Sunday, May 10, 2020

Martin Cooper and England rugby in the 1970s

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I used to love watching the Five Nations, as it then was, as a boy, even in the days when we had a black-and-white television and you couldn't tell the teams apart when Wales played Ireland.

My great disappointment was how badly England did. I did not see them win the title until I was 20.

Some explanations for England's repeated failure when they had more players than any other country can be found in an interview with Martin Cooper, who played fly half for them in the early 1970s:
My one regret on having got to the top was that I never fulfilled my potential while playing for England. I know I could have played an awful lot better. Confidence was definitely an issue. You were always on edge and worrying that one mistake might cost you your place.
The selectors back then chopped and changed things a lot and that didn’t do anyone much good. Also, I was a ball-playing back for Moseley but with England I had to adopt different tactics and became known as a kicking fly-half. We’d made a few mistakes while trying to run inside our own 25-yard line and the selectors decided to adopt safety-first tactics.
As I remember it, Cooper was talked up by the press as a creative player who would allow England to play a more attacking game. If they wanted to play in this less suitable way, there was a more suitable fly half to hand.

Alan Old, the brother of the England cricketer Chris, would have won them many games with his place kicking in an era when a try was worth only four points. (Until 1971 it was worth three.)

But maybe skill at rugby wasn't the only factor in getting picked for England:
I was at work when I got a phone call from Air Commodore Weighill, the RFU secretary, informing me of my first call-up – as a replacement for the Wales v England game in Cardiff in the 1973 Five Nations. 
His first words were, ‘Cooper, have you got a dinner jacket?’ Once I replied no, he said ‘have you got a club blazer?’ Again I replied in the negative, before he asked, ‘have you got a suit’. Finally, I said yes and I was on my way to Porthcawl to join the rest of the players.
The best summing up of England rugby in the 1970s remains that by the Ireland hooker Ken Kennedy:
"England have got the players. What they have to do is find the selectors who will pick them."

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