Their reign was brief but has there ever been a more doughty cup king than Gosforth?

WHEN THE great and the good of North-East rugby gathered at Hexham Abbey last month to celebrate the life of the late Gosforth club eminence Colin White, the moving occasion stirred fond recollections not only of one of the region’s noblest sporting chieftains but also for a vanished, evocative era before big bucks, big crowds and big transfer stories dominated the English club game.

In this month in which the 40th national club final is staged at Twickenham, many olde-tyme rugby folk wistfully yearn for that ‘golden age’ and those less frantic days of amiable, confraternal amateurism when Gosforth, briefly, carried all before them as a mighty force in the land.

Gosforth today might be no more than a matey little rugby club enjoying a quiet life in the tight-knit Durham-Northumberland league, so unconsidered that any rugby devotee not yet into middle age would find it impossible to believe that not long ago Gosforth was England’s champion club, vibrantly awash with international players – one of whom was the steadfast four-square prop and forestry worker Colin White who, in 1978, lost three fingers in a chainsaw accident. He set off for hospital, then realised he had forgotten the fingers, so calmly turned the car around to collect them. They were sewn back on again and five years later he won his first cap, at 36 in England’s still-fabled 15-9 Twickenham win over New Zealand in 1983.

The RFU only allowed the first knockout club competition in 1972; four years later came an inaugural sponsor – John Player tobacco – and, lo and behold, Gosforth were successive winners in its first two seasons, beating Rosslyn Park 23-14 in 1976 and, a year later, Waterloo by 27-11 to mark Gosforth’s centenary. Then in the 1981 final Gosforth, captained by White, lost to Leicester 22-15 and that, nationally at any rate, was that.

It had been a short but heady reign. Just consider the gold-leaf names on Gosforth’s honours board… two imperishable back-row Lions of those immortal tours respectively of 1971 and 1974, Oxford’s triple-Blue Yorkie Peter Dixon, and all-time great and future England coach Roger Uttley, a Lancashire lad who studied at Northumberland teachers’ college. At their heels all through Gosforth’s glorious run was fellow England cap and indefatigable Geordie mudlark No 9 Malcolm Young.

Scotland’s Richard Breakey was a Gosforth luminary, so was his compatriot, happy hooker Duncan Madsen; so too, later, England lock Steve Bainbridge. More than a few others in those crack Gosforth XVs deserved Test caps – the tireless flanker Dave Robinson for one, rock-like prop Andy Cutter for another, or those different but dashing wingers, mercurial Steve Gustard and bellicose David Carr.

Probably history’s most pre-eminent Gosforthians, however, are the brace who successively captained, coached and heroically inspired the club in its first remarkable flowering. They are 40-cap Irish prop legend Ray McLoughlin, Connachtman and Newcastle Uni scientist who, once injured on the tour, became Carwyn James’s right hand and muse with the 1971 Lions, and businessman – beanpole from down the coast at Hartlepool, Jack Rowell, who would leave his beloved North-East for the South-West to become not only a Bath legend but also England’s supremo.

One-off Jack was, in turn, capricious, unpredictable and touched with genius. Ray was a deep thinker, a scholar of the game, and sternest of disciplinarians; rugby was a serious business and he didn’t even like his teams to smile for the club photos. They explained: Ray was making them so successful, they just couldn’t help smiling. Happy days, eh?

This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine

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