Dickie Jeeps: The relentless competitor and practical joker

Has any great rugby player had a more apposite name than Dickie Jeeps, who died on Saturday aged 84?

Like the vehicles which share his name the Northampton, England and Lions scrum-half was rugged, durable and operated effectively in all terrains but was probably at his best in the mud, of which there was plenty on the pitches of the 1950s and 1960s.

His 24 caps were the most for an England scrum-half at the time of his retirement in 1962. ESPNscrum’s John Griffiths rated him England’s best ever scrum-half – ahead of Cecil Kershaw and Bernard Gadney – and 22nd greatest player in all positions, when he listed his top 50 in 2003.

But perhaps the truest measure of his standing is his record with the Lions, for whom he played 13 tests on three tours between 1955 and 1962. That too was a record at the time, since overtaken only by his 1962 team-mate Willie-John McBride. Unless Lions tours get longer or more frequent, neither probable under modern conditions, he is likely to remain in perpetuity both the Lions’ most-capped back and their most-capped Englishman.

His international career began as, to modern eyes, a still less conceivable phenomenon – the uncapped Lion. He was hardly unknown when chosen for the 1955 tour of South Africa since he had been playing for Eastern Counties since his teens and for Northampton (where he was to pile up 273 first-team appearances) since 1952, had been an England reserve for the past two seasons and played in a trial match in late 1954. But England’s selectors had yet to be convinced he was their man.

One anecdote suggests that legendary Welsh scrum-half Haydn Tanner was the advocate who earned him Lions selection along with England incumbent Johnny Williams – who was generally expected to play the tests – and Wales’ Trevor Lloyd.

His ascension to the test team in South Africa has generally been put down to brilliant Welsh outside-half Cliff Morgan finding that Jeeps’ shorter delivery offered him more options than Williams’ long bulleted passes. Certainly if the selectors had this combination in mind, they kept it well-concealed, pairing them only twice in the 12 matches played before the First Test. JBG Thomas’ account of the tour reckons that Jeeps won his test place with a brilliant display in the 36-13 defeat of Transvaal, when he was paired with England’s Doug Baker.

“He was in his own words ‘a water-pistol man’ and once warded off boredom at a post-match banquet by crawling under the top table to set off a firework”

Huw Richards on Jeeps’ mischeif

So Jeeps made his test debut in front of then the largest crowd in rugby union history, 95,000 at Ellis Park, Johannesburg and in a match remembered as one of the greatest in Lions history. A single moment in the second half of the Lions 23-22 win illustrated the virtues of Jeeps’ passing from the scrum. As Morgan recalled “He threw out the perfect flat, shortish pass which was moving away from me. I had to run and stretch to get it, and as I caught it and swung my body, my great adversary ‘Basie’ van Wyk just missed my backside”. Morgan went in under the posts, and the Lions led 23-11.

Jeeps and Morgan played all four tests for a team who were, before the triumphs of the 1970s, regarded as the best Lions ever for the brilliance of their rugby and the 2-2 draw secured against the Springboks. Morgan wrote of his partner that ‘he served you like a dog, he was tough and he knew the game’.

Jeff Butterfield, a team-mate for club and country provided perhaps the definitive soundbite about Jeeps as ‘The toughest, hardest player around. He was relentless in pursuing a win. He didn’t just play for fun. Part of his essential gear contained a catapult : he was a grown-up ‘Just William.”

It was perhaps that combination of relentless competitor and practical joker – he was in his own words ‘a water-pistol man’ and once warded off boredom at a post-match banquet by crawling under the top table to set off a firework – that made England’s selectors wary. A first England cap followed, against Wales at Cardiff in 1956, but England lost and it was back to Williams for the rest of the season.

The breakthrough came in 1957. He played all four matches, found an ideal outside-half partner in Harlequin Ricky Bartlett, and England won their first Grand Slam since 1928. In the clincher against Scotland he withstood ferocious pressure from the Scottish back-row before having a hand in all three England tries. Another title followed in 1958, when he also captained Northampton.

Yet this was an era in which, as Jeeps himself told me in an interview in 2008, ‘you had to start again every year and fight your way back into the England team’. County championship form, a series of trials and the Varsity match were all thrown into the mix along with past services.

In 1959 the selectors were beguiled by the huge pass and Varsity form of Cambridge University’s Stephen Smith. Jeeps merely came from Cambridge, where he and his father ran a market garden, which was not quite the same thing.

Smith came in and Jeeps played only once, when Smith was ill, against Ireland. It happened to be the only match England won in 1959 (although there were also two draws), and it was unlucky for both the newcomer and England that the opening match against Wales was lost on exactly the sort of Arms Park swamp that would have suited Jeeps down to the ground.

To be fair to England’s selectors, they were not the only doubters. His 1955 Lions colleague Clem Thomas reckoned him ‘a scrum-half of durability rather than perception’ and reported South African rugby boss Danie Craven’s view that the Lions would have won the series with Williams at scrum-half.

But those opinions are outweighed by others. Clive Rowlands, another ferociously pragmatic scrum-half operator recalled him as ‘brilliant at using the gap between the forwards and the backs’. The 1959 Lions selectors took him to Australia and New Zealand where he played five of the six tests, missing the match at Auckland only through illness.

Bill Beaumont chats to Dickie Jeeps in 2009 Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Bev Risman, who played outside-half on that tour, remembers “He never gave you the ball unless you had the chance to do something. If there was nothing on, he would take the punishment himself.” The New Zealand Herald journalist Terry McLean, a demanding and astringent critic, wrote that he had “the torso and arms of a heavyweight, and with his courage he would take on anything. He had a furious temper, too.”

And in 1960, he was not only back for England, but captain – although he probably jeopardised that elevation before the final trial, later recalling :”Since we were asked to assemble at Richmond the day before, I wrote to every member of that England team to come to a training session, which I took myself…I got a fearful bollocking”.

But the bulk of that England final trial XV not only got selected, but stayed together through an entire Five Nations season in which only a missed kick against France deprived them of a Grand Slam. Little else went wrong from the opening minutes in which Jeeps, acting on a suggestion from astute back-rower Peter Robbins, first surprised Wales by attempting a couple of breaks himself then took advantage of their confusion by sending debutant outside-half Richard Sharp sailing through a huge gap to the line.

At the end of the 1960 season Jeeps was unbeaten in 14 matches for England (including three draws), since his losing debut in 1956. His last two seasons were less successful, but he was able to quit on his own terms, while still captain, at the end of 1962, finishing with a third Lions tour – to South Africa – in which he played all four tests and was made captain when Arthur Smith was ruled out of the final Test.

But this was far from the end of his rugby life. He played, as he had always promised, a couple of seasons for the Cambridge club and, a gifted all-round sportsman, continued to play Minor Counties cricket for Cambridgeshire.

Elected to the RFU committee almost as soon as he retired, his restless energy continued to make an impact. In 1976 he became, at 44, the youngest president of modern times and shocked an organisation which still saw no reason why its number should be in the telephone book by instituting regular press conferences at which he was, among other things, trenchantly critical of the quality of English club rugby.

There were suggestions that he be granted, exceptionally, a second year in office. That came to nothing but, in an era when rugby administrators rarely did much to impress the wider world, he had been noticed and in 1978 was appointed to chair the Sports Council. He kept the job for seven years, surviving the change of government in 1979, instituting the ‘Sport for All’ slogan which underpinned policy for many years and standing up to royalty in the same way as he had once defied opposing loose forwards, dismissing as ‘an insult’ criticisms of Sports Council staff by the Duke of Edinburgh.

Visited in his mid 70s at his Newmarket home, he proved a generous host with a clear and trenchant recall of his playing days. Few English rugby lives have come much greater.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/17760624/relentless-competitor-practical-joker
Dickie Jeeps: The relentless competitor and practical joker
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