A Policeman’s Lot 6….Sporting Riots.

Somebody once said that sporting success is down to 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration….This is, of course complete and utter nonsense….Since my youth I have enjoyed taking part in many different sports and over many years I have quite literally sweated bucket loads of perspiration….But I have never been any better than decidedly average in any of my sporting endeavours….One PTI once told me that he loved the way I kept trying and my “Never say die” attitude….And that If only had some real ability then I might actually be quite good.

It was my love of playing rugby union that proved to be a big influence on me selecting ‘C’ Division as the division where I wanted to serve when I left Training School…..As a teenager I played most of my rugby for a junior club in North London and while there I became friendly with two police officers, both of whom served on ’C’ Division and when I told them I had been accepted for Training School they both encouraged me to select the same division as it had a strong tradition of playing the game….In those days divisional sport was encouraged throughout the Met. Police….”Sport plays a vital role” wrote Sir Robert Mark, Met. Police commissioner when I joined…..Sadly, when finances, resources and manpower are hit….Sport (and the police sports facilities) were the first to feel the pinch and these days modern police forces allow very little time for partaking in sport.

When I joined the police, rugby union was right up there in popularity with soccer and Cricket and I lost no time in putting myself forward for the ‘C’ Division rugby team….My logic was simple and to my thinking, infallible….Most policemen are quite large (there was a 5’8” requirement for the Met. Police at that time)….My position in the rugby team was in the front row of the scrum (a hooker)….Most hookers are quite small (the hooker was usually the smallest player in the scrum….Perfect for my more petite stature 5’ 10”)…..Thus….Every police team should have lots of tall players….But not so many smaller players….This logic was actually not as stupid as it sounds and I managed to impress one or two gullible people that I actually knew what I was doing on the field of play.

Apart from most divisions and specialist departments having their own teams, most of which played on Wednesday afternoons, the Met Police also ran three Saturday sides….And the Met. Police First Team played against most of the top sides of the day…..Admittedly, this was in the days when rugby union was a purely amateur game and bears little resemblance to the modern game that we know today….But still…They would often get their results read out on a Saturday afternoon on the BBC’s Grandstand sports programme and in the late Summer of 1975 I decided to try my luck at the pre-season MPRFC trials held annually at the Imber Court Sports Ground in Molesey, Surrey…. I was there with a few other young hopefuls, all of them better than me….But I had my ‘Secret Weapon’ namely, my lack of size!

I also went there armed with a little bit of knowledge….The MPRFC ran three teams and thus required three hookers…..Each of the three teams already had an established hooker….HOWEVER….The first team hooker was a VERY talented player and was seen as a strong possibility for the England national side itself….He had been told that if he really wanted the chance to press for an international place that he would need to play for one of the recognised tops sides ago that time….So he decided to join Richmond Rugby Club…..This meant that (according to my limited arithmetic ability) Two recognised hookers…..and me at the trials….Three players trying to get into three teams meant that I had a very good chance of at least being selected for the third team.

The trials went well enough and we were told that a squad would be selected for the annual pre season tour for the First XV which would that year be in Cornwall…..I had my hopes fixed on a possible place in the 3rd XV and did not even consider being part of the Cornwall Tour…..Until I was called into my Governor’s office and told that i had been selected for the tour and that I would be required to attend training on the following Tuesday….My bottom jaw dropped so low that it nearly touched the ground!

On the Tuesday training session I was told I had been the only one of the three hookers at the trials that was available for the tour….Of the two players ahead of me one had work commitments, the other’s wife was about to give birth….Which left me!

I would however have to undergo some “Specialist Scrum training” with Tony who was the outgoing first team hooker….He told me that there were aspects of my game that needed “sharpening up”

Now, without getting too technical, it is the job of the Hooker to pack down in the middle of the front row of the scrum, between his two Props. It is the Hooker’s job to ‘hook’ the ball out of the scrum with his foot when the scrum half feeds the ball in after a stoppage of play….When the two packs of forwards pack down in the scrummage, the two opposing packs do their very best to unsettle each other and there are often all manner of dark tricks and shenanigans involved in order to disrupt the opposition’s possession…. The hooker’s chief weapon is the speed of his ‘strike’….And Tony was quite candid….”Your striking for the ball is nowhere near quick enough….So we are going to try and speed you up for the tour.”….His first instruction rather surprised me….”I want you to take your shin pads off”….Now, no player with an ounce of common sense plays in the front row of any scrum (where boots are flying around like machine gun bullets)….And I looked at him questioningly. “I want you to take your pads off and your scrum half will feed the ball in….You will try and win your own ball……And I will try and kick your shins” At first I thought this was some kind of initiation joke….”Let’s make the new boy look stupid”…..Then I saw from the look on his face that he was being serious……Slowly and unhappily I took off my shin pads….and packed down against Tony who was, older, bigger and a lot stronger than me….My scrum half fed the ball into the scrum…..I went to hook the ball….And Tony’s boots raked my shins….OUCH!!!….You need to be quicker son….MUCH QUICKER!….Over the next 20 mins or so we must have had 20 scrums….Over the first 10 scrums Tony gave my shins a walloping….In the following ten or so scrums I was actually winning the ball cleanly and without getting my shins raked….As we broke up Tony said “How are you feeling”…..I lied through my teeth “OK Tony”

“Those last scrums were 100% better than the first ones….Now you will have a chance in the first game against Penzance and Newlyn.

So the pre season tour was coming up….But before the rugby tour, we had a small public order event to negotiate over the August Bank Holiday….The 1975 Notting Hill Carnival….An event to showcase the culture of the Caribbean that existed in the area of Notting Hill in West London…..The event that would be known as the very first Notting Hill Riot….An event that would change the way that British police would deal with public order events from then on.

The events of that weekend are now recorded in history….Suffice it to say that the Sunday night in particular were one of the most scary nights of my police service….That was the night when officers used anything that might come to hand in order to fend off the volleys of bricks, stones and eventually petrol bombs that were hurled at them by the angry crowds…..I personally used a dustbin lid.

I found myself separated from my ‘C’ Div serial and was dragged into an ad hoc group by an inspector….This was before the modern era of riot shields and specialist tactics…. This Inspector had a very simple plan….And that was to charge the large group at the end of the road who were busily setting a police car alight….Imagine ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ in police uniform and you will be about right.

The inspector led the charge and was swiftly laid out when he was struck by a brick on the helmet….His sergeant was to his left and he took a brick to the shoulder….Both went down….Which left me in front….And I suddenly realised that I was running much too fast so I eased my pace a fraction which enabled me to dodge most of the missiles being hurled at us….One brick however bounced off the road in front of me and struck me hard on my already sore shins (From the previous week’s rugby training) By now the rest of our rapidly diminishing group of police officers also stopped running ….What the Hell any of us thought we would do against the much larger group waiting for our arrival at under the Ladbroke Grove underpass I had no idea….So we retreated and took the injured inspector and sergeant back with us…..This was a much more sensible idea and back at the bottom of the road I was reunited with my own serial.

Order was not restored until the early hours. When our bus was heading back to our own stations to book off, our inspector asked “Has anybody got any injuries to report?”….This presented me with a problem….My leg was now aching from being stuck by the brick….But…If I reported the injury, I would have to go to hospital for an X-ray and possibly go sick….And I would certainly not be able to go on the rugby tour the following week….So I kept my mouth shut and hoped that my injury was superficial….Which, thankfully it was!

The tour to Cornwall did not go too badly at all, I played in two of the three matches….The most memorable game was the first, when we played Penzance and Newlyn. At that time they were one of the top sides in the South West and the locals there adored their rugby….This was the first time I had ever played in front of a sizeable crowd and the local wags lost no time in teasing us about the riots of the previous week which were still very much in the news.

When you are a fully paid up member of the Front Row Forwards Union you only really have a passing interest in the number of tries scored or the final result….And if you win more scrums than you lose, then you count it as a good day….Thanks in no small part to Tony’s “Specialist Training” we absolutely hammered them in the scrums….We actually lost the match….But who was really worried about a minor technicality like that?…..And the fact that someone clapped me on the back and said “Well done, Lad” at the final whistle absolutely made my day….That match was without doubt the playing highlight of my rugby career.

When the full season began, I played in the first two matches….But never did manage to actually finish on the winning side….Eventually, the other two hookers came back into the first and second teams and I found myself in the third team, where I was much happier….I have to say that playing in the first and second teams was a much more serious business….And I actually enjoyed my rugby in the third team much more.

I only played one season for the MPRFC….The main problem was that I had to travel a long way to play the matches and I decided to play for a more local team….But at least I could say that I had played a few games of first class rugby.

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