Stortford's longest afternoon

There was much head-holding yesterday in the club where Ben Clarke began his career. Mike Rowbottom was there
On the television yesterday, the turf in Cape Town looked just as bright and green as that outside the window at Bishop's Stortford Rugby Club, where Ben Clarke first took up the game of rugby 20 years ago.

Stortford, whose glossy, sponsor-orientated guide features a picture of the young Clarke playing mini-rugby, sent a party of 20 players out to South Africa to follow the fortunes of their most famous former team member - whose 1993 Lions shirt now adorns the bar - at first hand. But there were plenty more bodies in the club-room yesterday to do the job televisually.

The New Zealand haka has traditionally tested the mettle of opposing sides, and Bishop's Stortford RFC, as far as they were able, rose to that challenge. "You big tarts," ventured a lone voice. "Hopefully one of them might put his back out," ventured another. And the overriding opinion was articulated by someone at the back: "Forget the yoga. Let's get on with it."

Within a minute, there were many present who might have opted for yoga as Jonah Lomu turned the English defence into desperate Lilliputians. The club's president, Les Clark, summed it up in the words that Will Carling only echoed: "It's David against Goliath." This time, however, there was no surprise winner in the shoot-out.

New Zealand's second try after five minutes left more than one club member with his head in his hands. "Is there long to go? I think we'd be better off at home now."

But there was more, so much more, to come; Zinzan Brooke dropping a goal after Carling's loose kick for touch - now there was a true head-hugging occasion. Lomu bursting through five tackles from Underwood, Morris, Rodber (Rodber!), Bayfield and Ubogu - now there was another head-hugging occasion.

"I think the second half's going to be a case of socks down, gumshields in," said Joe Clarke, Stortford stalwart and Fifth XV captain. How right he was.

There was a measure of comfort as England scored tries through Underwood and Carling. Lomu, however, intruded again with a try which had the president gesturing across the room: "Cancel the comeback."

Carling's second try, nevertheless, provided reason for particular enjoyment, founded as it was upon an initiative by Clarke. "Ben got an assist! Ben got an assist!"

But even Underwood's final flourish before the final whistle was not enough to cloud the issue for the spectators at the Silver Leys Forum yesterday.

"England played eight-man rugby and New Zealand played 15-man rugby," said the Veterans player, Simon Adams. "Mind you, it saved me an air fare out to South Africa for the final."

Clarke, it was generally agreed, had had a good game. And the talk turned to the time when young Ben had played for the Firsts at Cambridge seven years ago. After the match, they had stolen a goose from a pub, and Joe Clarke and Ben had driven it back to Bishop's Stortford's clubhouse. Eventually, they had hired a taxi to take the goose back to Cambridge. "It cost us pounds 16," said Joe. "I hope it got there in the end."

England may have been down and out, but Ben would be back for the dinner- dance in two weeks' time. His mates were already preparing to take the mickey out of him.

Comments