I'm confident we'll go up," he said. "The junior players need working on but there's a core who are pretty good. There's a little bit of skill and lots of drive. There's a will to succeed. I'm a fairly good motivator and some of these lads will do things that they wouldn't normally do. I can get very irate if I lose and the training sessions can be harsh. We'll win the majority of our matches. I can sense it."

Most people, even the extra Bs, hang up their clogs in their thirties. Even Dessie knew when to stop jumping. What in the name of Grecian 2000 is a man born in 1954 doing in a field in the middle of nowhere, apart from sweating pints? "I just love it," he said.