County Ground Days – Roy Huxtable part 1
We are lucky to have amongst us, former Exeter Rugby Club players from the 1950’s era and onwards who are still members of the club and who regularly attend matches at Sandy Park. Happily for us, they are willing to share some of their rugby experiences from the amateur days and to “kick-off” we have someone most of you will know very well, Roy Huxtable. We asked Roy how he got into rugby.
“I didn’t start playing rugby until I went into the RAF. I was not interested in the slightest at school, because I didn’t understand the game to be quite honest with you (and probably still don’t!). I started to pick up the game when I joined the RAF and played in the Far East. I found out then that they used to play on Boxing Day morning and I realised there was a place for me in that game, so that’s really how I started. I was chatting to a friend of mine the other day, talking about rugby in the services, and because most of the services’ sides were officers, he said “it was a good opportunity to punch officers!” When I came out of the RAF I made a short-lived, poor career move in the Police Force and that’s where really I got going. When I came out of the Police, I was back here by then and I’m pretty sure it was Roger Pugsley who said “We’re short of a player on Saturday over at Cowick Barton – can you come and play”? I did, and that’s how I started, I sort of drifted into it through the back door. It took off from there funnily enough and there are still at least seven or eight chaps that go to Sandy Park who played in the team at that time. Was I taught or coached? No, not really. I picked it up as I went along at the level that I’m talking about. I played then for the best part of 15 years; I played a lot of A/B team games and on the odd occasion I was lucky enough to play for the first team. Once I was even selected to play on a Tuesday, obviously away, because that’s the way it happened. I must have played on every ground in Devon, although perhaps not so much in Cornwall. We didn’t go down to Cornwall so much, we went on tour there or overnight, but we played a lot in Somerset, on every ground I can think of.”
“Training normally consisted of running around the pitch with fitness-type stuff on the County Ground, and was usually on a Tuesday evening. Whilst others were out on the pitch training there was often a question mark over whether they should be using the pitch or not, even in those days; we used to train under the greyhound lights because we didn’t have floodlights at that time. The committee always met on a Tuesday night whilst the training was going on and it comprised of all ex-players without exception – male only – and they would sit and select the sides for the following Saturday. Occasionally we were told that night, it depended on what time the meeting finished. You would often get sent a card through the post - bearing in mind we are talking about an era when very few people had telephones - which you received on Wednesday or Thursday saying you had been invited to play, with details of where and when. Looking back though, the guy I always felt very sorry for was the person in the organisation who picked up all the bits and pieces, the Team Secretary. On a Friday night, particularly a Friday night, and because he did have a telephone, his phone would start to ring “I can’t play” and you would find on Saturday that you weren’t playing at so and so, you would be going somewhere else. He certainly was the lynch-pin of the playing side. This was especially so at the bottom end of the organisation. Imagine this at some of the London clubs who were running sixteen to seventeen teams and you can understand the organization required, whereas we were running only four! I really don’t remember if we cried off a game because of lack of players although I can recall going with thirteen on occasions. I can remember we turned up at County Ground to play Kingsbridge, I believe. The coach (bus) and captain were there, no committee, we had a head count and we only had thirteen. Well, we had to go so who else could we find? We didn’t have any subs then, but this was an “A” team game and someone had an idea – “what about so and so, he lives over in Regent Street, he’s played a bit of football!” We drove the coach around to his house, knocked on his door, he found his old football boots, we found a pair of shorts and off we went to Kingsbridge where he played his first game ever and we lost by the way! Things like that were quite common. There are numerous stories of teams or clubs who would pick up their players from the pub on a Saturday and it wasn’t unusual, especially for touring sides, to be smelling of beer – though not our side, of course! I played from 1959 to 1975, so this was during the ‘60s. The first team would travel to South Wales, Bristol, Gloucester and London whilst the “A” team would go as far as Bristol or Bath and play. We occasionally stayed away in South Wales and if you go back to the era before, they travelled by train. Starkey and Dick Manley went to London by train and there is a lovely story about when they were put off the train at Castle Cary on a Saturday night and somebody came up from Exeter and bailed them out. There were no leagues in those days, these were all friendlies.”
“The first team was run in a far more efficient way and Exeter, I would suggest, was better organised than most. We were very much spoilt compared with other clubs. For example, you frequently had a coach. I’ve come back from places with only seven or eight people on the coach more times than I can think of due to people deciding to stay late and others bumming a lift back. The kit was supplied, which again just turned up; somebody else delivered the shirts, we dropped them on the floor and they were picked up and delivered the next week. At other clubs the players had to do more for themselves. I wonder sometimes how it was all financed; I think indirectly off the back of the greyhounds and the speedway but I’m not sure because we paid a membership subscription which was £5. We paid a match fee, which was maybe £1 or £2 something of that nature. I don’t know if the match fee paid for the coach, but looking back I don’t see how it could have done. We always got a meal, (supplied by the ladies’ tea committee) the condition being that both home and away teams got fed and there were always jugs of beer; certainly the first jug at the County Ground was on the Club which you would share with the opposition obviously. After that there was a tradition that you had a whip round, and bought another jug and vice versa. The first team games were definitely gate-taking but there was no sponsorship, programmes were about 6 pence each. The County Ground was the host for many big games e.g. the South Western Counties v. the All Blacks, the Springboks and County games and these matches were big earners for the Club.”
“That’s my playing career as such; I’ve played a heck of a lot of rugby. All of these were wonderful occasions of camaraderie and friendship, sing songs, late nights coming back on coaches, leaving people behind, all these things come back to you”.