But within two weeks the tropical heat had solved all my knee woes and I was a veritable spring chicken again. I had also found the British Club’s Rugby Section which comprised, as the species dictates, of massively gregarious, outrageously boozy and about as unfit as any un-rejected overweight army conscript could be …to a man!
My background is a simple tale of a public-school boy who gave up a prospective career life of easy City banking fortunes and chose instead the penniless contractor option. But during those early years I joined Windsor RFC in Berkshire UK where my Queen still lives. This was thanks to my Uncle Robin who had just left Saracens in the mid 70s. That’s the 1970s not 1870s!! That was a fabulous introduction into club rugger from the much protected and closeted school game to the seriously blood spilling activities of local derbies and seasons of drinking, singing (not me, I was banned from singing!), Easter tours and comraderie.
My first game for the BC (British Club) was against the Navy at some pitch in north Bangkok and, appropriately for a Navy game, a season starter during the Monsoon - and it had rained all morning. Not UK rain, but as Terry Pratchett would say: “It was like the sea with slots in!”. Upon arrival there was no pitch, just a lake with vague white lines shimmering through the murk. The game had no specifics other than our opposition exhibited none of the graceful Oriental manners I expected but punched, kicked and bit like Dervishes. We had heavy cotton long sleeved shirts and within minutes we were all sloshing about with orangutang arms and no hands! One of the immediate and heartfelt wardrobe results after the match was to have all our jersey sleeves cut off!!
I’ve often been asked how the BC was able to become the best rugby team in Thailand – and first expat team to achieve this. After all, it had only been in existence for eight years. It’s a tough, long question to answer. Obviously, we had some great players in most key positions, none of whom were young as there were few youthful UK teachers in circulation in the early 90s and most work permits were given to senior expat managers or country managers who definitely held down meaningful 24-7 jobs.
There were stalwarts from the existing BC team who continued into the 91-93+ era, namely Vincent Swift at any position from 1-7 and even in the backs so long as he ‘got out there!’ and perennial Colin Hastings on the wing – mostly getting a suntan as we rarely passed it that far!
We had some great strong, powerful forwards in Mike Pincock, a prop from Oriel, Julian Olds from Bath, Hugh Butler, our token mandatory mad Taff, Paul ‘Meggo’ Meggison from Wagga Wagga, Paul Hunt from Lower Hell and our cannonball No.9, Bulla Tui from Fiji. The others and myself made up the necessary chaff to support, lift and promote our heroes.
The more youthful backs were always chopping and changing with only the one constant - Joe Grunwell since he was also Chairman and therefore on the selection panel each week and able to pick himself at No10 despite regiments of highly skilled, fit, capable alternatives that languished on the bench. We had wingers who could catch and run (with the ball) and unbelievably tackle as well! People like Alf Hodges, 'Pineapple' Mark from New Zealand as fullback, 19-year-old Gordon Ellard who went on to found the fabulous kids swimming club the Bangkok Dolphins, and Semi Tui, Bulla’s brother. But where Bulla was like a small rogue planet, Semi was a dark 6' 2" Achilles from Fiji on the wing…possibly brothers of a different mother!!
Other ‘characters’ included impish scrum half Alan Lovell, my able bodied vice captain who, by his less able wit and repartee, proudly retitled himself the Captain-of-Vice, a most suitable sorbriquet for his late night bar activities. Alan always insisted he didn’t need to open his eyes to pass the ball accurately. We also had a giant in the lineout, high-stepping Russell ‘Rusty’ Chalon, who invariably led the post-match bar singing
We were then a side of very capable expats with some infused Thais who kindly, if timidly at first, joined our ranks. Among these welcome Thai speedsters were: Dakorn at No 9, Prote in any position that his denim business allowed, Wai in the centre and Peechai on the wing with golden mercurial boots. We expat players quickly learned that the Thai opposition, despite their lack of matching mass, blubber and smoking ability, were extremely fast in all directions, kicked the ball accurately and had excellent hands. We thought we’d beat them in the rains…nope they simply got better!!
Off field social gatherings were excessive: Twice weekly post training drinking in the BC’s Churchill Bar and exploratory expeditions to Patpong, Cowboy and Nana undid 95% of what the previous two hours had honed into tired bodies. Business executives joined in a commitment to their old beloved UK sport despite long working hours and some with family responsibilities, and they all took our team very seriously.
We were a very close knit, jovial, fun-loving group but also our Anglo-Saxon heritage gave us all an uncompromising will to win.
Two key elements invisibly strengthened our team’s camaraderie even further:
• A very successful and generous group of financial sponsors: HSBC, Santa Fe, TransPo, NET and many more but most especially Carlsberg!! Their logo graphic translated magnificently into Thai glyphs and we were able to sell our logo adorned pink and black rugby shirts at Asian rugby venues for years. We were flushed with cash and this helped to promote, engage and provide financial support to our fledgling Thai players to help them afford the second element, namely…
• Asian rugby tours: These started out as 15-a-side games in Phuket but quickly morphed into the ubiquitous annual 10s tournaments in Manila, Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta and locally in Chiang Mai and Vientiane...we went on them all...annually!
So, that’s a long attempt to answer that tough question. In brief - training, organisation, personal commitments, skilled player base in key roles, money and huge barrels of fun!! A very succesful blend of aged experience and youthful exhuberance.
There were lots who shone brightly during different matches but as real workhorses in the forwards I’d say Mike Pincock was a hugely powerful mobile rock, Meggo, a wiry 6ft 5in, was a scourge in the lineouts - to both sides in fact! – Simon Dakers whose Edinburgh nasal whining in set pieces was gratifyingly supportive, Julian Olds and Paul Hunt mowing down anything that moved, plus Hugh Butler whose own brand of late tackles and accidental hand stamping should be mentioned in dispatches.
The backs included Joe Grunwell and Fran Kuchera vying for the No10 shirt despite neither being able to kick a ball to hit a barn door at ten paces, as well as Marcus Carling who performed a nimble side-stepping ballet in the centre while his younger brother Will captained England, and crash-ball Steven Reese, our vice captain. Phil Tiffin was also one who could play backrow and in the backs but rarely passed the ball - hence Colin's healthy suntan on the wing!
Ian Brydon had arrived from Aussie Rugby League as a young powerful centre and quickly learned fluent Thai and was able to whisper annoying insults at the opposition after administering crunching tackles or line breaks at will. Ian was wholly incapable of doing even ONE press-up…but his massive steam driven piston-like thighs made up for any such unnecessary deficiency.
Bulla Tui was a wrecking ball, again interspersing with Guy Hollis for the No 9 shirt, the latter marshalling his estate agent guile, sneakiness, Irish enterprise and simple slipperiness to confound the Thais from one week to the next.
In the early 90s our off-pitch mob were brilliant to a man. The original bookkeeper was Roy Mcgregor from Scotland who marshalled our pennies magnificently but although 6' 3" tall never graced the field and who later handed over to Keith Rowley whose day job was the BC Rugby finances whilst his salary was apparently paid for by KPMG. Keith aspired to greatness through an ability to always find the best go-go bar on tour, always be where the 'action' was, an unquenchable thirst and a very annoying habit of never ever suffering from a hangover!
We didn’t really have any appointed ‘coaches’ other than players with various skill sets that bellowed and ranted at us as we scampered about the BC artificially-grassed double tennis court which was our only training pitch. Ian Brydon remined me that these were poor training areas for big open moves but brilliant fun for close quarter, interpassing skills and manouvers that induced fun and laughter for the two hours of hard sweaty work.There was a locally made scrummaging machine (read: deathtrap) that we fat boys could push against on the BC’s manicured back lawn – which soon resembled The Somme. Joe Grunwell took it upon himself (a typical Yorkshire spotlight seeker) to squeak loudest and longest and he DID meld us into something resembling a proper team of players…that’s no offence meant to earlier BC teams but we did get fitter, stronger, better organised and with more purpose…oh, and a very practiced quaffing capability.
The best was that unique and stunning victory to win the Phya Chindaruksa Cup or as we liked to call it - The National Championship Cup in 1993 - and be given the massive trophy by General Wonwanich, who shook hands with every player’s filthy mit without blinking – all of whom were indistinguishable from being covered from head to foot in mud. Amazingly we also always put ourselves forward for the various 7s tournaments in both a 1st team capacity and as an over 35s category and in that same year we won the main Kodak 7s Tournament - again a Cup never won by a foreign team!
During 92-93 it was certainly the Royal Thai Air Force who had rarely been beaten by in the previous ten years, let alone by a bunch of fat boys from the BC. The Police team also created a growing threat to the established order but the Navy were by far the punchiest most physically combative of all. Later, of course, our biggest were the Corsairs and the strengthening Southerners.
Losing good players to other expat teams
Frustration from being benched for serial offenses on the pitch almost always receiving a red card by pre-warned referees, we lost Hugh Butler and Paul Hunt to the Corsairs and then sadly Julian joined his mate Hugh, so we lost some very able players. Sadly we also lost two young aspiring players in Jordan Janson and Ian Houghton who passed away in the same season. RIP.
On an inadequate but easily seen pedestal is Col. David Viccars as our dear friend and well trained, experienced (Hong Kong qualified ref) lending interminable patience and understanding as a whistle blower. David’s endearing long, long stutter after a loud blast of the whistle was hugely welcomed by all players on both sides in the stifling and oppressive heat as we took a break gasping for air and waited for the official ruling...these could be quite long breaks if F's or S's were anywhere involved.
Terry Adams. who was equally compromised by the tropical heat, still managed to keep up with play if, at the next breakdown, he had to recall why he had blown in the first place. Grant Signal from New Zealand who manager to referee for years with only a passing knowledge of any laws. Khun Porchai, one of a number of Thai referees who officiated many of our games but unfortunately suffered from that ever-fearful notion that if the Thai side didn’t win by any means at his disposal, then he would be posted to the Eastern Front...or is that Western Front?
We were blessed with many sides from around Asia, but the teams that stand out most were: A spectacular team of mixed army regiments and Police sides from Bermuda that thrashed us in 1992 when, ironically, we were actually at our strongest. A booze fest of on-pitch-antics and off-pitch boat racing beer swilling against Mitsubishi RFC from Japan…and a mention must go to the Old Boys match against Yokohama RFC when a Golden Shorted 82 year-old-Samurai scampered over crablike (and untouched) for a much celebrated try by both sides!
Many Phuket tours have shockingly brilliant memories, none of which can go public, but the stand-out tour for excess, durability, stamina, divorce, grit and stupidity must be the epic 10-day tour to Manila and Hong Kong in the mid 90s. But "what goes in tour ....stays on tour".
Thirty years later, the BC camaraderie still very strong, with former players spread across the globe
It’s an amazingly tight knit group who have remained in contact with each other – remember, when we were playing 92-93 there were NO cell phones, no internet and so bonding was very much more personal - as may be true for all rugby clubs. Today, with the aid of WhatsApp we remain amazingly close friends and happy hosts for any former players re-visiting Thailand.
We had planned a reunion in 2020 …then came Covid. We shall wait for a better time…better hurry though as some of us are not getting any younger!
Your rugby-ravaged body – was it worth it?
Well, that’s easy…despite dilapidated knees, beggared foot, broken ribs and fingers, countless splits and stitches and a barely functioning liver, an empty bank account, a heartbreaking divorce and general aging…I’d do it all again in the blink of an eye!