Place of Birth: London, November 26, 1948
Internationals: 41 caps between 1975 and 1984
Inducted: England v Australia (November 7, 2009)
The following article has been adapted from the original by Dai Llewellyn, which focused on two players. It has been changed to highlight only the selected inductee’s information.
Peter Wheeler has only hazy memories of England’s thrilling win over the Wallabies on a chill January day at Twickenham in 1982.
The Australians were bristling with talented players: Simon Poidevin, Mark Loane, Brendan Moon and the brilliant Mark Ella.
But when Wheelbrace was asked what he recalled of the match, the name on his lips was that of Erica Roe. Her unscheduled appearance at half-time turned heads in spectacular fashion. The gaze of pretty well every red-blooded male was drawn to her toplessness, and Wheeler and just about every member of the England team were no exception.
“The memories of that day have flowered through multiple telling of this at dinners,” he said, “and it seems to change a little with each telling to make the story better. Anyway, Billy [Beaumont] was captain and at half-time I think we were only just ahead when we had expected to be doing better.
“In those days you didn’t go off at half-time – you stayed on the pitch and, at Twickenham, you enjoyed your slices of orange and lemon. Twickenham was the only ground where you had lemons at half-time as well as the traditional oranges.
“Anyway, we were listening to Billy in full rant at us about the lineout, when we suddenly became aware that something else was happening on the pitch. There was a load of noise from the spectators. Bill started to get angry and said, ‘Come on, we’ve got an international here.’ Then he looked around and saw Erica Roe.
“At this point, when I am telling this tale at a dinner, I maintain it was Smithy [scrum half Steve Smith] who made this remark, but he maintains it was me. But for the purpose of this interview we shall say it was Smithy. What he said was: ‘Hey Bill, there’s a bird over there with your bum on her chest.’”
At this point Wheeler reveals that Roe was not the only person to enter the rugby arena that day. “The little known fact about that day is this,” says the Brace, “it was the era for people running on to the pitch, and while Erica Roe was doing her thing at one end of the Twickenham pitch, at the other end there was a bloke who ran on dressed in a gorilla outfit. It was obviously his big moment.
Unfortunately he chose exactly the wrong time to do it, because everyone was watching Erica – or so I thought.”
Incredibly, after the match Wheeler discovered that one member of the England team, the second row forward Maurice Colclough, had somehow missed seeing Erica, although he had seen the secondary pitch invasion. “When we were back in the dressing room after the match I remember I was having a shower and Maurice Colclough came over and said to me, ‘I couldn’t understand it. There we were in the middle of an international, and all the blokes were getting excited about some bloke dressed up in a gorilla outfit!’”
Wheeler certainly has cause to remember the touring Australians, because he had captained the Midlands in their opening match the previous October at Leicester, home of Wheeler’s club the Tigers. “I got sent off,” he remembers. But the Midlands still won that game.
“In those days Australia were still developing,” Wheeler explains. “It wasn’t until the early 1990s that they really got going. In fact there’s an Irish forward who said that in those days Australia were the sort of team you played three or four times in your career, and you beat them nine times out of ten. That sums them up. They were improving all the time.”
In those days touring teams came close to being immigrants, so long did they spend in the British Isles. On that particular tour the Wallabies played all four home nations, beating Ireland before going on to lose to Wales, Scotland and England.
Wheeler laments that disappearance of prolonged tours in the age of professionalism. “What you don’t see now is the touring sides travelling around the country, playing against the Midlands, the North, the South West etc. They used to be very special occasions.”
There were also more opportunities for club players to get to play at Twickenham back then, as Wheeler explains: “In the amateur era we used to go to Twickenham quite a lot. Apart from club games against Harlequins, there would be the final England trial Probables v Possibles, and England versus The Rest.
“There have been some fantastic highs at Twickenham for me. Winning international matches, beating New Zealand, France and Wales – at that time those were massive wins because they were the biggest challenges you faced in your playing career. The cup finals… Victory at Twickenham always had a great impact on you.”
Post-match time was also less frenetic, with no media demands for endless interviews as there are these days, no compulsory appearances in this or that corporate hospitality suite. In those far off days the players were allowed to unwind.
“One of the nice things I used to like as a player about Twickenham in those days, when you have been away from your family for a few days [preparing for the match], was that after a game you would go into the West Car Park and have a really nice hour with family and friends.
“Of course that was in the days of the old Twickenham, which always had a great atmosphere. The stands were so close to the pitch.”
Not that the new stadium has lost any of its magic for the modern-day player. “There is a lot of tradition and history with Twickenham,” Wheeler insists, “and modern-day players respect that. Going to Twickenham means something to them as well.”
But perhaps one or two of the amateur traditions have disappeared.
“Apart from the lemons at half-time there were other things that were peculiar to Twickenham in my day. For example, we would come out on to the pitch for a team photograph about half an hour before the kick-off. That was good because you can look back on those photos every now again and recall team-mates who were there, and bring up memories of that and other games.
“Then when you went back into the dressing room the president of the RFU would come in accompanied by one or two members of the committee to wish us good luck.”
As with practically every inductee on to the Wall of Fame, Wheeler also has fond memories of the facilities. “The dressing rooms were huge, compared with the normal club facilities. They covered a vast area.”
In all Wheeler won 41 caps for his country, captaining his side in five Tests and leading them to victory on two occasions. He made his captaincy debut in a non-cap match against Canada in 1983 but got his first taste of Test captaincy that same year – something of a baptism of fire since it was against a formidable All Blacks team.
“That was in the November, my 37th cap,” he recalls, “and we won 15-9. Colclough scored a try for us. I remember that match a little better than the win over Australia, because you don’t beat the All Blacks all that often in your career. That was obviously a special moment.”
He also led Leicester to three successive John Player Cup triumphs at HQ. “When, in 1979, we won the inaugural John Player Cup, that was memorable, because it was done with my clubmates. It’s special winning something with your club because week-in, week-out you are training with the guys and playing together.”
The characterful Wheeler certainly graced the Twickenham stage with his talent, and fully deserves this signal honour from the World Rugby Museum.
Article by Dai Llewellyn