One of the expectations that visitors have when joining a stadium tour is that the tour guide can answer each and every one of their questions. Some questions are regular ones. “What is the best match you have ever seen at Twickenham?” comes into that category. Having had the privilege of seeing matches since the late 1950s, when I first came with my rugby-playing school to see a varsity match, a fully satisfactory answer is not easy, even if one can first define exactly what is meant by “best”.
Any contender for the accolade needs to be memorable, and into that category for me come matches such as England’s encounter with Wales in 1980. On a day of attritional rugby, Dusty Hare’s very late third penalty gave the home side a 9-8 win over their 14 man opponents, Paul Ringer having been sent off early in the 1st half. The victory also allowed England to complete a Grand Slam at Murrayfield in their final match. By contrast the January 1982 match versus Australia, which was played in dreadful weather conditions, had some quality play and a 15-11 victory for England. Its memorable feature though was the way in which Miss Erica Roe interrupted Bill Beaumont’s half-time pep talk to his players with probably the most talked-about sporting “streak” in an era noted for such extrovert behaviour.
One can then add England’s dramatic second-half against Ireland in 1988 turning a 3-0 deficit into a 35-3 win, with Chris Oti famously scoring three of the home team’s six tries, or, at the other end of the spectrum, having one’s nerves ripped to shreds just over a year ago as Scotland turned England’s 31-0 advantage into a 38-31 lead going into added time, only for England to save face with a last-gasp converted try, but with Scotland retaining the Calcutta Cup.
For me, none of these has all the necessary ingredients. For that I turn to 1991, and recall not an international, but the final of the County Championship, a competition that still exists but now lacks the profile of the pre-professional era. My father, who often came with me to sporting events, had a Cornish grandmother. As a youngster, and until the time of World War 2, he and the family would regularly go west to visit surviving Aunts, and the strong association with Cornwall was passed to me and my sister. Thus, when Cornwall came to Twickenham on 20th April 1991 to contest the final with Yorkshire I enthusiastically joined Trelawny’s Army, estimated at 40,000, and supported the black and golds.
Watching from the middle tier of the recently redeveloped north stand, I watched as Yorkshire steadily took control. By half-time, courtesy of a penalty and then a try by the centre Johnson, they held a 7-3 lead, which was increased via a second penalty within two minutes of the re-start. When, after a tapped penalty caught the black and golds wrong-footed, the scrum-half Dave Scully went over with just 25 minutes left, and his try was converted to make it 16-3, Cornish hearts began to sink, though the bass drummer of the Falmouth Marine Band never gave up hope. To add to the challenge the Cornish captain Chris Alcock, who had become increasingly less effective due to a badly injured leg, had to be replaced with just over 20 minutes to go. Suddenly came redemption; scrum-half Richard Nancekivell forced his way over for a try, which was converted, and with three minutes left a penalty made it 16-12.
With the noise now deafening and with Cornwall’s front five, which included England hooker Graham Dawe, pounding the opposition, Nancekivell’s alertness from a 5 metre scrum took him over for his second try to level the score, with the conversion to come. Agonizingly the kick drifted wide and extra time was needed, but that belonged to Cornwall, with a penalty and then a try by winger Tommy Bassett in the first ten minutes, followed by a try for the No 10, Billy Peters, early in the second period. This was converted, and completed a period of 26 minutes play in which Cornwall scored 26 points without reply. A late Yorkshire try by their winger and former England captain Mike Harrison made it 29-20 at the final whistle, whereupon and the pitch was suddenly a mass of black and gold. The Duke of Edinburgh presented the trophy, and I felt as Cornish as I had ever been.
So what of my father? He was born in 1916, just 8 years after Cornwall’s 1908 triumph – their only previous championship title. In early March 1991 he died at the age of 74. He thus never experienced a Cornish triumph. Rugby, like all sports, is not only about what happens on the field, but I wish he had been there to see it that day.
By Mike Hagger, Twickenham Stadium Tour Guide