The ‘Big Freeze of 1963’ was one of the coldest winters on record in the United Kingdom. The England rugby team of that year huddled themselves in the warmth of their changing room waiting to take their team photograph and for the national anthems to be played before running out onto the makeshift ice rink to play Wales in Cardiff.
No such luxuries of the Principality Stadium roof, no protective blankets, no under-soil heating system, but instead straw from the valley farms was layered over the pitch as a form of insulation. Dick Manley and his team, led by Cornishman Richard Sharpe, braved the deep freeze, and like Eddie Jones’ England team of not so long ago, beat Wales to set them on course to win the championship.
Now Manley, one of Exeter rugby’s greats from yesteryear, dressed in his England jumper and scarf from 1963, talks to a slightly nervous 23-year-old attempting to hold the role of an amateur Michael Parkinson in the warmth of his club’s modern-day arena.
I was baffled to even believe how a game in such severe conditions could even be allowed to go ahead. Nowadays, local teams up and down the country call games off if ‘cold weather’ is even whispered on the weather forecast, in the fear of accidents that result in a barrage from Health and Safety.
Professional outfits of today have enough equipment in the form of blankets, hot fans, tents, and under-soil heating that even a patch of grass could survive in a mini Ice Age.
It’s clear, however, to see how it was different in Manley’s era. He stated consistently throughout our conversation, when delving further into the professional change that has occurred in our game from his day to now, “it’s all changed so much…to make comparisons isn’t really quite fair.”
Maybe so, but hearing tales and stories of Manley’s career is so mindboggling that even my inexperienced self and other team-mates can listen with astonishment and compare with the present day, realising just what different professional world we live in.
Manley donned the famous black jersey of Exeter Rugby Club throughout his whole career since joining as a colt. He played right across the back-row, finding more comfort at open-side where he went on to play in that position for Devon, the South West, five times for England, and 12 times for the world renowned Barbarians.
His Exeter side would take on teams home and away from Devon, Cornwall, Bristol and South Wales. Newport in Wales would be treated as “a long weekend tour” with the ambition to thoroughly enjoy post function events long into the night.
Exeter played their home fixtures at the County Ground where, as Manley recollected, “no more than a thousand would come and watch…attracting rugby fans from the local area that were more often than not members of the club.”
The ground was multi-purpose as there was a “speedway track round the outside, along with a dog track that played out entertainment during the whole year,” recalls Manley.
The County Ground would continue to be Exeter’s fortress until 2006, before relocating to the now state-of-the-art rugby Stadium and Conference Centre that is Sandy Park.
The County Ground, now little more than a housing development in the west of the city, was the building block of Manley’s career. During the 50s and 60s that patch of turf saw Manley’s rise as a player, seeing him take the field for his first taste of first team rugby with 14 other men, captained and coached by the P.E master at Hele Secondary School.
There was no ‘baggage’ on the sidelines; a team doctor would wait with bucket and sponge not deliberating with the idea that such a tool would do the trick in healing any form of injury. No substitutes, no fancy electronic scoreboard, no announcer and certainly “no time out for TMOs!” The game was kept simple and sweet, played in a tough and good spirit.
“It was highly amateur,” Manley remarked as he recalled what a regular training week would be at Exeter all those years ago. “We trained twice a week in the evenings, usually on a Tuesday and Thursday. Fitness would come from the training; we certainly didn’t lift any weights or anything like that.”
Manley was recognised as one of the most athletic in the squad, his fitness topped up by being involved in National Service training, whilst also continuing exercise throughout the ‘off season months’ taking part in the Exeter Wheelers Cycling Club. There he would regularly be part of time trials that took place near Crediton.
Throw it forward more than half a century and Manley’s rugby regime may be considered minimal to the professional crop of players. Like Manley, I am all too familiar with using cycling as form of strength and fitness work. Sport science now has evolved to create machines to push the body to failure.
Cycling time trials have been replaced with measured efforts on the dreaded ‘Watt-bike’ located in the gym surrounded by an altitude chamber that can replicate oxygen levels experienced at the top of Everest!
For the current crop of Exeter players no stones are left unturned throughout the week. Training is from Monday to Friday, three days on, one day off, and then preparation for the weekend’s game. There are videos of games, on the opposition and individual players showing enough clips of just scrums and mauls that could accumulate in length to watching the trilogy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. There are paid analysts to climb up scaffold towers to film from 360-degree angles overseeing training even in the height of the recent storm Doris.
Heart rate monitors, GPS units for each individual, ice baths, enough kit and balls to fill a warehouse, an armada of physios and doctors, strength and conditioning trainers, and of course a handful of coaches are all on hand and part of the professional squads’ week.
As I told Manley all this he chuckled and expressed simply once again, “well it’s fairly impossible to compare it to my day is it?”
As Manley continued to train twice a week and play for Exeter on the weekends, recognition for his hard work came in the form of being picked for Devon and eventually the South West.
“The County Championships back then were the equivalent to the Premier Championships of now,” said Manley. The dream of an England call-up came from a selection from the regional teams, who would play games against touring opposition such as South Africa and New Zealand.
“We (the South West) played them all from the southern hemisphere…I can’t remember the score against South Africa but there certainly wasn’t much in it.”
Eventually Manley made it to the ‘North v South trial game’ before then being selected for the England squad to take part in the Five Nations of 1963. It all happened fast for Manley, “I was selected, we went up the night before the game to have a run around and then played the next day.”
Luckily for Manley as he was self-employed cabinet maker, “I took my own time off to make the games”. Only once did he have to turn down the offer of a summer tour to Australia, which came in the form of a selection letter that simply stated, ‘Dear Mr Manley, you have been selected for the England tour of Australia…turn up at (time) to catch the boat.’
“I had had too much time away from business and couldn’t afford to make the trip”. Hard to imagine an England player turning down a chance to play and tour for his country. Nowadays, weeks of camps are organised, usually at England Rugby’s base, Pennyhill Park in leafy Surrey.
There, players live in the comfort of a five-star hotel with all training facilities within the park’s complex. Guarded day and night by security that means ‘Joe Blogs’ would struggle to get a glimpse of his favourite player, let alone go up and ask for an autograph.
For Manley it was simple, making a living was not going to come in the form of playing rugby, not even playing for England. Expenses were just about the only form of pay that Manley received in his rugby career. However, he was offered a contract to turn professional and play Rugby League, the only professional form of rugby out there at the time.
“At least three or four professional Rugby League players would regularly come and play union when competing for the Forces,” Manley recollected. They were paid just as much as the professional footballers of the time, the likes of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team.
Albeit a different form of the game, I was surprised Manley didn’t jump at the chance; however, as he expressed, “it was a different game – I didn’t wish to go north and not have the easy comfort of coming back home”. Ultimately for Manley it wasn’t about making money, he wished to play rugby union for his hometown and wear the red rose of England.
It is only too obvious to see how professionalism has taken the sport to new heights. As Manley, speaking probably on behalf of his generation, describes it as “an astronomical change”.
As our conversation indulged and stories were shared, eventually it came to an end. Manley’s son leant over to me and expressed that his father is one of the last men still alive from the England 1963 squad photograph that was taken in the warmth of that Cardiff changing room.
I told Manley that I was only too aware that as a member of this current generation of professional players, we are probably guilty in forgetting the memories and roots of the amateur era and the great legends, like Manley and his crop of players, that passed the torch of our great game onto us.
Hearing Manley made me feel that we, as players, probably take it for granted as to what we have on offer to us. After all, we have this astonishing ability to earn money to play a game we grew up to learn and love.
Money has made rugby into a business, not just for the clubs but also for the individuals. Players are playing for contracts, to gain other financial reward, looking to even move from club to club to find the right deal that suits them.
I’m not saying that all players are playing for monetary reasons but it does hold a factor. Equally for clubs themselves, the need for money to compete is vital. Premiership teams have large squads not afraid to bring players in from overseas to gain the upper hand.
Furthermore, all clubs try to hold together a business model that makes an annual profit and create a social media campaign to attract fans from all over world. Luckily for Exeter, profit has been achieved yearly, and exposure of the ‘Chiefs’ brand has grown. Manley acknowledged he has seen this success personally throughout his time as chairman of the club from 1999 – 2014.
In contrast, the great clubs of yesteryears, such as Moseley and now London Welsh, have fallen victim to the professional world. Their astonishing history that Manley would be able to recall, now tainted by their financial issues of recent times whilst their squad of players lose their job through little fault of their own.
When I asked Manley what his greatest pride was from his playing career, other than his representative honours, he replied “it was playing against the professional Rugby League players…it raised your game in a wish to show your own worth”. This Exeter rugby icon, an England and Barbarian success, was passionate to simply play for his ‘home’, and to take on the professional world that surrounded him. Money was not an influence but rather a factor he wished to compete against.
Mr. Manley, I salute you for your accomplishments and giving me an insight into how the rugby world has transformed.
As the season now goes towards the business end, and a Lions Tour appears over the horizon, pressure and expectation for players, clubs and countries rises. Yet for us players and fans maybe it’s worth taking time for some reflection and noting from the likes of Manley, what the game is all about. The pure expression of enjoyment, and a wish to play the beautiful game; even when faced with the severity of ‘The Big Freeze’ in Cardiff, 1963.
(Photos courtesy of http://www.ppauk.com)