Rugby Union: From a watering hole to the riches of the desert

Stephen Brenkley explains how a pub sevens side came to conquer the world
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The Independent Online
When England's representatives step out in the desert for the world's richest rugby sevens tournament next week the thoughts of three men will surely turn to a charming country pub back home. In the white heat of Dubai, generated by climate and atmosphere, the Marauders will have a realistic chance of lifting both the trophy and the pounds 25,000 cheque which accompanies it.

But it was in the White Hart, where the surroundings are somewhat snugger, that they were formed 16 years ago. It remains their base, their founding triumvirate's version of Twickers. In the time since, the Marauders have become the most formidable of sevens sides, they have competed and won all over the world and their ranks have contained some of the most illustrious names to have graced English rugby including two international captains. Which all demonstrates the power of a Sunday lunchtime pint.

"It seemed to evolve naturally and there was no point in standing still," Hugh Griffiths said. "But, no, it never crossed our minds back then what might happen. All we wanted was an excuse to play some more rugby."

Griffiths is one of the remaining trio of old sweats from the afternoon in 1981 who stood around in their local in the Hampshire village of Eversley lamenting their lost youth, their lost speed and the serious prospect of their lost place in a decent rugby XV. There and then, Griffiths, Fred Smith and Dave Short decided to set up the White Hart side.

"It was a great success," said Griffiths. "We played other pub sides every Sunday afternoon and it was exactly what we wanted. Then we decided to enter the Amsterdam Sevens and took along a group of travelling supporters. We were playing to win but we had fun as well."

The White Hart boys, who drew most of their players from the Camberley club at first, entertained the crowd and their opponents who were encouraged by their antics to have a chat. Before long they wanted to play for the oddball team who wore fancy dress, indulged in half-time sumo wrestling but still played a hard game.

They began attracting international players. Peter Winterbottom was among the first and most influential. Others were to follow. They became the Marauders because it was a name as near to the Barbarians - whose ethos they were attempting to follow at sevens - as they could find.

"The signing of Will Carling was probably our greatest coup," Griffiths said. "Peter Winterbottom had gone back to Harlequins after one Marauders trip and told Will what a time he had. Carling liked the sound of it and asked Wints to get him on board. Wints told him he couldn't do that and he'd have to make contact himself.

"Not long after, we were in the pub and the phone went. It was for Fred. The voice at the other end explained it was Will speaking. 'Will who,' said Fred. 'Will Carling,' said the voice. 'Oh yes and what do you want?' asked Fred."

Nor was it all smooth running for Carling when he was eventually enlisted. In the 1991 Amsterdam Sevens he failed to get on in the final which the Marauders won. It is generally thought that the 1993 British Lions were the first team to drop Carling. Not so.

They have come too far to be known as the White Hart Marauders in foreign tournaments these days. They have won in Amsterdam, in Lisbon and in Dubai and have appeared in the Hong Kong Tens final three times.

The pub may no longer feature in their name - except when they appear in the National Pub Sevens Tournament which they have won five times in a row - but the triumvirate still meet there twice a week. The landlord, Doug Page, whose interests once lay more in cricket and football, is unchanged; the place is their spiritual home.

Jeremy Guscott, Dewi Morris, Lawrence Dallaglio and John Sleightholme have all played. Their successors may be hard to find. Next week's side confronting teams from South Africa, New Zealand and Zimbabwe, is strong - witness the presence of Justin Cassell of Northampton - but contains no big names. "The game's changed," said Griffiths. "Clubs are reluctant to let their players go. We'll never have trouble getting players but we might never have their like again." But it is still a long, long way from the White Hart to Dubai.

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