Dawe leads Devon's cream in pursuit of Sale upset

Inspired by a Bath legend, Plymouth are regaining lost pride and intend to claim a Premiership scalp tomorrow. Paul Newman reports
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Graham Dawe is sitting in the Plymouth Albion clubhouse contemplating a question. He is looking back over a playing career spanning nearly 30 years, including 12 seasons as hooker for Jack Rowell's all-conquering Bath side, appearances for England in the 1987 and 1995 World Cups, county championship triumphs with Cornwall and Devon, and successive promotions with his current Plymouth team.

Graham Dawe is sitting in the Plymouth Albion clubhouse contemplating a question. He is looking back over a playing career spanning nearly 30 years, including 12 seasons as hooker for Jack Rowell's all-conquering Bath side, appearances for England in the 1987 and 1995 World Cups, county championship triumphs with Cornwall and Devon, and successive promotions with his current Plymouth team.

Does he have one special memory, particularly from his Bath days? The reply tells you everything about a player whose self-effacement seems to be in direct proportion to his reputation as a ferocious competitor. "I used to enjoy training in the spring," he says. "We'd go through a long winter training at Lambridge and then, when the clocks changed, we'd train at the Recreation Ground. We'd turn up there, with the evenings getting lighter, and we used to have some cracking training sessions. That would be leading up to cup finals in April and May. They were great times."

If you are 45 years old and still taking the hits it is perhaps no surprise that training has never been a chore. Moreover, as chairman of rugby at National League One Plymouth, who go to Sale tomorrow in search of glory in the sixth round of the Powergen Cup, it is a philosophy that Dawe hopes his charges will follow.

"I can't abide players who turn up and train and can't wait for the end of the session," he said. "It's like people who can't wait for retirement. What's the point of living? You want players to turn up for training who are determined to improve themselves, even if it's only by 0.01 per cent."

Dawe returned to the city of his birth five years ago, although in truth he never left. Apart from a brief spell at Sale, when he would spend part of his week in a flat in Manchester, Dawe has always commuted to matches and training from his beef farm on the banks of the Tamar to the north of Plymouth. And while he played 40 times for Cornwall and was a central figure in their historic county championship triumph over Yorkshire in front of 40,000 of their supporters at Twickenham 13 years ago, his loyalty is now to Devon. Dawe, the player-coach, was on the pitch for all but the last three minutes as the county emulated their neighbours' triumph with victory at headquarters over Gloucestershire earlier this year.

When Dawe joined Plymouth in 1999 they were not doing justice to their proud history. Founded in 1876 by apprentices from the Royal Naval Dockyard in Devonport, Plymouth were one of the country's leading clubs in the early part of the 20th century. They held their own through the 1950s and 1960s, but after a bright start following the introduction of leagues in the 1980s suffered relegation two years in succession. They would have slipped out of national rugby altogether had they not won their last match of the 1998-99 season.

Dawe's appointment, however, brought an immediate improvement. Promotion in successive years took Plymouth into National League One, where they finished ninth in their first year and third last season. They are currently third and the only side to have beaten them are the leaders, Bristol Shoguns. Is promotion to the Premiership a possibility next year? "It's certainly an ambition," Dawe says. "What's the point of getting up at half past six in the morning if you haven't got any ambition?"

Following the sale of the club's former Beacon Park ground for housing development, Albion have returned to their historic home in Devonport. The Brickfields is a 40-acre site with two pitches and the possibility for extensive development. A permanent marquee enables the club to exploit its commercial potential: 550 fans sat down to a three-course meal before a 17-16 victory over Exeter in front of more than 5,000 earlier this season.

Dawe is particularly proud of the fact that Albion recently fielded a team containing nine Devonians, seven of whom were born in Plymouth. More than half the city's schools play rugby and the club sends coaches into 52 local primary schools, as well as the secondary schools.

Not that Dawe is afraid to cast his net further afield. The present squad includes a Tongan (Keni Fisilau), a Fijian (Nat Saumi), a Samoan (Alfie Tooala), two South Africans (Glenn Gelderbloom and Hentie Martens), two New Zealanders (Dan Ward-Smith and Matt Carrington), a "Canadian Australian" (James Pritchard), an Italian (Tino Paoletti) and a Cypriot (Altan Ozdemir). The sale of Beacon Park has clearly benefited the club financially.

Dawe has started five games this season but generally sits on the bench, where he is likely to be for tomorrow's visit to one of his former clubs. "I'd like to play every week, but I'm just not good enough any more," he says.

While he finds the game no harder than it used to be, he says it has changed significantly. "Defensively people hold the line and keep rank. In the old days it was blood and thunder. It was just about battering the opposition. It was a game played by backs and forwards. Today it's a game played by teams, though I'm not sure I agree that every player should be able to do everything. That's the ideal game, but that's never going to happen. The sooner people wake up and realise that prop forwards can't make 20-metre passes it will be a better game again."

One of the keys to Dawe's longevity is no doubt the natural fitness born of an outdoor life, but he also takes care of himself. "In my days at Bath you had no regard for your body when you played," he said. "I probably do that subconsciously now. You have to make sure you hit on your terms and that you get your body into the right position when you take a hit. You have to keep your eyes open, be aware of what's around you. You keep your elbows near your ribs, because there will always be somebody looking to bang you there."

Dawe is less worried about facing a Sale back division that could include Jason Robinson, Charlie Hodgson and Mark Cueto than he is about confronting a pack of Premiership forwards. "It's the forwards who give the platform. Backs always believe they can undo any other back division, but they have to be on the front foot - unless their initials are JR and then it can be different."

His other main concern is that the referee "behaves himself and doesn't edge towards the Premiership team. Rugby is about competing for the ball and if you can't compete for the ball in the tackle then it's not really rugby. It's basketball."

There were no greater competitors than the likes of Gareth Chilcott, Andy Robinson, Jon Hall, Jeremy Guscott, Ben Clarke, Stuart Barnes, Richard Hill and Phil de Glanville, to name just a selection of Dawe's former Bath colleagues. He is reluctant to single out individuals but when asked to name Bath men he admired most he chooses one of the more unsung heroes. "I used to respect Nigel Redman for the way he received kick-offs," Dawe said. "That's probably the biggest moment in any game, because if you've scored you've normally upset 15 blokes on the other team. They would kick off, invariably short, and they'd dump it on top of what they perceived to be a small second row. He used to leap up and get the ball with his arm up above his head. He'd get smashed in the ribs by two people, but he'd drop on the ground and present the ball on a plate for his scrum half. He didn't whinge. He took it every time."

Could Dawe have imagined Robinson would end up as England's head coach? "I probably could. He ruffled a few feathers when he stepped down from playing at Bath. He dug his heels in and made it known that he wanted to coach at Bath. So he had a bit of determination."

Was Robinson very demanding as a player? "Not really. His colleagues were more demanding of him not to give away any penalties. He gave them away all the time. His penalty count was the same as the other 14 put together - every week. And he said it wasn't his fault - it was a bad referee."

While Dawe insists he retains respect for all opponents, praise does not come easily. When reminded of the description of himself by Leicester's Richard Cockerill - "Whatever you did to him, he never said a word. He just looked you in the eye, gritted his teeth and got on with it" - Dawe responds: "He was a good player. [But] I'll never forgive him for treading on my fingers. It was before a game at Welford Road in the warm-up. I was just going through my pre-match stretching and he ran across my fingers. Either it was deliberate or his eyesight was very bad."

Did he say anything to Cockerill? "He couldn't run very fast, but by the time I realised what had happened he was 10 yards away." Did he get his own back in the game? "Well I don't recall losing at Welford Road."

However, Dawe had no greater rival than Brian Moore and refused to talk to or even acknowledge the man who denied him a regular place as England hooker. Dawe won only five caps, appearing on the bench a remarkable 34 times.

The turning point came in 1987, when Moore was given his chance after Dawe was suspended for one game along with Wade Dooley and two Bath colleagues, Hill and Chilcott, after a bad-tempered Five Nations match in Cardiff, Phil Davies suffering a broken jaw after being punched by Dooley. What was Dawe's part in the Cardiff Arms Park mayhem? "Maybe I got banned for being a Bath player. You'll have to ask somebody else. I'd still like to know."

The fire, moreover, still burns. When reminded that he was suspended last year after receiving three yellow cards, Dawe hurries to his own defence. "Technical offences," he insists, with only the tiniest hint of a smile.