'A veritable Hercules'
November 27, 2012
The 1912 England squad prepare to take on France © Getty Images
Little excites rugby fans more than the emergence of prodigies - those rare individuals who turn up as ready-made international players at an unfeasibly early age. George North, in setting an all-time record for caps won by a teenager, trod in the footsteps of fellow Welshmen like Lewis Jones and Haydn Tanner, Kenneth MacLeod of Scotland, Ireland's Tony O'Reilly, France's Andre Boniface and current Italian captain Sergio Parisse.
Nor have England been short on precocious talent. Jonny Wilkinson is the most spectacular recent example, while Colin Laird started even younger in the late 1920s. But perhaps the greatest of all English prodigies was Dick Stafford of Bedford , who broke into the team in 1912.
Not the least remarkable thing about him was that he was a forward - listed as a prop by Statsguru, although forward positions were less highly specialised a century ago than they are now. Forwards, particularly in the tight five, tend to develop later, since the sheer physical power that comes with maturity is a stronger element in their game.
Stafford, though, was an early developer in many ways. He was 18 and a half when he was picked to play against Wales in January 1912. He might have been chosen a year earlier - he played for the South against England in a national trial in December 1910 - and was already captain of his club. The modern rugby figure he probably most resembled is England assistant coach Andy Farrell, a forward who played rugby league for Great Britain at 18 and was captain of club (Wigan) and country at 21.
To the London Evening News he was 'A veritable Hercules in strength and physique' and 'a born leader'. He was also a hugely important figure in the life of his rugby-conscious home town, scion of local auctioneers Stafford and Rogers - whose advertisements appeared in the top left-hand corner of page six of the Bedfordshire Times and Independent with even greater regularity than Dick's exploits were chronicled in the rugby notes which occupied the same slot on page 11. He was not the first international player from his club or the local schools, but the first to be 'Bedford born and bred'.
He had made his mark as athlete, rower and rugby player as a pupil at Bedford Modern School . By the time he left in 1910 he was a regular not only for Bedford, having made his debut as a 15-year-old in March 1909, but the East Midlands county team. He was elected vice-captain of the club in September 1910, when still barely 17 and succeeded to the captaincy a year later, established as - in the words of his local paper "a picturesque, powerful and lithe figure almost certain to be the central piece of any moving scene in Bedford engagements". He was memorably described as "almost prodigal of his powers, doing the work of two men in the scrum and, in the loose, racing across to take up a three-quarter movement, or hurling an opponent to earth with that terrible tackle of his".
While he played for England in the final trial in early 1912 and said afterwards that he had never "felt better or played better", his selection was not a foregone conclusion. There were critics, some in Bedford, who felt he might still not be ready and The Rest team unhelpfully complicated selectorial deliberations by beating England.
But the selectors kept faith, and saw their reasoning justified by an impressive debut in a victory over Wales in which WLS of the Athletic News rated him 'the best forward on the field', reporting that 'he broke away time after time, and with follow up and tackle was simply invaluable'.
England's season did not quite fulfil that early promise, with defeat in the Calcutta Cup match meaning that they ended with a share of the title rather than the outright triumph they might have hoped for. But there was little doubt that Stafford, described by the Daily Express as playing 'the game of his life' in the victory over Ireland and one of the few players generally exempted from criticism in the loss to Scotland, was there to stay.
Bedford, too, prospered under his leadership. He scored 14 tries, typified by an effort against London Devonian in which "he smashed through from the 25 leaving a trail of recumbent Devonians", in 22 matches as the club enjoyed one a season including "an unprecedented run of successes, especially against the Metropolitan Clubs".
He was re-elected captain for the following season. On October 11, 1912 it was reported that he had "strained the muscles of his stomach and will take an enforced rest for a week or two". His idea of 'a rest' could be seen in the following week's paper which reported that, while doubtful for the Saturday fixture against Rugby he had played for a visiting XV against his old school on the Wednesday, scoring two tries, and on Thursday for East Midlands in a friendly match against Sussex.
The following week he played for East Midlands against Surrey, scoring twice and earning selection to play for the county against the touring South Africans on November 2. But by then he was confined to bed since 'the strain of his stomach has apparently been aggravated by a chill on the liver".
The reality was infinitely worse. On November 8 a London specialist was sent for. The specialist diagnosed cancer of the spine, "pronounced the case hopeless, and refused to operate and that, at the outside, Dick Stafford had but one month to live".
He lasted just over three weeks with Bedford "watching as probably it had never watched before", dying in the early hours of Sunday, December 1, 1912, aged 19 years and 131 days. His funeral was reckoned the largest in Bedford for more than 20 years, with "shops closed and business suspended in the High Street", spectators of the procession overflowing the pavements, and a packed church.
The question, as always with those taken horribly young, is 'what might have been?'. What, of course, none of his multitude of mourners almost exactly 100 years ago knew was that vast numbers of his contemporaries would shortly be mown down in the First World War. As a public school-educated male born in 1893, there is every chance he would - like elder brother Claud, also a Bedford player - have volunteered when war was declared in 1914 and died in the horrors of the Western Front.
But it is evidence of the cruel randomness of life that two other men who packed down alongside him as debutant forwards against Wales and played all four matches in 1912 - John Eddison and Alfred MacIlwaine - far from dying at 19, lived into their 90s.
He would, even had he by some miracle come through the hostilities unscathed, have lost five prime seasons. But he would still have been only 26 when international rugby resumed in 1920, potentially a senior figure to guide the youthful promise represented by future giants like Wakefield, Voyce and Cove-Smith.
That he is largely forgotten reflects both the brevity of his career and, still more, that his was an individual tragedy shortly followed by a vast collective deluge of deaths. But none of the war stories is more poignant than that of the prodigy who captained a leading club at 17, played for England at 18 and never made it to 20. Now, the centenary of his death, is a time to remember him.
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