Rugby Union: Your career .. it's behind you: Oh no, it isn't. Julie Welch sees the retired rugby player Gareth Chilcott revel in a change of scene

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The Independent Online
MR GARETH CHILCOTT, formerly of Bath Rugby Club and England and the man who celebrated his international debut by punching an Australian scrum-half, was wearing gold satin knee breeches, white hose, black pumps, a tartan waistcoat and a full-sleeved shirt trimmed with what men of rugby call broderie anglaise. 'I came in on the wrong side and buggered up,' he complained. 'Still, it'll be all right on the night.'

Chilcott was in a dressing room at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, between rehearsals of Cinderella. His part, The Broker's Man, has been specially created for him - presumably the Ugly Sisters were already up to strength. For the next seven weeks the West Country burr that for close on 17 years projected itself over the top of the stands at the Recreation Ground will be booming out lines such as 'Boys and girls, mums and dads, I'm everyone's favourite person, the tax collector. Except on Saturdays when I take it out of 15 big men who try to steal my ball.'

This is poetic licence, of course. Nobody is ever going to try and steal Chilcott's ball again. A couple of weeks ago this 17-stone tribute to the body-building properties of West of England grub and ale hung up his headband and took his final curtain call in the sport he has, erm, graced since 1976. His most violent act in the foreseeable future will be to stick a custard pie in the face of Baron Hardup.

Chilcott thus joins that select bunch of lads headed by Bruno and Botham, the sporting luvvies. 'No rugby player's gone into it before, so I thought, 'Let's give it a go.' I was a great panto fan myself; my mum used to take me. I love kids,' he enthused. Remember that joke For Sale advertisement about the Alsatian: 'Eats anything. Especially fond of children.'

This is not the first step our hero has taken on to the boards. He made his acting debut last Christmas, in another production of Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Bath, when he commented: 'I hope this doesn't make me too arty.' Not much danger of that, though worried Chilcott fans may wish to screen his future utterances for any careless Darlings.

Of utterances there will be a great deal. Now he isn't scaring the jockstraps off the opposition, Chilcott will be able to devote himself to being a rugby-talking head on television and radio and an after-dinner speaker, alongside his work as commercial manager of Bath, where he will also be returning as a coach. 'This is just a holiday before the real work starts. It's very much like being on tour; you've got to make your fun. It's hard work but you enjoy it. I like being in the public eye and I've never been afraid to be up in front of a crowd. Life's too short to think, 'I'm frightened I'm going to be embarrassed.' ' So he'd call himself an extrovert? 'Some people say I'm loud.' He leaned forward. 'Aggressive even.' Perish the thought.

Off the pitch Chilcott is a jolly, roly-poly sort of chap. Make a good Santa, if he'd got the hair. He's happy to issue glad tidings about the state of rugby despite the present misgivings over violence on the field. 'The game's always been physical. There was probably just as much violence before but now there's more linesmen, television and video evidence whereas 50 years ago the game was just somethingto enjoy and read about in the back of the papers. It has got faster and men have got bigger and stronger but percentage wise it's still very good value, without that many problems. It's the nature of the game to have aggression. Take on people physically and then have a beer with your friends.'

He will miss the comradeship, that 'wonderful thing about rugby'. He intends to keep himself fit, perhaps by doing a bit of running. 'I'm a big lad and the last thing I want is to balloon even larger than I am now.' But won't he turn out for the occasional game of rugby as well? 'No.' Nothing? 'No.' Not even. 'No]'

After all, he said, he is 37; his playing career began in 1976, so for three decades he's never been out of the limelight. 'When I watch from the stands instead of being on the pitch I'll have mixed feelings, but everyone's got to retire some time. I've done everything in rugby and I prefer to go out as people remember me. Nothing worse than an ageing boxer.'

The phenomenon of sporting luvviedom is not a new one. Way back the England cricket captain C Aubrey Smith was cast as the original Professor Higgins in Pygmalion, until caught and bowled by the star Mrs Patrick Campbell, on the grounds that acting with him was 'like being held by a cricket bat'. Nothing has changed really, when you consider the reviews of Ian Botham's performance in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Bradford Alhambra in 1991. According to the Daily Express: 'The expressionless Botham is the only wooden thing on stage apart from the Beanstalk and even that projects itself better.'

You might have thought that anyone who had tasted the elixir of winning the Ashes, challenging for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, bowing the head to have that Olympic gold medal placed round the neck, would find it a bit of an anticlimax to shuffle on stage at the Fleapit, Grimethorpe, hitch up their tights and ask a bunch of snotty-nosed seven- year-olds if they believe in fairies. But still they do it. Christmas after Christmas - Tessa Sanderson as Girl Friday in Robinson Crusoe, Barry McGuigan helping out Linda Lusardi in Snow White, Annabel Croft playing opposite Roland Rat, Geoff Capes wowing them in venues like the Civic, Halifax, Duncan Goodhew reinventing himself as a Chinese policeman in Aladdin, Suzanne Dando and Herol Graham.

Any day now perhaps we'll hear of Alan Sugar making a guest appearance as Prince Charming. David Gower could recreate his role as the Chief Fairy, in which he flies over everyone's heads. The England team will be required to let their football do the talking, in a specially created speaking part as the back end of the pantomime horse. As for poor Graham Taylor, you only have to travel through some of the lesser-known fairy tales to find the one in which he can star - as the eponymous hero of The Enormous Turnip.

What makes them do it? Money for starters. A mega sports star will change his agent if he doesn't get something like five or six grand a week. That's enough to keep anyone's tights up as the Christmas trees moult. It is also possibly more than will be paid to the actors, who have to shepherd our luvvies through their attempts to thesp. That's what the actors suspect, anyway. There is also vanity. Sporting heroes want to be loved. When they can no longer cut it on pitch, track or canvas, what better way to top up their supplies of public adulation?

Will Chilcott be tempted back into panto again next year? 'A lot of water will go under bridges between now and then. I've got a wife and an eight-month-old daughter now and seven weeks is a long time to be away from home. But I do enjoy panto.'

So saying, everyone's favourite person, the tax collector, went off to practise more custard pie throwing for the benefit of the kids of Hampshire. If only the Australians could see him.

(Photographs and Table omitted)

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