English rugby in the 60s and 70s…well the players were English all right, but they didn’t play much rugby.
By the late seventies, England hadn’t won a Grand Slam since 1957. Wales and France were the glamour teams, the powerhouses. England? Well, England were little short of a shambles.
It wasn’t as if they didn’t have the talent. Clive Woodward, Mike Slemen, Paul Dodge and Dusty Hare in the backs and Fran Cotton, Peter Wheeler and Roger Uttley up front – these were great players.
What English rugby lacked was any sense of cohesion or planning. In the last years of amateurism, the administration of English rugby was as amateur as it could get.
Selection policy – if policy is even the word – was random and changeable. Players came and went. So did coaches.
England was a great big mess of a team so it was perfectly apt that their eventual saviour only got his international chance as a replacement in 1975. Within three years he was captain.
And two years later, William Blackledge Beaumont would secure himself and his team a place in English rugby history.
Beaumont’s rise to the top was, by his own admission, hardly set in stone.
He said: “I didn’t think I had enough talent as a schoolboy. Most of my sporting achievements I have obtained by hard work. I was about 20 when I realised I could make it in rugby.”
Hard work. Graft. First in, last out – Beaumont built his career on leading by example. It was an uncomplicated philosophy entirely in keeping with an uncomplicated man.
He was never the most athletic or dynamic of lock forwards, but what skills he had he exploited to the maximum, inspiring those around him with his consistency, commitment and calmness.
“Billy led by example. He would be the first over the top and was always at the bottom of rucks and mauls,” said Dodge.
“Billy was a great guy, a real top man,“ added England’s No8 John Scott.
“That whole England team was a bunch of characters, everyone was a character and he held it together. Billy was great for us, the management and the supporters – the perfect captain.”
But no captain is perfect without a tangible measure of his excellence. And England’s 1980 Grand Slam was the measure of Beaumont.
Close and, at times, ugly wins over Wales and France helped set up a daunting trip to Murrayfield for a tilt at the Grand Slam against Scotland.
The wait was long and agonising – a whole month went by before England had the chance to beat the Auld Enemy. But Beaumont kept things simple, as ever.
“I don’t think a lot of those that came through after us knew what we went through in those days,“ said Scott.
“When we played, Billy’s team talk would be, ‘come on lads, we haven’t beaten this lot for 23 years’ or ‘come on lads, we haven’t beaten this lot for 15 years’. I remember looking around the dressing room in disbelief at the players in that side and thinking how on earth have we not beaten anyone for so long?”
Scotland’s plan on the day was to attempt to run the bulky England pack into the ground. Beaumont’s response was to control possession, keeping the ball with the forwards until the time was right to release the backs.
And release them they did. England raced into a three-try lead and just after half-time, the Slam was as good as won.
Back came the Scots with two tries of their own and suddenly England’s lead was cut to just five points.
Lesser teams led by a lesser man would have crumbled. It was, after all, the English way. 1957 and all that was looking like history not to be repeated once again.
Not on Beaumont’s watch.
Another try – marking a John Carleton hat-trick on the day – and a Hare penalty stopped the rot and secured the Slam 30-18.
For Beaumont and much of the side, the victory meant a Lions call-up. Beaumont would captain that side – the first Englishman to do so since 1930 – and he led with grace and honour on what turned out to be a nasty, politically-tainted tour of South Africa.
Two years later, head injuries forced him to retire.
The family textile business called, as did a long spell as a team captain on A Question of Sport where Beaumont again led with understated geniality and a succession of truly appalling jumpers.
These days, he’s still grafting in the family firm and exerting increased influence on the game as a sports administrator at the highest levels.
Rugby has changed enormously since Beaumont’s golden years, but his own philosophy remains as straightforward and honest as the man himself.
“The secret of my success? From a sporting point of view, it was hard work, and being with some good players and first-class coaches.
“It’s just graft. You also need to have drive and the will to win.”
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