Brian Viner: Raise a glass – or six – to Uttley, a true rugby spirit

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The Independent Online

To previous generations of international rugby union players, popping into a London nightclub for 20 minutes, reportedly to drop some tickets off for a mate and without consuming any alcohol, must seem like a laughably innocuous reason for a dynamic rising star for Wasps and England to be dropped two days before the Calcutta Cup match. Take a former star for Wasps and England, who one evening on tour in Paris, in 1992, stripped almost to the buff and, covered in butter and salt, took on and beat a French No 8, a hulk of a bloke called Bernard, in a sumo wrestling match. Linda Uttley could teach Danny Cipriani a thing or two about painting the town red.

It was not to get details of her more barnstorming nights out on rugby tours, however, or even of her barnstorming runs for Teddington Antlers Ladies, Wasps, England and the British Lionesses, that I phoned Linda a couple of days ago. At the age of 41, Linda is suffering from a rare and aggressive form of terminal cancer, called leiomyosarcoma. Particular but expensive treatment from specialists at a hospital in Boston, Massachussetts, could extend her life. To this valuable end a black-tie benefit dinner has been organised for next Friday at the Richmond Hill Hotel in Richmond, Surrey.

I write about it here not just to draw attention to an enormously worthwhile event, but also to commend the way in which professional sport – so widely excoriated for its greed and selfishness – rises to such an occasion. Moreover, any notion that the male stalwarts of rugby union are dismissive of their female counterparts can be well and truly knocked on the head simply by looking at the list of those who have pledged their help, among them Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jason Leonard, Will Greenwood, Dewi Morris, Brian Moore and Fergus Slattery.

I don't mean help in the form of a signed shirt or two, either. Several, if not all, of the above will be there on Friday, Slattery as host and auctioneer. The auction lots include dinner for two with Martin Johnson and lunch for four with Jason Leonard, as well as exotic holidays and boxes at Twickenham.

When I asked Linda what this support meant to her, she began to cry. There was a longish pause while she recovered her composure, but by the time she'd got hers back, I was beginning to lose mine. "I am truly, truly touched," she eventually said, somewhat unnecessarily. It was a phone conversation containing laughter as well as tears, I should add. When I invited Linda to explain the events leading up to the devastating diagnosis last November, she explained that she'd been suffering from "wind problems" and so took the decision to have a hysterectomy. During the operation her ureter was accidentally cut, so she then needed bladder reconstruction, which was when several unusual nodules were spotted. All this was something I wanted to get right, so I read back through my notes with her, and with a huge laugh she corrected one significant detail. She'd cited "women's problems", not "wind problems". What can I say? I'd called her from my mobile and the signal wasn't great.

I confess that I hadn't heard of Linda before I learnt about her plight, but she is by all accounts among the finer and most popular players to have graced women's rugby over the past couple of decades. Having been introduced to rugby by her hairdresser, which strikes me as a rather marvellous way for an international sporting career to be kindled, she won 13 England caps in every position except prop, hooker and full-back, but was at her formidable best in the second row. She was no less formidable in the bar, swapping not just her shirt with the men's captain of Utrecht on a tour to Amsterdam with the Antlers, but everything she was wearing. The following year, when Utrecht came to Teddington, he returned her clothes, washed, ironed and neatly folded.

Friday's dinner might not be quite as raucous as some of the evenings Linda has known in the past, but I don't suppose that it will have a maudlin flavour. If my exchanges with her in the past few days are anything to go by, she is immensely spirited and upbeat in the face of horrible odds, and I expect that she will set the tone for a terrific night. It is no small testament to her popularity that friends she made while playing rugby are coming to the dinner from as far afield as Australia, America and South Africa.

She agreed only five weeks ago to the idea of a fund-raising dinner, then went on holiday for a week. "By the time I came back everything was in full swing," she told me, tearfully. All the tickets have been sold, but other contributions or auction bids are, needless to add, hugely welcome.

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