The painful lessons in Europe will make Exeter a better side
BEING raised in the North West of England, football was always going to be my first game. I actually made it into the Wirral & West Cheshire schoolboys' team as a youngster!
In goal I was – and would like to think still am – a half-decent shot stopper and was the pride of my grandfather, who had to give up on his dream of making it at Everton to go to war.
However, if I didn't save the first shot, I wasn't quick enough off the floor to save the follow up. Football is a tough game and I knew very early on it wasn't my future.
At the age of 11 I decided to try my hand at the game with the odd-shaped ball. And so began my life in rugby. Coming from a decent rugby heritage – my uncle and father both played for Durham and my uncle the North of England, when that was genuinely an honour – I could hear the sighs of relief at my choice from all of the Bentley men.
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However, to begin with, things didn't go too well. It wasn't until I reached the age of 16 and the growth spurts that left me with my near two-metre, 19-stone frame that I started to do much. By the age of 17 I had moved on from my junior club Caldy and joined New Brighton in the fourth tier of English rugby.
It was at this club that I met long-time retired England international Wade Dooley and his old Lancashire teammates Laurie Connor and Shaun Gallacher. Now very long in the tooth, Dools and the other old boys took great pleasure in kicking me about the field every Tuesday and Thursday night at training. However, come Saturday, I would be under the big man's wing and the punishment that I endured was pressed onto the opposition.
Within a couple of years, now carrying some decent war wounds and having learnt some pretty tough lessons, I was offered a spot at Orrell in the old Allied Dunbar Premiership Two. Once again this was a step up and once again I was to have my toughest opponent at training in the hardest man I've ever played with or against, Charlie Cusani.
The script was pretty similar to my previous clubs. In my first ever session, chasing a kick-off full pelt and with my eyes fixed on the ball, I was checked by a straight arm, my legs came up over my head and I cart-wheeled to the floor out cold. As I came to, the coach at the time commented 'welcome to Orrell' as big Charlie stood over me giggling!
Things went really well at the Wigan club and we looked like making the Premiership until our backer pulled out and all of the players left.
Briefly, I managed to find myself at the famous French club Biarritz Olympique as injury cover for the French international Jerome Thion. Unfortunately, after sixth months and a couple of games for the first team, I was told that I hadn't made the grade and moved to Exeter.
Partnering Rob Baxter in my first season in the second row, I ran out with yet another gladiator of the game but was now seen as an equal and not a young upstart. We had two great years with the Chiefs and I certainly made some of my best friends on the long bus trips we used to have after hard-fought victories on the road.
However, I had a burning ambition to play at a higher level than where we were at the time and managed to get two seasons in the NPC in New Zealand for a team called Tasman and a year with Edinburgh in the Magners League (now the RaboDirect).
Fun as my little tour of the world was though, I knew I didn't belong abroad and fortunately the Chiefs were gracious enough to have me back.
Over the next five years I played a small part in the success of the club – mainly from the sidelines or the physio bed! I ended up just short of one of the great honours an individual player can receive, my name on the centurions board for playing 100 league games.
With 98 caps to my name, I actually made it onto the bench for two games last season without getting on. I was dubbed the 'ice cream' by the players (as in a 99'er) but, without managing to get on the pitch in either, I finished up as the 'melted ice cream'!
However, I digress. The point of this week's missive is to compare my own rise through the ranks of the game to our very own Chiefs. At every level I came to, things weren't always easy. However, the lessons I learnt – some of them very painfully – allowed me to grow, improve and step up on to the very high branches.
Personally, I never made the top of the tree but that's where our boys are. In the Northern Hemisphere there is no better challenge for a club than the Heineken Cup.
Currently Leinster are the best team in Europe and Clermont aren't far behind. To expect us to step up and beat them first off may well have been wishful thinking but, be under no illusion, we are there and we are on the same track.
The last 30 minutes on Saturday were quite painful but I know that the boys will have learnt from it and will bounce back a better team.
This weekend we play our bogey team Bath. They have been competing in the second tier of European competition and may well not be as battle-hardened as the Chiefs – perhaps it's time we dished out a lesson of our own.
Until the next time, stay safe and enjoy your rugby.