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Friday, 29 August 2014

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Cup winner Geoff immortalises sporting legends on canvas

FORMER Egremont RU cup-winner Geoff Stalker likes a drink and a crack with his rugby pals but even better is the chance to immortalise them on canvas.

From close friend Dean Richards and Jeremy Guscott, to a near-naked ex-England prop Darren Garforth, not forgetting Egremont’s own Jeff Edgar, this artistic rugby man has painted plenty of legends – all content to pose patiently in his Northants studio.

‘Know them, draw ‘em’ seems to be the Geoff Stalker motto but it’s also fair to say the lad from Lowca has made an impression on the rugby field – with and against a lot of famous RU players.

Playing for top Midlands clubs broadened Geoff Stalker’s own rugby horizons but, I suspect from our conversation in the Lowes Court gallery (where some of his portraits are currently hanging), that those Egremont halcyon days down by the river at Bleach Green continue to rank amongst his most memorable.

As a young lad, the son of a Micklam weighman, Geoff was a member of one of Egremont RUFC’s finest combinations – the 1968 Cumberland Cup winning side. After leaving Egremont he found his way to the Midlands – and the Rugby Lions playing top class union.

Today Geoff maintains a strong interest in the game as a consultant, helping talented young footballers come to terms with the ups and downs of life at the top.

A passion for painting also earns him a living – there have been no shortage of subjects. One of his rugger favourites being the formidable All Black Wayne (Buck) Shelford, along with ex-England great Dean Richards who was suspended for three years in the wake of the so-called Bloodgate scandal at Harlequins.

“I’ve known Dean since he was a kid, having played with his dad. Some people were genuinely aghast about what happened but there was an awful lot of pomposity surrounding it. I think everyone knows that a damn site worse things have gone on at top level.”

How’s Dean taken it? – “With dignity.”

Dwelling whimsically on those Egremont memories, Geoff recalled: “I remember one of our forwards breaking his wrist (no names mentioned), and playing in a cup semi-final with the wrist still in plaster, a dirty great bandage also wrapped round it. He told the referee it was Cow-pox but I can tell you that plaster cast was very useful in a lot of rucks.”

Other notable portraits include England wing flyer/jet pilot Rory Underwood (in his RAF kit), England scrum half Richard Hill, the one and only Jeremy Guscott and international prop Darren Garforth – in his birthday suit, or almost.

“There was a cup of tea in the right place during the sitting!” laughed Geoff.

“Anyway we had a deal – Darren got the painting free of charge if I got his first England cap. ‘If you don’t get a cap I get the painting back,’ I told him.

“After being picked for his England debut against South Africa at Old Trafford he duly gave me his cap – but I let him have it back.”

The Wayne Shelford portrait continues to give him great pleasure.

“Shelford was a fabulous sitter, always punctual to the minute and a great philosopher, I learned more about rugby sitting painting him than in all the RFU coaching courses I’ve ever been on.”

For the young hooker, it all kicked off at Bleach Green where, with Egremont, he played in three Cumberland Cup finals, though the winning one (against Netherhall Old Boys) did get off to a false start.

He recalls: “I was sitting at Howgate waiting for the team bus, being still at school I was very nervous. The bus didn’t come. Come two o’clock it still didn’t arrive. It got to quarter to three, then Bob McLean turned up with five players in his mini van. The bus company had decided not to turn up on the big day – apparently a bill hadn’t been paid.

“Anyway, we got to the Zebras ground, Ellis Park, Workington, with just five minutes to spare before kick off. Harry Cook had a rousing speech already prepared but there wasn’t time for him to give it.

“Netherhall kicked off, I caught the ball, but got a very heavy-duty shooing in the first ruck and broke three ribs. John Jackson, the centre, got taken out as well. I remember the match report in The Whitehaven News which said the Cumberland Cup final would be remembered for its brutality – fists flew but it was mainly a boot affair.”

How on earth did you scrum down as hooker with three broken ribs? – “With difficulty – I could bend and get myself in a body position on our own put-in but not Netherhall’s; it was tough, no prisoners taken but fortunately I had some formidable forwards around me. Egremont had a great pack: Tom Weightman and George Crayston regular props, Bob McLean and Neil Thompson in the second row, Gilbert Finlinson, Norman Sherwen and Jackie Purdham making up the back row in that ‘68 final.

“We won the day 9-3; Sherwen clinched the cup by scoring the only try 10 minutes from time. Thank goodness because in one of our other Cumberland Cup finals we had three tries disallowed and lost. Referee was Mr Creighton – Jack never refereed us again funnily enough.

“So we lost two finals and won one – just my luck to be carted off to hospital in some pain, I managed to make it back to the Bleach Green clubhouse for 10pm, there was a celebration tatie pot supper but they didn’t save me any!”

Some real characters in that side? – “Yes, and one of them was Gilbert Finlinson (Florence Mine). Actually, when I was a student, I worked for him one summer. Gilbert was manager of Honister Slate Mine at the time, and was kind enough to give me a job down the mine.

“I got the bus from Lowca to Frizington at 5am every morning for the boss gave me a lift through. Trouble was Gilbert always got there five minutes after the truck went up to the top of Honister, so I started my day with a 700ft climb.”

While studying at Loughborough and Sunderland Art College Geoff hitched lots of lifts round the rugby grounds to turn out for Egremont.

“It was an honour to be picked for one of the best sides in the county, not only being among great players but real good men, some of them extremely funny. Our fly half Jeff Edgar pulled most of the strings.”

Says Stalker: “Anybody with Edgar in their side would have had a shout, he could kick with both feet and general a game. Behind a pack which had no trouble winning the ball, we had wingers like Harry Cook and Phil Clegg to finish off.

“Up front you couldn’t fail to be infected by Bob (Mr 130 per cent) McLean, a great enthusiast, mind you it was difficult to go two weeks without having an argument with him, part of his charm. A crack racing cyclist, too.

“Harry Lamb, a farmer from Gosforth way, was a phenomenal back row forward. Wherever Harry went I would try and follow, but at the end of that season he shattered his knee and a very young Jackie Purdham came in. Jackie was a different kind of player – the Neil Back of his day, a real scavenger winning the ball.

“Once when I met up with Backy I said ‘you’re the modern day Jackie Purdham’ – he looked at me like I was an idiot and then saw the funny side.

“Guys like Crayston and Thompson could have played for anybody.

“We had a Bleach Green reunion recently. There was a tap on my shoulder and Les Moore said to me: ‘Hey, I wasn’t that bad either’. Les, of course, came earlier on for Egremont, a truly great forward as he also proved in league for Whitehaven and Town.

On playing for Rugby Lions in the Midlands Stalker said: “We weren’t the best team around but because of our name we had a fabulous fixture list. As a titled ‘first class club’ we were playing in the Midlands Merit Table against the likes of Leicester, Northampton, Nottingham, Moseley, Coventry.

“Through the Lions I was up against just about every international hooker at the time – Peter Wheeler, Steve Brain, Brian Moore and Ken Kennedy, of London Irish, once when he’d just returned from a British Lions Tour of South Africa with Miss World on his arm.

“I rated Kennedy the best technical striker of them all, I actually managed to take two balls against the head with him but it was more accidental.

“At Egremont I had a really comfortable time sandwiched between props like Tom Weightman, Neil Thomson, George Crayston and Alf Cowan – Alfie was one of the few who could play prop or scrum half.

“Down in the Midlands I was packing down against England props including Fran Cotton, Neil Fairbrother, and Robin Cowling.

“The late Les Richardson (Mark’s dad) was a mentor to me. In one cup final I took five scrums against the head, losing two....well, did he give me a battering for losing two.

“Quick feet was probably my main asset, I wasn’t big, a 28-inch waist and nine stone dry but in my day hooking was more about technique. There are some monsters in the front row now but it’s becoming all brute force in the scrum and the worry is that someone will get seriously hurt.”

Among the top class backs Geoff played against was David Duckham, the England, Coventry and British Lions wing.

“I just wanted to say I’d tackled the flying David Duckham but launching myself at him I practically hit the grandstand, Duckham was the only guy who could sidestep at full speed. Imagine him coming off the wing today cutting through the middle just like Mark Cueto or Chris Ashton who cuts and times the angles beautifully.

“It’s good the union-league barriers have broken down, because a lot of good ideas are being shared. Union used to be riddled with class and discrimination – when I was at university I played league under about six different names although I wasn’t much good at it.

“Shaun Edwards has brought not only technique into union but intensity, professionalism and discipline – a la Wayne Shelford when he came over from New Zealand to Northampton.

“Northampton players were given £200 (by a famous footwear firm) to wear their shoes on match days, anyway everybody wore them on the bus for a trip to London Irish except Ian Hunter who had his loafers on. Wayne sent Ian back for the shoes and held the bus up for an hour, it was deadly silent, no one dared to speak – the All Black could be frightening in more ways than one.”

Geoff himself has had spells coaching Rugby Lions, Nuneaton, Birmingham Solihull and Moseley before going to the United States for six years with a bit more coaching.

“Now I’m in partnership with Nigel Horton, ex-England and British Lions second row, who was probably the biggest thug in World Rugby – he won’t mind me saying that, he deliberately created the image.

“He didn’t mind being sent off in order to establish a reputation. England picked him as an enforcer but behind all that there is a very elegant brain!

“We’re sort of rugby consultants sorting ‘basket cases’ both as individual players and teams in a discreet way.

“Each of the Premiership clubs have Academy players, good kids most of them having played for England under-16s and brought up to believe they’re going to play for England at full international level so imagine if you’re a rookie back rower playing for Leicester, Wasps or Northampton, you get cut and told to come back when you’ve hardened up – not everyone can be a Courtney Lawes.

“Only about six of the genuine premiership championship sides can afford to give these kids full time coaching or individual mentoring.

“They come to us asking whether they still have a future. we send a lot of them over to France for more personal coaching and game time. Often they come back and are looked on better by the big clubs.

“Both Nigel and I are firm believers that modern coaching has taken a slightly wrong turn, it’s all about team but actually you don’t get a team unless you get the individuals right.”

Geoff Stalker was also educated in rugby at the old Whitehaven Grammar playing alongside Jeff Edgar’s brother, Graham and Peter Burns, who went on to play in the ‘68 Cup final triumph before joining London Irish and Harlequins.

“We had a cracking Sevens side, as good as any school team around,” he said but those balmy days at Egremont were among the best – “They made a man of me,” he laughed.

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