By David Wilkinson
Back in the day, so to speak, contact sports were generally considered to be a game for young men. Games were to be played by men in their prime, which then was likely to have been achieved at a much younger age. The 1970s at Macclesfield Rugby Club was seeing change, the War-Babies and Baby-Boomers had a different attitude to sport. Peter Harper Senior had slid from First XV skipper to the thirds and then the fifths, where they came across the Veterans teams of Widnes, Warrington and Newton-Le-Willows. Thinking this was good sport, in their approaching old-age, he and Hayden Bowen in 1975 morphed the Fifth team into Macc Vets; founders, and Captain and Vice Captain respectively.
32 years was considered to be the starting age for a Vet then, and Peter Harper’s team was littered with them. The team quickly built a feared reputation in the area; I recall, whilst playing for a Manchester club, the Second team captain of which, complaining to me that they had drawn Macc Vets away in the Pool selection. They returned to the Clubhouse crest-fallen, having had a good thrashing; it wasn’t the first or the last time!
In 1985 I hung my boots up (literally on a Club Shield in the Old Bedians’ Clubhouse)and by chance met Hayden and Peter at a Vice President’s Cocktail Party (very posh in those days). Hayden somehow convinced Mrs Wilkinson to allow me to reprise my rugby career with the renowned Macc Vets (drinks were involved). It was to be Peter’s last season (knackered knees) but Hayden took over the captaincy and continued to prop-up the scrum well into his sixties. President Peter Harper Junior would also play a big part in Vets Rugby, for many years, until his knees too, would fail him. My first game was actually for the Stags (also Vets by age) as back then it was the bare fifteen allowed; this would all change with the advent of substitutes and the attitude of a later Captain, Derek Laidlaw, he encouraged everyone to turn up, and you would be guaranteed to get a run-out, even if it was just 5 minutes. In retrospect Derek’s rolling subs format, made the Vets an incredibly strong and large social group, in years to come there would be another 15 players waiting to come on the pitch.
The Vets, after Peter Harper Senior, were never quite as strong again until the influx of some much younger talent around the turn of the century; but in the meantime many Captains and their teams continued the legacy of rugby fun and games. We always got a side out, supported other teams, and were always last to leave the bar – home or away. Derek Parry followed Hayden, then Colin Joyce for 5 years; although it was usually yours truly giving the regular team-talks under the posts, as Joycey was either in plaster or skiing! It was around this time that we lost Charlie Morris, who suffered a fatal heart attack in the bath after a game at Littleborough. Charlie had been the Founder of Datchworth Rugby Club, and his life was celebrated by a memorial match at his old club. The short tour was to be the first of many, where many friendships with the opposition were forged; it was also to be the catalyst for the Vets Annual Tours of Europe. Derek Laidlaw did a massive stint after Joycey, then David Mair for two years. David recalls his abiding memory as Captain: “The team had been bolstered by a number of players from other teams and some new blood; I remember we got Marple 2nds in the Pool, as they ran onto the pitch we could see that they were a bunch of young lads. They were taken-to-the-cleaners, in every department; they had learnt a hard lesson”. The lesson of course being that rugby is not just a young man’s game.
Our now Chairman, Stephen Branch, took over next; soon to be re christened Captain Chaos for his military, imprecise manoeuvres (ex Army Captain). The Vets’ squad now had a large playing base with new blood joining, Peter Harper, Ritchie Glover, Kevin Wright and Dave Worthington plus others. Whilst the Vets had had regularly trips to Pwllheli and Datchworth in the past, touring was to go up a gear, after a trip to Ireland, Dan Sheratte started organising tours to more exotic parts of Europe: Venice, Marbella/Seville, Antibes, Malmo, Prague and more. The Chairman recalls: “From the moment I first turned up for training, looking for a game, aged 42, I knew it was going to be special, 18 years of playing, making great friendships, and most of us are still involved today. But the tours were extra special – you could make a movie of them”.
They were great times for the Vets, we were rarely beaten, Kevin Wright followed Chaos and then our Florence Nightingale, Philip Adshead. Several ex first teamers were attracted to join in the fun, the likes of Rob Davies and Rob Oliver, Justin Thomas, Matt Harding and Steve Mannion plus many others. A North West Vets league was formed, Sponsored by Claphams Landscapes, and we duly won it on at least the first two occasions. Then the bubble burst, all of a sudden we could no longer get fixtures and were forced into joining the standard North West Rugby, league structure. This was to coincide with a number of players coming to the end of their useful playing days and others not being interested in playing non Vets teams. As we were now bound by the rules of the league we were obliged to provide players to other Macclesfield teams, in order to fulfil fixtures, or penalties would cascade up to the 1st XV. This resulted in the cancellation of five fixtures in the season by the Vets team. The North West League punished us with expulsion from the league, and as there was no league beneath us we had no rugby to play. Rugby bureaucracy had terminated 40 plus years of Veterans rugby at Macclesfield, in a swish of their officious pen. Captain Rupert Dixon and a few others joined the Fourth team, but for many more it was the end of their playing days.
President Peter Harper considers Vets Rugby to be a massive part of his successful playing career: “My first game for the Vets was as a thirteen year old, my last at fifty five, it’s been a huge part of my rugby life”. For me, 30 years of Vets Rugby at Macclesfield was the most enjoyable time playing rugby, great fun and friendships.
And so to the headliner: is rugby a young man’s game? Most of the 4th XV are veterans now, and a bunch of the Walking Rugby squad players (Vets), are keen to give it a go with the 4ths, when we eventually return. So there’s hope for the oldies yet!