Banner image

Author

Mark Hoskins

Mark Hoskins writes

Posted Tuesday, May 5th 2020

Past Encounters: Rafter stars in cup triumph

Club Historian, Mark Hoskins takes a look back at a famous Bristol victory in our latest Past Encounters feature.

London Irish 3-14 Bristol | Saturday, February 14th, 1976 | Sunbury

Mark Hoskins looks back at Bristol’s first cup game against London Irish

Following nearly a century of resistance to competitive club rugby, the RFU finally introduced a knockout competition in the 1971-72 season. Rather typically, bearing in the mind the attitude of many of the RFU’s old guard to cup rugby, there was no trophy for the winners and most emphatically no sponsor. In fact, it wasn’t until the fifth year of the competition that sponsorship was sanctioned, and so it was that in the 1975-76 season the RFU Club Competition became the John Player Cup. 

Bristol’s game at Sunbury on February 14th 1976 was their second in the newly-christened event. Back in October they had played Bath in the cup for the first time, winning a tight contest at the Rec by 24-15. Meanwhile, London Irish had enjoyed a 16-3 home success against Saracens. The teams had met early in October in the regular fixture for the season at Sunbury, with Bristol winning by the unusually large score of 43-6. This game and the Bath match had been part of a winning run of eleven matches, and by the time of the February cup tie Bristol had still only lost nine fixtures in what was eventually to prove a very successful season. London Irish had won eleven and lost twelve of their matches so far, and there was no doubt that Bristol went into the game at Sunbury as firm favourites. 

The visitors selected from strength for the game. The only significant absentee was England winger Alan Morley through injury, though his omission actually paved the way for an international recall for his club colleague Ken Plummer.  Morley had been selected for the Calcutta Cup match, due to be played a week after the cup tie, and the England selectors were in attendance at Sunbury to run the rule over Plummer. In the event he did indeed get selected for the match, and he kept his England place for the rest of the season.  Also on show for Bristol at London Irish were England forwards John Pullin and Dave Rollitt, along with future caps Austin Sheppard and Mike Rafter. 

Despite their indifferent form, London Irish too had some notable players in the match. Skipper Ken Kennedy and second row Mick Molloy were seasoned Irish internationals, while centre Pat Lavery was on the brink of winning his second cap.  Future caps in the team included outside half Hugh Condon, flanker John O’Driscoll and full back Dick Spring. The latter was also to become the leader of his country’s Labour Party. 

There was a school of thought in the early years of cup rugby that competitive games fostered violent play, and sadly there was evidence at the time to back this up. The first final, between Gloucester and Moseley, had witnessed a sending-off, and unfortunately the game at Sunbury did nothing to silence those who felt that knockout rugby was bad for the club game.  The latter part of the match contained a series of what Chris Ducker’s Evening Post report called “nasty niggling offences,” and it seemed that referee Dick Gulliver of Kent was far too lenient for much of the game. As we shall see, the climax to the encounter was particularly unsavoury.

There was little hint of trouble in the earlier stages of the match. A try-free first 40 minutes saw scrum half Alan Pearn kick two penalties for Bristol, with Spring landing one for the Irish. The other main feature of the first half was the outstanding Bristol defence, with centres Chris Williams and Phil Waters, along with skipper Dave Tyler and outside half Dave Sorrell meriting particular praise in Ducker’s report. As the second half unfolded, Bristol’s forwards took control. Rollitt was in “commanding form,” while Rafter “finally broke the Irish spirit with a series of crushing tackles on their back row at the tail of the lineout.” In the 55th minute Pearn hoisted a quickly-taken penalty towards the line and winger Robbie Carter caught the ball and scored a try.  Nine minutes later second row Alf Troughton won a lineout on the right, Sorrell fed Waters, and the latter crashed through an attempted tackle ten yards in front of the posts. Carter was on hand to collect Waters’s long pass, and the winger scored his second try. 

Bristol now led fairly comfortably going into the final stages of the game, but the violence got worse and worse as the match neared its conclusion. It culminated in what Chris Ducker called “a final injury time explosion,” with both packs slugging it out in front of the stand. This time Mr Gulliver just had to take action, and he sent off Bristol prop Mike Fry for lashing a boot at Kennedy. The game ended almost immediately afterwards. 

Mike Fry, arguably the finest prop in the entire history of the club, and quite possibly a member of the crowd at Ashton Gate this afternoon, was unquestionably an uncompromising opponent on the rugby field. However, this was his only sending off in a Bristol shirt. He was perhaps unfortunate that he did what he did right in front of the referee, and there were certainly more serious incidents that went unpunished and unnoticed. The worst of these, and the catalyst for the final carnage, was an injury to Phil Waters which required five stitches to a gash beneath his left eye. He had been kicked by Kennedy and gave full vent to his feelings in the Evening Post.  “I was deliberately booted in the face,” he claimed. “The action was totally uncalled for, and if cup rugby means kicking someone in the head in order to win you can keep it. I could easily have lost an eye.”

Mike Fry for his part felt rather hard done by, though he regretted the incident. “In fact I was surprised to be sent off,” he told Chris Ducker, “because until then the referee’s only action over other incidents was to talk to the captains. His interpretation was that I was guilty of kicking Kennedy.  But if I had wanted to drive the boot in really hard, I could have done. It was not that bad. I am sorry it happened, because it lowers the reputation of a club who definitely do not have a name for rough play.”

The game as a whole was, in Chris Ducker’s words, “a bad advert for competitive rugby,” but Bristol definitely deserved their win. Rafter “continually disrupted the Irish with devastating, fearless tackles,” and his bravery and persistence were rewarded with the man-of-the-match accolade. Bristol’s reward for the victory was a home quarter final against Rosslyn Park, but this turned out to be one of those irritating afternoons when Bristol lost narrowly despite spending virtually the entire second half on the attack. Even more frustratingly, they hit peak form straight afterwards, triumphing 34-8 at Pontypool the following Wednesday and winning twelve matches in a row, including a revenge success against Rosslyn Park.  Longstanding supporters may recall that Bristol often used to hit top form following an unexpected cup exit, and the club would have to wait until 1983 to see Mike Rafter raise the John Player Cup at Twickenham.     

Bristol: Tries: Carter (2), Pen: Pearn (2)

London Irish: Pen: Spring

Bristol: D G Tyler (captain), K C Plummer, C J Williams, P L Waters, R S Carter, D P Sorrell, A F A Pearn, M J Fry, J V Pullin, A Sheppard, R Speed, A H Troughton, D M Rollitt, M Rafter, S J Davies

London Irish: R M Spring, C Courtenay, P H D Lavery, P Frackleton, D Donovan (rep D A Leopold), H C Condon, J Frost, J A Newberry, K W Kennedy (captain), L White, M G Molloy, M Ridley, P Crotty, W W A Jones, J B O’Driscoll

Referee: R Gulliver (Kent)


Latest News

Report: Saracens Women 17-12 Bristol Bears Women

Report: Saracens Women 17-12 Bristol Bears Women

Posted: Saturday, December 4th 2021

Highlights: Gloucester 27-10 Bristol Bears

Highlights: Gloucester 27-10 Bristol Bears

Posted: Saturday, December 4th 2021

Report: Gloucester 27-10 Bristol Bears

Report: Gloucester 27-10 Bristol Bears

Posted: Friday, December 3rd 2021

"Small margins cost us" - Sheedy

"Small margins cost us" - Sheedy

Posted: Friday, December 3rd 2021

Also from Bristol Sport

LIVE: Bristol Flyers v Plymouth City Patriots
Basketball icon

LIVE: Bristol Flyers v Plymouth City Patriots

Tune in LIVE as Bristol Flyers host Plymouth City Patriots in the BBL Championship (3pm tip-off).

Posted: Sunday, December 5th 2021 • Basketball

🎥 Scott salutes BS3 faithful
Football icon

🎥 Scott salutes BS3 faithful

Alex Scott was full of praise for the Ashton Gate faithful as his goal saw City gain all three points against Derby.

Posted: Saturday, December 4th 2021 • Football

🎥 Pearson praise for attacking intent
Football icon

🎥 Pearson praise for attacking intent

Pearson praised his squad's ambition and aggressiveness to secure three points against Derby County at Ashton Gate.

Posted: Saturday, December 4th 2021 • Football

📸 Gallery: Scott fires City to victory over the Rams
Football icon

📸 Gallery: Scott fires City to victory over the Rams

Alex Scott's 16th-minute strike saw City claim a valuable three points at home against Derby County.

Posted: Saturday, December 4th 2021 • Football

📝 Report: Bristol City 1-0 Derby County
Football icon

📝 Report: Bristol City 1-0 Derby County

City made it four unbeaten at Ashton Gate with a 1-0 victory over Derby County courtesy of Alex Scott's left-footed strike.

Posted: Saturday, December 4th 2021 • Football