Leading the revolution
September 10, 2010
Squashed: An injured Greenwood poses with Budge Rogers who took on the England captaincy in his team-mate's absence © PA Photos
September 11 is a date that since 2001 has taken on an air of ill-omen. For some people it was already there. Chileans recall it as the date of the military coup that overthrew elected president Salvador Allende in 1973. Even the most significant sporting event associated with the date, Pete Rose setting the all-time record for hits in baseball in 1985, has lost something of its sheen through Rose's post-career trajectory, incorporating a prison sentence for tax evasion and a life ban for betting on baseball.
That's rather tough on those who have birthdays then. Among notable rugby figures Hugo Porta will be 59 on Saturday, Roger Uttley 61 and Tom Rees 26. It will be the 150th anniversary of the birth of James Allan, All Black number one, and 125 years exactly since Marcel Communeau, France's first winning captain, was born.
Likelier than any of these to be taking significant notice of this particular September 11 will be the former England captain and coach Dick Greenwood, who turns 70. It has been his inevitable fate in recent years to be better known as 'Will's Dad', and there is no doubt that his son's achievements exceeded his own. But Dick was a more significant figure than a mere five England caps - a fragmented career all too typical of the era in which he played - might suggest.
A back row forward, he emerged from a notable rugby nursery at Merchant Taylor's School, Crosby, like many of its alumni progressing to nearby Waterloo, a major club in the pre-professional era. National service meant that he arrived at Cambridge an experienced player and had his first England trial, in 1961, before winning his blue.
Indeed it was not until a year later, in 1962, that he won his place against Oxford, playing in consecutive Varsity match victories - the second, in 1963, as captain and a try-scorer in a team whose undoubted star was Irishman Mike Gibson at outside-half.
At this time the Varsity match served as an unofficial trial and Greenwood was a perennial England candidate. But as John Reason was to write in a profile in 1969, "Sometimes he played in the trials, sometimes he was a reserve. He was usually thereabouts, but never quite there."
He finally made it in 1966, scoring a try on his debut in a draw with Ireland. That, sadly, was as good as his international career was to get in terms of results. England lost their last two matches, against France and Scotland, that season and were unexpectedly hammered by the Australian tourists in the first match of the following season. Greenwood, along with the rest of the back and second row, was axed.
When he did return, in 1969, it was as captain - taking over from injured Bristolian Bill Redwood as leader of the senior team in the first trial and surviving the perilous process all the way to selection as captain for the opening match against Ireland.
It was at this point that he made his mark as an innovator, inviting the England players to attend - at their own expense - an unofficial practice session at Coventry. In terms of the times it was revolutionary. It was only a few years since Dickie Jeeps had been dressed down by the chair of selectors for organising a practice session on the eve of a final trial.
The rules forbade players to assemble more than 48 hours before an international - hence the unofficial status and the requirement that players pay their own expenses. The team attended on a bitterly cold night and did not perform very well. Greenwood told them that they would have lost to Toc H, an ex-servicemen's fellowship. When news of this assessment reached Toc H they challenged England. As Reason noted, "They pointed out that they had a much better record."
And England did lose to Ireland, but only by 17-15, doing well enough for the team and its captain to be retained for the following match against France. Snowed in at the Lensbury club on the Thursday before the French game, Greenwood played squash with reserve Tim Dalton - later in the season England's first official replacement - and his glasses were smashed, injuring an eye. He missed the French match, England won with Bob Taylor performing well in his place, and his international career was over.
His playing career was not. Later that season he captained Lancashire to their first county championship since 1955, coming from 9-0 down at Redruth to thwart Cornwall, who had been waiting since 1908. He went on to play in Italy, with the result that every visit to the Stadio Flaminio brings back early childhood memories for son Will, and for lower XVs at Preston Grasshoppers well into his 40s.
Inevitably he went into coaching, ending up as England coach from 1983 to 1985 - not a very successful period, although it saw the debuts of significant players like Wade Dooley, a Preston clubmate, and Rob Andrew.
His main contribution, though, had come years earlier in that championing of squads and proper preparation, an innovation whose true significance could be seen later in 1969 when the IRB changed its rules to allow squad training sessions.
As Greenwood told Reason, trials provided the wrong structure and squads were the future, "At the moment we never achieve more than 60% of our potential." That his son was a member of England teams who realised 100% seems the least he deserves for his pioneering efforts.