Place of Birth: Mysore, October 9, 1938
Position: Fly half
Internationals: 14 caps between 1960 and 1967
Inducted: England v Pacific Islanders (November 8, 2008)
Immortality – the sort that gave cricket ‘Botham’s Ashes’ in 1981 or football its ‘Matthews Cup final’ in 1953 – is something few sportsmen achieve in their lifetime.
But in 1963, the coldest winter for 17 years and one that was to become known as The Big Freeze, rugby union was able to accord one match to one man. It was the game that clinched the Five Nations Championship outright for England for the second time in six years.
The setting was Twickenham. Scotland were the opponents. Richard Sharp was the man.
It is perfectly understandable why this Calcutta Cup was dubbed ‘Richard Sharp’s match’ because his contribution was little short of stunning. Not just because of his own natural brilliance, but because it was the start of the big thaw, when winter began to lose its icy grip. Sharp’s contribution on the afternoon of Saturday March 16, 1963 melted even the hardest of hearts.
To appreciate England’s, and Sharp’s, achievement it is necessary to start with the first snowfall of the winter. Those flakes fell on Boxing Day night and imprisoned the country in an unyielding white mantle until the end of March. That viciously cold spell embraced the Five Nations Championship, when pitches were so hard that straw was spread over them to try to render them a little more conducive to rugby.
Sharp was appointed captain for the Championship. “It was a huge honour to be appointed captain of my country,” he said. “I did my best, but I had a very good side, with the likes of Mike Weston, Malcolm Phillips and of course at scrum half Dickie Jeeps. I loved playing outside him – he was a wonderful player.”
England’s campaign began at Cardiff Arms Park. The run-up to the match was marked by severe blizzards and conditions were, at best, Arctic. England’s preparations had a touch of irony about them, since they all had to repair to the seaside, despite it being mid-winter. This was because no suitable pitches could be found on which to train.
“The grounds were all frozen,” Sharp recalled. “It had been so cold that the final England trial, which should have been played at Twickenham, had to be played in Torquay, where it was milder.
“Then we went over the Wales. Traditionally the England team used to stay in Porthcawl and we would train on Porthcawl Rugby Club’s ground, but the pitch there was so frozen that we had to train on the beach. It shows just how professional the game is today, because before an international we had a run around on a beach.”
Whether it was the sand or the bracing Bristol Channel air, something was right, because a sure-footed Red Rose team triumphed, the last side to win at Arms Park until Will Carling’s Grand Slam team in 1991.
Sharp reckoned England were lucky to come away from Cardiff with victory though. “We were fortunate to win. We could so easily have lost. We were up against a very good Wales side and early on one of the Wales wingers, I forget which, was through, but he slipped on the ice. If he hadn’t he would have scored.”
It was a callow Wales side in fact, featuring no fewer than five debutants, including the brilliant half back combo of captain and scrum half Clive Rowlands and fly half David Watkins. The most experienced player was Swansea flier Dewi Bebb on the left wing. England’s backs were far more experienced, but six of the pack were winning their first cap.
Sharp converted England’s two tries, scored by Malcolm Phillips (the Fylde centre) and debutant lock John Owen of Coventry. Sharp also landed a drop goal, the third and final one of his international career. So England had launched their Championship campaign in positive fashion.
Next up was Ireland, a match that ended in a stultifying 0-0 draw.
“This time the weather wasn’t icy,” said Sharp, “It was wet and muddy. The Irish forwards were immensely strong. Bill Mulcahy was their captain. I had been on the Lions tour of South Africa with him the previous year, and he was partnered in the second row by Willie John McBride. They missed a couple of kicks at goal and again I think we were a bit lucky to come away with something.”
The draw meant that a chance of the Triple Crown had gone, but Sharp’s England were still unbeaten, an important factor to take with them into their next match, against a formidable France side at Twickenham.
“The one team we found hardest to beat was France,” said Sharp. “In those days pitches were muddy more often than not, but the French forwards were very quick and very mobile, and they were very effective with their hands. They always seemed to be able to find their backs as well: the forwards’ distribution was very good. The French games were always the toughest ones in those days. So in 1963 we knew we had to keep it tight against France.”
And tight was the word to describe the way England handled the French. The forwards controlled the game efficiently, denying France any decent possession. They still let in Guy Boniface, the outside centre, for the only try of the game, but ultimately that did not matter. Two penalties by John Willcox ensured the closest of victories for England and kept them on course for the title.
So finally to THE match. The title decider. The Calcutta Cup. The oldest of enemies, England and Scotland, in a head-to-head that proved more effective than any coke-filled brazier for warming up the watchers. This was Sharp’s match.
The Scots had arrived a point behind England in the Championship table. Victory for them would give them their first title for 15 years, and they began with ferocious intent, so much so that within a quarter of an hour they had opened up a 15-point lead.
Under spring sunshine the Scots began at a heck of a pace, with the back row driving hard at the English. Blind-side flanker Ronald Glasgow caught a long throw at a lineout and was driven over under a mound of bodies for a try. From a scrum Ken Scotland landed a drop goal and suddenly England were up against it.
England hit back shortly before the interval when Peter Jackson combined brilliantly with Sharp from a lineout. The winger slipped around several defenders before kicking ahead for the forwards to converge on the ball, and eventually prop Nick Drake-Lee was driven over for a try which Willcox converted.
And there was more to follow, because England, and specifically captain Sharp, had a little something tucked up their sleeve. “The game has changed of course since our day, but in those days we found it was quite difficult to make breaks and score tries from set scrums. We used to like lineout balls, but at the set pieces the defences were very difficult to break down.
“So we devised a variation at the set scrum, because orthodox movements were not very rewarding.”
The set scrum was some 40 yards out from the Scottish line and close to touch. Contemporary reports suggest that a blind-side move was on the cards with right winger Peter Jackson standing close to the scrum half Simon Clarke.
But the Cambridge Blue half back opted for an orthodox pass off his right hand to his fly half Sharp. “The try that I scored was really thanks to Mike Weston. We arranged a scissors move, whereby the fly half gets the ball from the scrum half, I then ran flat across the pitch, and Mike came in behind me.
“At that point the fly half had a choice. Either he completed the scissor movement by giving the ball to the man running in the counter direction to the fly half, or dummying it.
“We hadn’t decided which we would do, and I decided to dummy it, so he rather caused the defence to hesitate. It wasn’t blocking or anything – there was nothing illegal about it. It was just a genuine dummy scissors. And because the defence hesitated, I was able to go through the gap that it had created.”
That got Sharp past the Scotland flanker Kenneth Ross. A quick burst of acceleration and another dummy took Sharp between the bewildered centres, David White and Brian Henderson. He was almost there. He just had to get around the full back Colin Blaikie.
The eye witness accounts state that Sharp sold the hapless Blaikie an outrageous dummy, but Sharp did not see it quite like that.
Sharp had England left winger Jim Roberts coming up on his left shoulder and a pass outside would have put the Sale threequarter through and over for the winning try. “I remember afterwards that people who perhaps did not know the game so well, saying I had been selfish in dummying the full back.
“But I didn’t really have much choice. I was on the point of passing to Jim so that he could score when I spotted Blaikie just beginning to drift across and I could see he was going to go for Jim. This was even before I had passed the ball. And so I decided not to pass, but went through with the dummy instead, because the decision had effectively been made for me.”
The try not only clinched the match, but it sealed the Championship and Twickenham erupted. “It was very pleasing to have scored the winning try,” added Sharp.
He then dwelt on the atmosphere at Headquarters. “It was an intimate ground. When I was fortunate enough to win my first cap – Bev Risman pulled a hamstring at the last minute so I stepped in – the thing that struck me about a packed Twickenham on an international match day was the noise.
“I had played there before for Oxford University in the Varsity match and for the Royal Navy in the Inter-Services Tournament, but running out on to the Twickenham pitch for a big international, you suddenly realised how deafening the noise from the crowd is.
“You just heard a roar, and I quickly realised in that first international against Wales that Dickie Jeeps, my captain and scrum half, and I needed visual signals to communicate with each other. So we devised a simple system of hand signals to tell us what we were intending to do and where we were going.”
In his seven Five Nations Championship matches at Twickenham, Sharp was never on the losing side, enjoying five victories and two draws. He also scored 26 points for England when a try was worth three points. His 14th and final appearance at HQ was against Australia, in 1967.
“I feel hugely honoured,” said Sharp, modest to the last, about his elevation to the World Rugby Museum’s Wall of Fame. “It is a wonderful honour to have been accorded.”
Article by Dai Llewellyn