I was going to start this little narrative with ‘My life in rugby . . .’ but really, I could never profess to have had the privilege of living truly inside the world of rugby. Of course, this may just be my perception and how I feel now due to the circumstances that led to me relinquishing my delicate grip on the game.
A game which has found me throughout my life in all aspects. A game which, in all honesty, I didn’t fight hard enough to cling onto. A game which has moulded my life in all aspects and has led me to where I am today with my beautiful family . . . still a rugby family.
I was very fortunate in that my dad’s firm had gold card tickets for what was a little, local club called Exeter Rugby Club. They were languishing in National League Division 4 but dad would take me, from a young age, to the odd game and this is where my love started.
Rugby has been an ever-present for me. From the age of 7, I was introduced to rugby at St Peters School in Lympstone, Devon. I was a timid child who was, I would term as, a ‘bit of an all-rounder’.
Until the age of 10, I was never really good at anything. I was quite good at a lot of things and I think that is testament to the school who very much kept you wrapped up in a ball of cotton wool, worked extremely hard on nurturing children and ensuring that we were the best we could possibly be before releasing us on to bigger and better things after common entrance exams.
This is where I should probably explain about me a little. My ultimate fear is letting anybody down. I simply cannot stand the thought of not being the best I can be and thereby letting the side down.
With this in mind, I would not take part in things for fear of embarrassing myself or worse, not being the best! This, ultimately, has become a battle that I have faced throughout my life and has prohibited me from taking part in many things that I would have otherwise really enjoyed. I have compromised my enjoyment just because I might not win. I would only take part in things where I knew I was going to be the best (or, at the very least, within a chance of winning) but, as they say, you’ve got to be in it to win it and for the most part I would not/could not be ‘in it’ for fear of letting the side/team/myself down. The ironic thing here is that when I have committed myself to something, I tend to do very well and enjoy myself thoroughly, but I seem not to be able to learn that lesson. A lesson that I am still trying to comprehend to this day.
Enough about me and back to rugby
From the age of 7 I have tried, or been placed into, many positions. In fact, the only position I have never played was scrum half. I started as a second row, moved to the back row, found myself at fly half, then centre, wing and full back. I even had stints in the front row – I say stints, it was more like ‘a’ stint. Hated It!!!
I really hit my straps in the backs, 12 was my preferred position. Extra time on the ball, contact and one more step removed from the real lumps that would run at you off the back of the scrum/ruck/maul.
When I hit 13, I moved from St Peters to Exeter School. Another school with an excellent heritage and a superb sporting pedigree. I had moved from the big fish in a small pond to the proverbial small fish and it was in the next couple of years that I struggled to find my feet. Many of my St Peters team mates had known all of the Devon coaches from their time at St Peters and, coincidentally (or not), they were teachers at Exeter School, so I found myself trying extremely hard to fit into (or get into) what was really the Devon side. Whether politics or my sheer lack of talent, it took a couple of years for me to get into the 1st 15. I spent these years filling the bench for the 1st team or captaining the 2nd’s. I loved this time.
My centre partner for the whole time was a chap in the year below me called Ed Radway. Ed was superb and, in a situation, not politically dissimilar to my own. We had a great time and would tear other teams to pieces. The odd game where either of us would find ourselves drafted into the 1st team would be like playing with one eye shut – we just had a formula that worked. Remove part of that formula . . . you don’t get the right answers!!
I stayed at Exeter to do my A levels which may not have been the wisest of decisions as I picked subjects that I didn’t really enjoy. Needless to say, taking subjects that I didn’t enjoy led to a spectacular failure come exam time and I watched my rugby team mates disappear around the world on degree courses or taking a year out.
After my A Level failure I was lost. I was living at home; all of my friends had deserted me (for extremely valid and fun reasons) and I had no direction whatsoever with rugby a distant memory. One, which I suspected, would never be rekindled.
After about a year, I felt that I really needed to do something about these doldrums and my parents, who have backed me to the hilt in everything that I have ever done (for which I am eternally grateful), suggested looking at clearing opportunities for university places. With my grades, plus my GNVQ, in tow I was never really going to find anything. Then . . . wait a minute . . . ‘What is a foundation year?’
This was my opportunity. A chance to do what all my pals were doing. I could get back on the path that I was ‘supposed’ to follow . . . or was I just doing it because all of my friends were doing it? No! I’ll go for it! Anyway, it’ll be a laugh . . . right?!?!?
I was offered an unconditional place at West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (WSIHE) which would later become University College Chichester. I found that Chichester is a city not dissimilar to Exeter in terms of its demographics and it being a Cathedral City. I knew that was the one for me – the option with the least resistance and effort . . . the unconditional offer.
One thing I have always been very good at is making friends. Within a couple of hours in Chichester I had met some chaps who would remain friends for life. Chichester was primarily a sporting university with a sprinkle of dance and English students thrown in for good measure.
I found myself surrounded by like-minded individuals – sport, socialising and general infantile behaviour were all back on the agenda that I had so sorely missed in the previous 12-18 months having left school. I had a year’s worth of life experience which served me well.
Many of my new ‘fwends’ were rugby players but I was still reticent, so I attended a pre-season friendly (as a spectator) where the Uni played a rolling subs game against Chichester college. I stood there on the side lines with multiple pints on board and a Marlboro on the go and thought “You know what Payne? You could do this easily”
And so, it began
I was back in the game and rugby had found me once again. I think that it is only now that I realise what had happened. I had surrounded myself with friends who had such a commonality. Rugby was the driving force, the reason I was there and the subject that could be spoken about in the company of anyone who would welcome the chat. The game that would never let you down.
I played Freshers rugby in my foundation year and had a right giggle. I remember a couple of times having vodka and Red Bull at half time. My first game back was against Brighton away. One of my closest pals, a certain Mr Gareth Ashton (G as he is known), was watching and coaching that day. At around half time, I was readied from the bench. Their nippy little winger was running riot and G wanted me to go on and ‘sort him out’. I remember him saying, in not so many words, ‘hurt him’. I was so eager to come on and make a difference that I took his words very literally, running on, catching the ball, running at him and the last thing I remember is the sound that his face made when my elbow connected with his nose. To this day, I maintain my innocence and that he was short and going down into the tackle . . . nah!! I had elbowed him in the face and was promptly sent off. What a debut!! I had done all that was asked of me.
One nagging injury that I’ve always had is with my shoulder. I had a couple of instances where my right shoulder would pop but I would simply carry on citing ‘ah well, it’s always doing that’ until one day in my second year when I had made an appearance off the bench at home against University College London.
We were about 10 meters from our line, defending a scrum with a decent sized blind side. I was playing on the left wing and I distinctly remember watching them swap their 6 for their 8 so I knew what was coming. Clean strike, 6 picks up the ball and rolls blind, 8 breaks from the side of the scrum and is promptly popped the ball as the 6 takes contact from our 6 and the 8 runs at me.
I am not small for a winger at 6 foot and I was at my fighting weight of around 14 stone but that monstrosity ran at me, through me and over me. So, it turns out I acted as a very good speed bump and my team mates did enough to prevent a try. I think that I got up and continued the game (concussion protocols in those days were not even a thing) but was subbed off with about 10 to go after being spotted wandering aimlessly around in defence.
Apparently, I was on the pitch for some 30 minutes from the incident. I remember saying to the coach that I wanted to go back on but he refused so fervently that I stormed off back to the showers and the toys were all out of the pram.
I took my shirt off with a bit of a struggle and just looked at myself in the mirror. This is where a part of me died – my right shoulder didn’t seem to be there at all. It was behind me somehow and lower than it should have been. I was so angry with myself that even when my team mates came back in to celebrate the win, I couldn’t even join in.
It was only the next day that I started to feel pain so I took myself off to A & E for a check-up. The news wasn’t great but the shoulder was reset and I was told to rest indefinitely. This was a massive pain in the arse but, being part of the squad, I was able to stay integrated within the surroundings that I felt most familiar in.
A couple of months later and I felt right as rain again. The shoulder was strong, and I had made the decision to try again. How wrong was I? Every time I tried again, I had the same niggling pains or worse. If I found myself in a certain position, I would experience the same pain over and over again. I needed to get this sorted!! All the while, I was pretending to be part of the team . . . my team!
This coincided with the summer holidays, so I went home and sought advice. I was quickly seen by a shoulder specialist. A certain Mr Tim Bunker proceeded to inform me that I required some hefty surgery to ‘clean up the damage that had been done’. I had subscapular shift surgery on 21st June 2001 during which Mr Bunker shortened the muscles by folding them in half and removed 44 small fragments of bone. This shortening of the muscles meant that I was unable to dislocate my own right shoulder (a trick that I can still perform to this day with my left).
I remember coming around from my operation in tears, professing my love for the nurse who had looked after me (as you do when the anaesthetic wears off) and immediately being asked to take my arm out of the sling and lower it in front of me. This was the most uncomfortable thing that I have ever done . . . it felt as it my arm was going to fall off!! 3 months in a sling and multiple physio sessions later and I was utterly sick of the sight of therabands but I felt strong and I was back.
Before returning to Chichester for what would be my second year, I visited Mr Bunker for my post op and this is where I heard the news that I didn’t really want to hear. The news that led to a rebellious Andy Payne. The news that shaped how the rest of this year would turn out. The news that has me sat where I am today (not necessarily a bad thing, purely a case of sliding doors)
I was informed that I ‘should’ never play contact sports again. Initially, I thought that I could still stay firmly part of the furniture within the rugby club at uni. I would immerse myself with it all and become social secretary, sing victory songs with my pals and continue to wear the badge with pride. This was not to be the case.
I tried. Honestly, I tried. But there is only so many times you can try to celebrate/commiserate with your mates who were actually on that pitch during the dying embers of a game and pretend that you can feel that exact same emotion. All the while thinking “you know what Payne? You could have still done this.”
I did what any unashamed coward would do, I removed myself. I spent my days actively avoiding anything to do with rugby in general let alone the WSIHE team. I went and had some piercings done, spent a lot of time with my housemates who were nothing to do with rugby. I liked those guys, Sambo and Stavros in particular but I had nothing to love.
I did my Uni work and went to the pub, that was about it. I would acknowledge my former team mates and interact in a one on one situation until they would come in force regaling stories of the previous week’s game or naked bus trip home so I would slope off into the background. At the time, this was where I felt that I deserved to be – relegated and consigned to another life.
I am certain that my great pal G was suffering the same fate as me. He was a special rugby player until a lifetime of battering his knees got the better of him. I started spending a lot more time with G where I could and, where I had failed he had succeeded. He had managed to remain in the inner circle of the rugby club. I am sure his story would be another fascinating one and his memories of such events may hold a different tune but, for me, this guy was and still is pure gold. He kept me hanging on in there. Not just that, he actually facilitated my reintegration back with some of the boys who I was so fond of. The guys who I had neglected due to my own ignorance and greed.
In the following months, I donned the boots a handful of times. Mainly when we were playing against teams from Ryman league division 4 for the blind but I was then able to leave the game on my terms. My shoulder (thankfully) held out and I only suffered one injury which was a blow to the head whilst playing outside my big mucker Mark Daniel (AKA Mungo). Big cut down the forehead!!
What will that do to my effervescent beauty? Hey Ho!! A decent war wound and a big thank you to Gareth Emmett for driving me back to the Chi hospital from the away game (which I think was Brighton again . . . funny, beginning and ending my Uni rugby career at the same place)
(just as an anecdotal aside, you can now see why my nickname at university was Girlie. Casualty 5 times in 7 months and there was only one nickname that would suit. In fact, I was proud to have a nickname. I realise now that it meant I had been accepted)
Now that I had come to terms with my release from playing the game and I was happily being an interested and involved spectator, I decided that I would write my dissertation on Ex-collegiate male rugby players attitudes to risk pain and injury. I did this at the end of my second year and it was like therapy for me. It was the enabler that I needed to smooth the jagged edges, the shot in the arm that showed me that my team will always be my team and my mates would always be there for me . . . if only I would ask for help (this being the key).
A string of unfortunate circumstances meant that I didn’t attend Uni the following year and once again I felt that I had lost all of my friends overnight. I had actually completed and submitted my dissertation and, somehow, I received a degree certificate (they must have made a mistake)
I needed a job. I needed to move out of my parents’ house (love them as I do) so I found a job working in a local pub. The owners of The Blue Ball had recently taken over and I had done a few shifts during previous holidays, so they were keen to have me full time. I spent 3 years at The Blue Ball from 2002. The owners took a back seat after a couple of years and I was installed as the Manager. I enjoyed this job as I could do it with my eyes shut.
This is when rugby found me again
I knew that Exeter Rugby Club had been doing well over the previous seasons as I would talk to locals in the pub but a couple of guys kept rearing their heads at The Blue Ball over a number on months. Two guys that would go on to shape the rest of my life (so far) and two guys whom I have a huge amount of respect and love for. These two chaps kept coming into the pub because they were, at the time, designing, planning and building a new Stadium for the newly named Exeter Chiefs.
Tony Rowe OBE and Keiron Northcott are the very reason why the Chiefs are where they are today.
They bleed club rugby and if you broke them in half, they would have EXETER emblazoned through the middle of them. I had gotten to know them over a couple of months and it was then that I realised that Tony actually lived in the same village as my parents. I, coincidentally, bumped into Tony on Christmas day 2005 in The Diggers Rest and asked him if there were any jobs going at Sandy Park which was due to be completed for the start of the 2006 season. He asked me to apply and to ‘see what happens’
Flash forward to August 2006 and I had completed 3 or 4 rounds of interviews and 2 rounds of psychometric testing and I was installed as the Operations Manager at Sandy Park, home of the Exeter Chiefs who were at this point around mid-table in the Championship. Rugby had found me once again, rescued me from the depths of obscurity and placed me on a pedestal in the highest calibre conference centre and sporting venue in the South West.
I loved this job – this was where I was meant to be. I was friends with lots of the players and I felt part of a team that were striving for success. A success that would go on to surpass even our wildest dreams but these dreams were always on the cards for those two blokes from the pub that I had met some 6 months earlier.
September 16th 2006 saw us play Coventry at home. The Chiefs had played Coventry in the final fixture at the old County Ground at the tail end of the previous season. The powers that be had allow us to have our first few fixtures away from home in an effort to complete the build at Sandy Park and even on the morning of the first match day, I remember them drilling the seats into the grandstand. 6,000 people attended that day. A day that would see the dourest rugby match you would ever have the displeasure of watching. 13 all!! And not the celebration we had hoped for.
I had other reasons to celebrate. I was sharing a beer with Keiron and his amazing, beautiful wife Jill after the game and we were all a little tired and emotional. They had called for their lift to come and collect them and in walked a vision!!! Their eldest daughter, Clare, was nursing the mother of all hangovers. She was wearing joggers and big old fluffy ski socks. . . but she was stunning! Even through my extremely strong beer goggles I could see that.
Clare and I hit it off almost immediately and by 2009 we were engaged. It was during this process that I, once again, had rugby almost removed from my life.
I had asked Keiron for his daughter’s hand in marriage and he had said yes but this sparked discussions around whether the demanding job that I had (in terms of hours spent at the coalface) was conducive to a healthy family/home environment. In the same breath, it was discussed that I might leave the rugby club and start a new role within the family business. Northcott Beaton are a local independent Insurance brokerage who have been trading for nearly 30 years, so it was after much deliberation that it was decided that I should ‘grow up and get a proper job’.
I had always been a fan of the Chiefs but, for the previous 4 years, I had been part of a rugby fraternity that I had so sorely missed since my Uni days. I guess that my budding relationship with Clare and the close proximity of her entire family, who are Chiefs through and through, tempered my feelings of angst at leaving the club but in some way this made it harder as they were always there enjoying a game, a wedding or a function that I would have otherwise been attending albeit as the Operations Manager.
I made one, last gasp, effort at staying inextricably connected to the club after my exit. This was in the form of stewarding on a match day. I always used the excuse that I felt that I had so much more to give due to my knowledge of the club and the internal workings of the stadium. In truth, this looks now to have been act of desperation. A gesture to say ‘hey, rugby, don’t forget me’. It had impacts on my family too as I was working during the week and then disappearing on a Saturday for the whole day to be a Senior Steward in the West Grandstand. Not fair on the kids, not fair on my wife and, to a certain extent, not fair on me. Anyone with half decent personal awareness knows when to let go and be magnanimous. I stopped stewarding at the end of the 2017/18 season
I am now a rugby fan. I love watching any form of the game that I can find and I attend games at Sandy Park where and if possible.
Have I made peace with all of the decisions that I have made over the years? No.
Did my injury (in hindsight) cause me more issues than I saw fair to see at the time? Yes.
Can I explain what rugby has done for me in my life? Not entirely.
Do I blame rugby? Not a chance.
Do I blame myself? Absolutely.
Would I do it differently if offered the chance again? Definitely.
Tough one really – considering all the above, I have a stunning wife, who is my rock and whom I could not live without and I have two amazing kids with one on the way. I have a family who are rugby mad and act like flying buttresses to our ever-increasing load, supporting us through everything.
The long and the short of it is that I would not be sat where I am today without rugby. The good or the bad. Rugby has taken me to sliding door moments and has given me great times and very sad times.
I should look at what I have now, respect that, enjoy it and be thankful and all the while that my team are currently the best side in the country and I have my family to enjoy it with me.
If my current standing is a marker post, I hope that rugby continues to take me on its roller coaster journey and ditch me wherever it sees fit. It has always picked me up when I needed it most and dropped me where it felt I deserved. That’s sliding doors for you.
Until the next time
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