Restaurants for the restoration of rugby's reputation

KEITH ELLIOTT at large
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The Independent Online
It's your wife's birthday. To make up for all those Saturdays when you've disappeared at first light with your mates and returned in the early hours stinking of beer, wearing someone else's shoes and singing bawdy songs, you decide to take her out for a special lunch. How will she take it when you tell her that you're going to a restaurant run by an ex-rugby player?

I know how mine reacted - and she didn't say: "Terrific! I've always wanted to join in the chorus of 'If I were the Marrying Kind'." Even telling her that she would meet one of the greatest players ever to don a Lions shirt did nothing to quell her fears that she would be tucking into double cod and chips, drinking pints of draught beer and watching me do stupid things with my underpants.

It came as quite a surprise to her that the fish was steamed and served with a saffron sauce rather than fried in batter; that the potatoes had been turned into pallasson rather than chips; and that mine host was a genial old buffer who didn't swear once. Some months later, I discovered another former England star was running a restaurant only a few miles from my home. She took little persuading to try it out. And very nice it was too.

Both Jeff Butterfield and Dickie Jeeps are still surprised to find themselves as restaurateurs after successful international rugby careers in the 1950s and early 1960s. Their idea of a pre-match meal was an omelette (Jeeps) or two eggs in sherry (Butterfield). But life after rugby didn't leave you with many choices then. Jeeps ran a Cambridgeshire fruit farm and spent seven years as chairman of the Sports Council, while Butterfield worked as a PE teacher, plastic coatings salesman and a property developer. Former North- ampton players, they find themselves back in the same game more than 30 years on.

Jeeps, 64, was one of the greatest scrum-halves ever to grace the game: tough, resourceful and a superb pack manipulator. He played 24 internationals, 13 as captain, while Butterfield, a legendary centre, earned 28 caps back in the days when there were only four internationals a year. But whereas Butterfield's life is still rugby (he runs the Rugby Club of London), Jeeps's restaurant, Stock's, bears few reminders that diners are in the presence of one of the game's greats.

"Will Carling was right about old farts," he says. "The rugby union committee needs more former internationals, not ex-businessmen. I don't talk rugby to many people. When they ask, I say, 'That was 100 years ago', and walk away. It's boring to hear us going on about our memories."

Maybe, but with some slight prompting, Jeeps relaxes and talks with enthusiasm about great games and names. Modern rugby leaves him underwhelmed. "I even missed the Varsity match because some customers stayed until 3.30pm. I went upstairs to watch it, but fell asleep.

"We ran the ball wide at every opportunity. The rules haven't changed: they just don't do it now. They make the game so complicated these days: I always remember Cliff Morgan, who taught me lots of things, saying, 'Scrum-half to fly-half'. It's such a simple lesson."

Much of his ennui is shared by Butterfield, who says: "England keep saying they will play this 'expansive game'. But their first thought is not the wing three-quarter. My first objective was to pass the ball to the wings. It's no good having an Underwood and not giving him the ball. If you run straight and give the winger room, he has 15 yards and room to beat a 'drift defence' because people just run sideways."

Butterfield's catching ability was legendary (he even caught one pass behind his back in an international). "They say you never dropped the ball," I tell him. "Well, maybe once or twice, but not very often. Today they pass into space rather than to the man."

This makes them sound like moaning old men, yearning for yesteryear. But both are acutely aware that it really wasn't the game's finest hour. "Ball retention is better than ever it was, training is vastly improved and technically it is a lot better," Jeeps admits.

Butterfield's club in London's Hallam Street is a shrine to the game, with videos showing all the time; shirts, ties, cigarette cards, limited edition prints and the great photos surround you. He runs hospitality trips to all the major games and even organises "Golden Oldie" tours. It is 23 years since he stood with five other men in the Cricketers Club and agreed that rugby needed a place for enthusiasts "to meet, eat and drink", though he never expected that he would be running it.

At 66 Butterfield still looks fit. He swims every day and hasn't put on any weight since his playing days. He had his hip replaced four times but claims this is more due to arthritis than injury of the joints. Jeeps has added a few pounds, but puts that down to recovering after cancer of the colon.

The pair still keep in touch, though Jeeps has no interest in "Golden Oldies" rugby, which is Butterfield's passion. "I took a team to New Zealand last year to a tournament where there were 190-odd teams, and I had a man in my side who was 94, so there's still plenty of time for me to take the game up seriously again," Butterfield says, out of earshot of his wife.

Retirement isn't on either of their agendas and they still retain the spirit that characterised their play. Recently Jeeps took a booking at his restaurant for more than 40 "WI members", only to discover that it was Butterfield and his cronies paying a surprise visit. "I suppose I should have realised when they asked if there was draught bitter," he said.

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