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Thursday, 30 October 2014

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Edgar remains a classy post war king-pin

Jeff Edgar

WHETHER it’s Dan Carter, Johnny Wilkinson, Wally Lewis, or anyone wearing the No.10 or No.6 shirt, the stand-off-half remains the kingpin of a rugby side, calling the shots, deciding whether to run, kick or pass.

One of the best post-war exponents to practice the art in this county was undoubtedly Jeff Edgar, who captained a formidable Egremont side and also Cumberland and Westmorland, gracing the Twin Counties for a record-31 caps during the 1960s when Egremont and Whitehaven really were clubs to be feared.

These were the times of the true-blue rugby union amateurs.

Today, looking back, Jeff Edgar, sufficiently in touch with the modern game to be a senior RU county selector, does not wish to be seen as one of those “old rugby farts” (the phrase made famous by one Will Carling) but he does bemoan to some extent the advent of professionalism with its accent on defence.

“I am probably a bit old-fashioned but I don’t think the game has got any better, not to watch or to play. At some matches I get bored stiff seeing defences on top all the time. Okay players are probably bigger, stronger and fitter because of all the training. You have centres who are around 6ft 3ins and 15 stones, whereas in the past there were people of all sizes playing and you tended to get more skilful backs with a bit more individual flair. Nowadays it seems to be all crash ball and driving forward, which does get a bit repetitive, with defences having 15 men spread across the field, with not a lot of space. It’s a bit like watching England who are not scoring enough tries.

“On the other hand, when I went to see England play New Zealand at Twickenham the other week, the All Blacks despite not getting a lot of ball were able to move it with much more skill and speed, also quicker to the breakdown, taking the tackle and keeping the ball alive.”

Rugby League-style then!— Correct, it’s about doing the basics well. You can watch a union Premiership match and get bored to tears.

“I like watching rugby league but after a while it can also get a little boring with five tackles and a kick. The beauty of union is the variety of the play.”

In my day there was far more emphasis on back play. With players not padded up to make the big hits and the defence not up as quickly there was more room to operate and get the ball across to the centres and wings.

“Just think about the great Welsh side of the 70s, they had some marvellous rugby players who were not very big, the likes of Barry John, Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards, and Gerald Davies, the sight of the ball going across that back line without an opposition defence right in the face was something to behold.

“Okay defences have got stronger but the attacking ability hasn’t.”

So what kind of game would you play today? — “An attacking style obviously but it would have to be varied to suit the team, the rules and the coaching. If anything, there’s too much coaching because individual skills and flair don’t seem to be there as much as they should.”

Like many, both in union and league, Jeff is not keen on seeing so many overseas players taking up key positions. Take stand-off for instance. After Wilkinson and Charlie Hodgson who is there to fill the No.10 shirt with distinction at international level?

If you were starting out again today who are the No.10’s you would look to, to model your style? — “Well, there’s a guy called Carter who plays for the All Blacks, by far and away the best player I can see today, not just athletic but strong with skill and sidestep.

“Going back in time, I used to like the Cliff Morgans and the Phil Bennetts; they were one-offs who were difficult to predict, flamboyant and playing off the cuff, scoring tries from their own “25”, just like the All Blacks now.

“As an England schoolboy, I did plenty of kicking, but I preferred to run and handle. I remember playing in one county match and said to my outside centre ‘I’ll run across field and we’ll do a scissors, we did this on halfway and it came off, but the captain gave me a rollicking, he was a prop forward mind you.

‘We don’t want any of that fancy-dan stuff, thank you, just put the ball into their “25”. In those days you could kick into touch from anywhere on the field and the forward liked it because they were going forward. Then there was the Garry Owen, hoping the fullback would drop it.”

Twice Jeff Edgar, a prolific goalkicking stand-off in the classical mould, was selected for the North West Counties, but both times he was a reserve and did not get the chance to play against either South Africa or the All Blacks, not surprisingly perhaps when his rivals for the jersey were Bev Risman and Tom Brophy, who turned pro for Leeds and Barrow respectively.

Two of his Egremont colleagues did get the chance — scrum-half partner Rodney Singleton and fledgling prop Les Moore.

“Les was just a young lad, 17 or 18, he played against the Springboks, and likes to tell the story of this big prop who gave him a dig early on. Les said it was the best thing he could have done because it really got him going.

“Les Moore was a fantastic forward, a strong farmer’s lad. People still talk about the tremendous game he had for Whitehaven in beating the Kiwis, maybe somebody game him a dig in that match as well!”

Jeff graduated to England Schoolboys’ from Nelson Tomlinson School, Wigton, where he was friends with Melvyn Bragg. “As it was a rugby school, we all had to play. Melvyn was not a great rugby player, but he stuck to what he was best at!”

Edgar came to Egremont where his father Joe became traffic manager for the Milk Marketing Board and later club chairman.

Says the Egremont RUFC centenary brochure: “More importantly it brought to Egremont his son, Jeff, a schoolboy international fly half. Jeff was not only to give long distinguished service to the club but he was also to set up a club record of 31 county championship appearances for Cumbria.

His arrival paired him with Rodney Singleton who had also previously played for England schoolboys and who was later to come very close to gaining a full England cap. Together they were to form one of the most exhilarating half-back partnerships the region has seen.”

Jeff enjoyed playing alongside Singleton, a brilliant attacking scrum half, who turned to league at Barrow and might well have played for England had he moved to a bigger union club.

“Playing for a minor club like Egremont made it an achievement to get selected for the North West Counties. The likes of John Butler, Dick Cowman, Chris Wardlow and Rodney were all outstanding players but you had to move on to get recognition.”

Any offers to take the league ticket himself? — “I did have an approach (from a scout) to go to Leeds and Wigan, but it was just for trial and came just when I was heading off for university. I didn’t take it any further, so I stuck to union and got picked for Cumberland and Westmorland.”

Jeff Edgar has combined his rugby life with teaching science and sport at Whitehaven Grammar, then latterly at St Bees (public) school — and recovering well from a triple heart by-pass, just for good measure.

Today, Edgar would proba-bly have been good enough to hold down a place in a Zurich Premiership side but doubts whether he would have liked to play rugby full time.

“It was fun at Egremont, we had a great cosmopolitan mix of people: doctors, teachers, farmers, miners and lads who were on the dole; we had some great times winning the Cumberland Cup a couple of times but also enjoying ourselves socially.

“I would find it hard to play professional rugby and think of nothing else. I think rugby league had it right initially when players were paid for playing and trained twice a week while keeping on their jobs.”

So the 64,000 dollar question: Who was the best No.10 you ever saw? — “It has to be Barry John, he could do just about everything.”

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