January, 1978. It’s a cold Sunday morning in Buckinghamshire, and England are playing a training match against a local county XV. A twenty-one-year-old prop from Aylesbury Rugby Club is about to make a tackle he’ll never forget.
‘England used to train in those days at Bisham Abbey, and they wanted a side to play on the Sunday morning’, recalls Gary Pearce. ‘So Bucks put out a side. Fran Cotton was playing, and I tackled him – and unfortunately damaged his knee. He wasn’t able to play in the first two or three England games that season. So it was like: “Who’s this novice from Aylesbury who’s injured our number one loosehead?”’
Within a year of that incident, Gary Pearce was no longer the novice from Aylesbury who had injured an England player – he was an England player. It was a rapid rise which kickstarted a long international career; one which spanned 12 years, 36 caps and two World Cups, and one which saw him become, in 1987, England’s most-capped prop.
Pearce’s story begins in Dinton, Buckinghamshire, where he was born in 1956. He jokes that he ‘hasn’t moved too far since then’ as he sits in his house in the village of Stone – just two miles down the road from his birthplace. It’s the village that his father worked in, as the catering officer at the local hospital, and also the village in which he attended primary school, before heading to the local secondary modern, Mandeville County.
It was at that school that he first encountered rugby union. ‘We played football one term, and then there’d be a term of rugby. We’d only play three or four games a year, but the big game was against Aylesbury Grammar School. They had regular rugby and had a very good side’.
Despite him and his teammates regularly getting ‘stuffed’ by the grammar school kids down the road, those three or four games a year were enough to get the young Pearce hooked. He was soon spotted as a talented player, and after playing for his county side, had a trial for England under-18s. ‘That was pretty daunting really’, he recalls. ‘Most of the players who were on the teamsheet, they were from the public and grammar schools, so there was always a feeling of “Hang on a minute, am I in the right place?” For me, coming from Mandeville County School, they must have thought: “Who the hell is he?” Pearce was unsuccessful on that occasion, but national recognition was not far off.
Following the Bisham Abbey match and the tackle on Cotton, the young front-rower found himself invited to a trial at Northampton. He didn’t immediately jump at the chance. ‘For me it was a big move. It took a lot of persuading from people around me that wanted me to play rugby at the level they thought I could’, he remembers. ‘I just wanted to play rugby because I loved playing rugby, and for the social side afterwards, with the mates that you knew. Going from Aylesbury to a new club was a big, big step for me.’
It was a step he decided to make though, and after a few trial games, the name ‘Gary Pearce’ became a fixture on the Saints teamsheet. But his meteoric rise didn’t stop there; within a few months, England came calling.
‘In the January of ’79, I was asked to go on an England trial. We played England versus The Rest – I think I was in the “Rest” side. And then two weeks later, I found myself playing for England. It was like: I had no dreams of playing for England, I was plucked from Aylesbury and less than a year later I was in the Elizabethan Room at Bisham Abbey and my name was read out amongst all these – Uttley, Neary, Rafter, Beaumont – I was there! I think I must have gone white as a sheet.’
Not many of us can say that the first time we visited Twickenham was to play for England. ‘It was the first time I’d been; to play in front of 55,000’, recalls Pearce of his debut against Scotland. But despite the occasion, and the fact he was up against none other than ‘Mighty Mouse’ – legendary Scottish prop Ian McLauchlan – sporting reflex soon kicked in. ‘A lot of the press were saying “this young lad Pearce is going to be eaten alive”’, he recalls, ‘but you just go out there and play. When you play rugby, whether you’re playing in front of 55,000 at Twickenham or at Aylesbury playing in front of 20 guys and a dog, you still go out there and play your game.’
England drew that game 7-7, and to his great relief, Pearce was picked for the following game. ‘The biggest thing for me was being picked for the next one. Because the idea of being a one-cap wonder, “he’s tried it once and not succeeded…”’ He tails off – it’s as if he can’t bear to contemplate the thought even now.
But far from joining those unfortunate ranks, Pearce would go on to play every England match that season, and that summer he jetted off on his first international tour. It would become a regular routine – aside from Five Nations games, Pearce toured eight times with England, visiting nine different countries. His first stop, in the summer of 1979, was Japan. ‘You never got caps for playing against them because they weren’t deemed strong enough opposition’, he remembers – something that will no doubt raise a wry smile on South African faces given recent results.
South Africa, in fact, was among those countries Pearce visited in his globetrotting career. By the summer of 1984, he had become an England regular, and the national side were due to defy the international sporting boycott and tour a nation divided by apartheid. Those selected for the tour were urged by anti-apartheid campaigners to stay at home; Pearce received a letter from the then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, though it arrived at his house after he had left for the tour. How did he feel about suddenly finding himself at the heart of a political maelstrom? ‘To me, it was like: separate sport from politics. Although these days they are intertwined, and I’m aware of that. But in those days – you’re picked to play for your country, they’re going, so you’re going with them.’ It was the view that most players took, and the tour went ahead. On the sporting front, it was to prove an unhappy one for England, who were soundly beaten in both of the two test matches.
As Pearce’s career continued, it was clear that rugby union was changing, both on and off the pitch. ‘When I started with England’, he recalls, ‘we would just meet up the day before a match. Then it was the Wednesday evening, so there was an extra two days of preparation. There was more money being pumped into the game, there were fitness specialists, you were given tapes to listen to for mental preparation. Things were changing’. A story from his first England cap serves to highlight the transition rugby was going through. ‘When I first played for England, the letter that I was sent said that I had to provide my own shorts’. He recites the wording with an incredulous grin – ‘“Please provide your own white shorts”’ – before laughingly recalling his reaction: ‘I thought – “what?”’
All of this change meant that the game’s amateur status was becoming increasingly shaky. As Pearce puts it, ‘players were looking to get some rewards from the amount of time they were putting in’. Such rewards often came indirectly. Having worked as a quantity surveyor since leaving school, a recession in the construction industry suddenly left him without a job. ‘I finished the 1991 World Cup to find out that I’d been made redundant. That was when the networking around rugby helped.’ A firm of chartered surveyors connected to his club, Northampton, offered him a job. ‘The job was given to me because of who I was, and the rugby network’, he recalls. The so-called ‘freemasonry’ of rugby had come to his aid, as it had done for many others before him.
The fact that a World Cup existed at all was indicative of the way the game was modernising. Pearce himself played not only in 1991, but also in the very first tournament, in 1987. It was a far cry from what we’ve seen this year. ‘There wasn’t any media attention really. You weren’t getting the masses to the games. The quarter-final against Wales, we only had about 16,000 maximum.’ That match against Wales was as far as England got. ‘We lost 16-3. Then the following day, I’m afraid that’s it – you go home. So Saturday you play, Sunday you go home, and the Monday or Tuesday you’re back at work.’ No enquiries or review panels back in 1987, then.
The next tournament brought a little more success, and for Pearce, provided the swansong of his international career. Prior to the 1991 World Cup, his last cap for England had been in 1988, but the 35-year-old was selected for the squad, playing in an England shirt for the final time in the pool stages, against the USA. England went on to reach the final, and Pearce was on the bench. ‘It was fantastic – the final, at Twickenham, against Australia. People say we changed tactics, but we went out there and played and did our best, and we lost – I can’t remember what the score was. But it was fantastic to be involved at that level.’
Though that tournament signalled the end of his England career, Pearce’s playing days were far from over. Remarkably, he played on for Northampton until the 1994/95 season, during which he came out of a previously-announced retirement to play a handful of games for Ian McGeechan’s side. A veteran of a colossal 411 games for the club, his proudest moment came when he captained them in the 1991 Pilkington Cup final. Though Northampton lost in extra-time to Harlequins, he remembers the day fondly. ‘The club was so pleased to get there – the whole town of Northampton is such a great supporting town. I think two-thirds of the crowd were Northampton supporters’.
By the summer of 1995, it looked as though Pearce’s long career had finally come to an end. But there was to be one last twist. In 1996, after the game had gone open, a struggling Nottingham came calling for his services. ‘They were looking to stay up, so they got in touch with me’, he remembers. ‘I had to sign a contract – I would get paid for every league game I played in.’ A forty-year-old Pearce played in 12 games that season, but by the summer, the time had come to finally hang up his boots for good.
Well, almost. After retiring from senior rugby, Pearce continued to turn out for Aylesbury now and again, as well as helping to coach them. As he says, he wanted to ‘put something back in’ to the club that had launched his career all those years ago. He even appeared in the same forward pack as his son – a picture of them together on the field sits proudly on his wall.
These days though, the boots have firmly been packed away, and now that he’s retired from work as well as rugby, he and his wife Sue like to spend time at their holiday home in France. His true home, though, remains in Buckinghamshire – just down the road from the school where he first played rugby, and the club he first played for as a 16-year-old. In one sense, he’s come a long way since that fateful tackle at Bisham Abbey – in another, he’s happy not to have come too far at all.
About the Author – Joe Hall, a PhD researcher at De Montfort University, is working in collaboration with the World Rugby Museum on a project titled ‘An Oral History of England Internationals, 1945-1995’. Keep up to date with his progress @JoeEdwardHall