Final retreat for trouper Cornwell

For those in the autumn of their careers, spring can become the saddest season
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For one of the last of the old Gloucesters, which sounds like a cross between a famous regiment and a rare breed of pig, reality hit home when he walked into the changing room and beneath his peg on the wall was the message "space to let". This is the time of year when clubs conduct a cull of the older members and Mark Cornwell, who has been at Gloucester boy and man, is ready to bite the bullet.

"This has been my life since school," the 6ft 7in lock said. "I can't remember anything else. I know every blade of grass at Kingsholm. It's a sad day." The fact is Cornwell is 33 and, with the exception of Gareth Llewellyn at Bristol, who is still leaping around like a stag at bay at the age of 37, it's twilight time.

"When you get to my age the body can't cope with it any more," Cornwell said. Don't talk to him about metatarsals. "I've had four knee operations, slipped discs and shoulder and groin injuries. When I get up in the morning I can't walk out of the bedroom without my ankles creaking and my knees groaning. I want to be able to walk when I'm 50.

"You can't keep running into brick walls. You've got to know when your time is up. The Premiership is getting tougher all the time and it catches up with you ever more quickly. Youngsters today can run rings around me and I remember being able to do the same thing to others. I used to run forever."

The manner of Cornwell's rise is so old-fashioned it belongs in a museum. Gloucester born and bred, as a kid he used to stand in the Shed watching the Cherry and Whites, a nickname which has now been consigned to history. At Saintbridge Comp he was a useful goalkeeper, but as he got bigger and taller he switched to rugby.

"I suppose I was quite good at it. I played for Gloucester Under-19s and was invited to a trial at Kingsholm. There were about 60 of us thrashing around, trying to impress the selectors. It's all so different now. I used to play three times a week. I was single, living at home, and I used to earn some money working in a garage and a shop. All I wanted to do was play, but I never dreamt I would become a full-time professional."

Cornwell joined his beloved Gloucester (pronounced Glawster in the West Country) in 1991, which meant he was graduating at one of the country's schools of hard knocks, and there was further education with exchange visits to New Zealand - "there is no better place to learn" - and South Africa. With the Big Bang of 1995, when rugby became professional, out went the half-time oranges and in came a whole new ball game.

"I was summoned into the office at Kingsholm and offered a professional contract. It was for £15,000 a year and a car, a Peugeot. This was everything I had always wanted. I was actually being paid to play. In those days you could turn up for training when you wanted to. At some sessions there were no more than a dozen players. It was unreal, but then Richard Hill got to grips with it all."

Hill is one of seven coaches that Cornwell has worked for at Gloucester. His Premiership career - he made more than 200 appearances - finishes at the end of the season, but he is not hanging up his boots and he will still have a tie with Kingsholm.

He is joining Pertemps Bees in Birmingham as a player-coach in the semi-professional National League One and will work part-time at the Gloucester Academy. "It will be a big change for me and I quite like the extra responsibility," he said. "I am hoping it will benefit the Bees and Gloucester, because some of the youngsters I bring on will be allowed to play in Birmingham. That way they will get regular league rugby. It's vital they get their boots on."

Regrets? Cornwell has a few, but not too few to mention. He played for England against the Barbarians at Twickenham and made 11 appearances for England A but never won a full cap. That rankles. "Throughout I have been up against locks like Martin Johnson, Danny Grewcock, Simon Shaw and Ben Kay. Actually I played with Kay for England A against France and he was awful. He was skinny, raw and I never thought he would make it. He is a good friend of mine now. Anyway, I was due to tour Argentina in 2002. Phil Vickery was the captain and he told me I was going to start in the Tests because some of England's first choices weren't touring. Then, playing against Bath, I got smacked out of a ruck and broke my arm."

If Cornwell was crying for Argentina he suffered another sickener the following season when Gloucester played North-ampton in the Powergen Cup final at Twickenham. On the eve of the game he thought he would have a quiet night and was in bed by 11.

"By 1am I was as sick as a dog. I passed out and knocked my head on the sink. I also managed to cut my leg and was on the floor sweating like a pig. I was in all sorts of trouble. When the doc came I discovered I had gastroenteritis."

Cornwell was confined to bed and Rob Fidler was summoned from the West Country to replace him. "Fids had been on the piss in Cheltenham and had had at least six pints. Gloucester won 40-22, and on the Monday the players celebrated on an open- top bus through the city. I even managed to miss that. I was feeling as rough as hell."

Cornwell, who enjoyed a testimonial last season - "I made a few bob" - is not the only stalwart whose peg will be sporting a new jersey. Vickery, who has had three back operations, is off to Wasps and Terry Fanolua to Brive.

"Vicks knew his time at Kingsholm was finished," Cornwell said. "He has been through a hell of a lot but that is the sport we are in. I am the guy who usually organises the farewell dos. I asked the club what they were going to do about it and they said it's in hand. Sad times. Vicks is one of the old school." As is Cornwell.