Mark Regan's 2007: 'I'd taken to going down the pub to watch England'

Dropped from the red rose set-up Bristol's hooker had given up on an international future, he tells Chris Hewett. Then Brian Ashton took charge and a chance phone call led to the World Cup final
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A week ago last Sunday, in the home dressing room at the Memorial Ground in Bristol, the England hooker Mark Regan was feeling his age no laughing matter for a front-row forward a mere month shy of his 36th birthday. His neck was giving him serious grief, his back was in spasm, he was moving with all the feline grace of an arthritic pit pony. And this was before the game, an important Heineken Cup contest with Harlequins. "It sounds daft, but I just had to play," he said, reflecting on his decision. "I shouldn't have done it, and I'm suffering for it now, but what the hell. It's how I'm made."

Indeed. Regan, long known as "Ronnie" for fairly obvious reasons, is old school and proud of it he grew up watching his elders and betters play through any and every degree of pain for the greater good and largely as a result of the attitudes and beliefs he drank in with his mother's milk, he has completed one of the more remarkable comebacks in recent rugby history: a return to the England team after two and a half years of self-imposed exile, a World Cup final appearance and a captain's appearance for the Barbarians that he does not regret for a single second, despite the ructions it caused.

"At times like this," he continued, attempting to find a comfortable position in his chair and failing miserably, "I wonder how long I can keep this up. It takes me three days to recover from a game now." Then he smiles and adds: "Sometimes I manage to convince the coaches that it takes me four days, or even five. It's a good way of missing training. As I keep telling people, I'm paid to play, not train."

Regan is full of these one-liners the Bristol head coach Richard Hill, who has heard more than his fair share, rolls his eyes and shakes his head at the merest mention of the hooker's name and once he starts, he struggles to stop before nightfall. "I see myself as the Gary Lineker of rugby," he said, apropos of nothing. And what in the name of all that is holy might he have in common with the patron saint of sporting smugness? "He was never sent off, was he?" Er, no. "I haven't been sent off either."

There was a pause while Regan contemplated the full profundity of this statement, and then he got down to business. "What was that Frank Sinatra song?" he asked. "Not 'My Way', but the one in which he goes on about 35 being a very good year. I can relate to that, definitely, and I don't want the year to end, because it's been such a phenomenal 12-month journey. I'm still buzzing from it. A World Cup final, at this stage of my career? Who'd have thought it? And leading out the Baa-Baas at Twickenham, with all my family in the stand and my kids as mascots, and beating the Springboks into the bargain? I know there was a row, and it cost me two weeks' wages, but at my time of life, why would I have wanted to turn down an opportunity like that?"

His story is best told chronologically, for none of this would have occurred had he not decided last January to give Brian Ashton a call. Ashton's predecessor as England head coach, Andy Robinson, had not been among Regan's favourite people since the start of the 2004-05 season, when he decided to leave his fellow West Countryman out of his squad for the autumn international programme. Regan considered himself the man in possession, having played against the Wallabies in Brisbane the previous June, and was so profoundly cheesed off to find himself behind Steve Thompson and Andy Titterrell in the batting order, he retired from Test rugby there and then. By this time last year, though, Robinson had been railroaded out of the job by Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union. Ashton was now the man in charge, and there were precious few hookers around.

"I'd taken to popping down to the pub to watch England play," Regan recalled, "and my mates would always say: 'Bloody hell, Ronnie, you could still be out there. We don't see anyone doing anything you aren't doing in the Premiership.' And I'd think to myself: 'Actually, that's not a million miles from the truth.' I knew I had no chance of getting anywhere while the old hierarchy was in place, but when the change happened I phoned Brian and said: 'Look, I'm not saying I'm the best hooker in the world. I'm not even saying I'm the best hooker in England. But I can still play a bit, and I'm as passionate as I ever was about wearing the shirt. If you want me, you've got me.' And Brian replied: 'That's just the kind of thing I want to hear. If we need you and we might I'll be in touch.' It was music to my ears, I can tell you."

Nothing much happened for a while. Thompson, one of the chosen few who laid hands on the World Cup in 2003, had broken down physically and, it seemed at the time, irreparably but George Chuter of Leicester and Lee Mears of Bath, the latter something of a protg of Regan's during the years they shared at the Recreation Ground, were out in front as the 2007 Six Nations hookers, with Dylan Hartley, the brilliant youngster from Northampton, riding in their slipstream. But as luck would have it, both Chuter and Mears found themselves involved in European finals on the last weekend of the season, and were therefore unable to travel to South Africa for the two-Test series in early summer. Ashton needed someone, anyone, to stand at the epicentre of the scrum and take whatever the Springboks felt like dishing out. One name sprang immediately to mind.

Was Regan offended at being invited to join what was routinely described as a "knob-end" tour a no-hoper's trip to the inhospitable Afrikaner strongholds of Bloemfontein and Pretoria, where a full-strength South African team would wade into what amounted to an English third-string and smear them all over the high veld?

"Offended? Are you joking? It was a massive chance for me. I knew what Brian wanted from me, without him having to open his mouth. He wanted some experience, some enthusiasm, some guts. I felt I could give him that, if nothing else. And I also thought: 'There won't be many of us going to the World Cup, but there might openings for three or four of us if we can stack up against the Boks. And so it turned out. Nick Easter came through, as did Andy Gomarsall. And when Brian told me, the day we were flying home, that I'd be in the training camp for the World Cup... well, you imagine."

Along with Chuter and Mears, on whom he had closed with his performances in the Republic, Regan went through the excesses and exhaustions of the summer camp: the savage team-building days with the Royal Marines in Devon, the warm-weather stint in Portugal, the fine-tuning work at Bath University, the warm-ups against Wales and France. "Brian kept us on our toes, because we were never sure whether he'd take three hookers to the tournament or gamble on just the two of us," he said. "I'll tell you this, though. I was in good nick by the end of that camp. I've always looked after myself, and when I was in my teens, I was a real fitness fanatic. All that work left me with a good engine a generator, I prefer to call it so even though I'd been around a while, I was able to do the things required of me. By the time we went to France, I wanted that starting place more badly than anything in the world."

His take on events in France is candid, colourful and invigorating. "Going into that pool game against the Boks the bad one, the 36-0 defeat the mood in the camp was definitely negative," he said. "I don't think there were 50 per cent of us who felt we could beat them, and that's a desperate situation to be in because if you don't have belief, you don't have anything. To make matters worse, there was no Jonny Wilkinson. You can't downplay the effect of his absence, because if you look at the stats, you'll see that we win 80 per cent of our matches when he's playing.

"So the following day, we had our meeting. THE meeting. There's been a fair bit of nonsense said and written about it, but in all honesty, it was a straightforward crisis session. Brian ran it as an open house the floor was available to anyone who wanted to make a point and there was a lot of shit thrown in his direction, just as there was a lot of shit thrown at the players. I think it was a therapeutic experience for all of us; I for one felt a lot better after the air had been cleared."

Was there a change of tactical approach as a result? "Yes, and it was driven by Brian and Jonny, primarily. We were in a cup-final position halfway through the pool stage, and we knew what had to be done. There were some stubborn old bastards in that squad, me included, and we got on with it."

The quarter-final victory over Australia and the last-four triumph over France a week later were Regan's idea of bliss. Had he bought the theory, advanced by the Wallaby forwards coach Michael Foley a bête noire of long standing that the scrummage would be a contest rather than an English walkover? Or had he assumed that Foley was spinning a yarn?

"What do you expect me to say to that?" he asked with a roar of laughter. "I'm not a great one for political correctness, am I? Looking at the tapes, it seemed they had improved a little. But basically, we knew they were weak in that area. Foley and I weren't the best of mates, to put it mildly we didn't get on when I played against him in '97 and when he started coaching at Bath, he drove me out of the club. So yes, I was looking forward to that quarter-final. I knew the Wallaby scrum was his baby, and I promised myself I'd take that baby away from him.

"If you remember, we conceded the first two penalties at the scrum, even though we were clearly the stronger unit. The Wallabies started piping up; I told them they that if they had any sense, they would pipe back down. Matt Dunning was full of it, as was Stephen Moore, their hooker. I said: 'Before you get carried away, remember there's 70-odd minutes of this game left to play, our kid.' Then I said to the ref, Alain Rolland: 'You've already done us twice. Haven't you heard of the law of averages?' Sure enough, the next penalty went to us.

"It was a wonderful feeling, being part of an England pack who had the Aussie lot on toast. I remember Lote Tuqiri, that bloody big wing of theirs, saying to little Josh Lewsey: 'Why don't they give you the ball, so I can smash seven bells out of you?' And Josh, bless him, pointed to the scrum and replied: 'Why would anyone want to give me the ball over here when that's happening over there?' Great stuff. And the fact that we'd been completely written off by the press made it all the better. When Nick Easter came out with the old Nick Faldo comment about thanking the media from the heart of his bottom, he spoke for us all. It was the party line."

While Regan has no complaints about the outcome of the tourniquet-tight final against the Springboks "I had them down as potential winners when I played them in June, and while we could have beaten them that night, they probably deserved their victory" he was distinctly underwhelmed by the public criticism of Ashton by two senior players, Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt. "That shocked me, genuinely," he says. "It was completely wrong. I phoned Brian and assured him of my support, not for my own benefit but because with all that stuff flying around, I wanted him to know how much I'd enjoyed the World Cup experience. At the end of the day, it's basic humanity to show your appreciation."

There will not be another World Cup. Not for Regan, at any rate. But he might get another run for the Barbarians, having defied his club indeed, the entire professional club movement, who effectively imposed a Premiership-wide boycott to fulfil an agreement to lead the invitation team against the new world champions.

"Had Bristol been involved in a meaningful match that weekend, my decision would have been different," he insists. "The last thing on earth I'd do is let down the people I play alongside. But there wasn't a meaningful match that weekend, and the Baa-Baas captaincy was something I knew I would treasure forever and a day. Yes, I was fined. I had it coming to me and I accepted it. But to beat the Boks to put one over on those buggers at the fifth time of asking was pretty special. I couldn't have made it up, could I?"

Year on year: Mark Regan on his 2007 highlight beyond rugby and his hopes for 2008

What event did you most enjoy in 2007?

"I'd have to go for the Formula One stuff. Lewis Hamilton did a fantastic job, not just in going so close to the title but by re-popularising an entire sport. It wouldn't have crossed my mind to watch a Grand Prix before he started winning, but I watch now. He raced for the championship the day after we lost the final, and I watched the race in a bar in Paris. It was good sport. More to the point, it was a good excuse to have some more beer."

What are you most looking forward to in 2008?

"All of it. I can't hope for another year like this one just coming to an end, but I'm still playing top-level rugby and enjoying it thoroughly. Will I play for England again? That's up to Brian Ashton, not me, but if he thinks I can do a job, I'll be more than happy to oblige."