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People / Teamwork
Richard Sharp

England rugby union team // The forgotten story of... ... Richard Sharp


Peter Burgess

England rugby union team // The forgotten story of... ... Richard Sharp

In the harsh winter of 1963, England won the Calcutta Cup and the Five Nations after their quicksilver fly-half and captain scored probably the most elegant try ever seen at Twickenham

Richard Sharp touches down for his memorable score for England v Scotland at Twickenham in 1963. Photographs:

Few passers-by on the narrow, picturesque streets of St Ives give a second glance to the polite elderly gentleman as he walks to the bakers to buy his guest a lunchtime pasty. If only they knew. Half a century ago there were few more admired sportsmen in the world. In the spring of 1963, he also scored probably the most elegant try ever seen at Twickenham. When it comes to legendary living Cornishmen, even Padstow's Rick Stein knows his place.

But for the half-dozen framed photographs displayed on the wall of Richard Sharp's neat study there would be few immediate clues. For years England's former fly-half and captain kept them out of sight, not wanting to put undue pressure on his two sons, Quentin and Jeremy. These days they bring back memories of loyal team-mates, fleet-footed youth and an era when rugby was played for honour and national pride alone.

The photograph of Sharp greeting the then prime minister Harold Macmillan – 'I think it might have been the only game of rugby he ever attended' – is gloriously evocative but the bottom picture, of him crossing the Twickenham try-line with not a defender in sight, has special resonance. The winter of 1962-63 is still remembered for its plunging temperatures and deep snow. It also yielded one of the finest tries ever scored at HQ, helping England clinch not only the Calcutta Cup but the 1963 Five Nations title, too.

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Fifty years later, thanks to YouTube, the footage is readily available. Maybe the defensive line is a trifle porous but there is no mistaking the gliding majesty of the blond-haired lead character. Three sidesteps, natural spatial awareness, startling pace: the Scots had absolutely no answer. Sharp's own recollections are crystal clear: 'It wasn't easy to make breaks from set-scrums because, in those days, the defence was allowed to line up level with the front-row and not be offside.

It was a major problem, so one of the solutions was to attempt a scissors or a dummy scissors. 'We had a set-scrum on the right and I ran across the field fairly flat. Mike Weston came behind me and I always say he made the try. I went to pass it to him, he made the defence hesitate and there was a gap.'

Through it Sharp surged and, soon enough, he had only the Scottish full-back to beat. 'Later, people teased me, telling me I should have passed but, by then, it was more sensible not to. I scored under the posts, John Willcox converted and we won. It was a lovely finish to the season.'

Sharp holds his photograph of him meeting prime minister Harold Macmillan before the game

It was far from a one-off. Sharp's best game for England actually came the year before when Ireland were beaten 16-0. 'There is a languid grace about this modest young man which is fascinatingly deceptive,' reported The Times. 'Opponents realise this only after he has passed them … lissom and beautifully balanced, he glides like a silent wraith through gaps nobody else has spotted. Even when punting, he does not kick the ball, he elegantly persuades it to do his bidding.' No one characterises rugby players in such terms these days.

Sharp was certainly a uniquely glamorous figure. He was born in India, where his mining engineer father was working at the time, educated at Blundell's School – where he was head boy, captain of cricket and held the pole vault record – and Oxford. During his national service years, he served in the Royal Marines. Sadly, he was to dazzle only fleetingly in the white of England, winning just 14 caps. Having toured South Africa with the Lions in 1962 – he had his cheekbone shattered in an unsavoury incident the week before the first Test – the Scotland game proved to be his penultimate appearance.

That same year, 1963, he took his finals, came down from Balliol College, married his sweetheart, Esther, and needed to pay the mortgage. He enjoyed a five-year stint teaching geography at Sherborne in Dorset but juggling school work, family life and rugby – as well as his hometown club Redruth he played for Wasps and Bristol – proved too much. In later years he wrote about rugby for the Sunday Telegraph and was employed in the china clay industry for 30 years. 'I wouldn't have wanted to play professional rugby because I had other interests but I'd have enjoyed being a player now. They're all so much better, fitter and stronger. I admire them all, although many seem to run into people deliberately. When I was young we were always looking for gaps rather than contact.'

Sharp at his home in St Ives

Today's stars will be intrigued by the small print in his meticulous scrapbooks. In January 1963, for example, bad weather forced the final England trial to be staged in Torquay the weekend before the championship kicked off, after which the side to face Wales was hastily selected. On the following Friday afternoon, with icy conditions still prevailing, the English players conducted their solitary pre-match training session on Porthcawl beach. It was left to Sharp, as skipper, to organise the tactics and take the orders – 'I always had the fish' – for pre-match luncheon.

Against all odds the visitors tiptoed out on to a rock-hard Arms Park – 'I didn't think it was playable' – the following day and won 13-6. Next up was a 0-0 draw against Ireland on a Dublin quagmire, the last scoreless championship game in history. 'In some games, albeit not that one, there might not be a single penalty kick. The centres hardly got a pass.' It ruled out an English triple crown but a 6-5 victory over the French, the Boniface brothers and all, duly set up a title shot. Sure enough Scotland were beaten 10-8, pipped by Sharp's mesmeric score, and the title was secure.

The novelist Bernard Cornwell named his popular Sharpe character after him but the ever-modest hero still reckons his old team-mates deserve all the credit. At 74, having fought off stomach cancer and lost his beloved wife, the long trip up to Twickenham for a 4pm kick-off this Saturday is too arduous to undertake – 'it would take me several days to recover' – but his son Jeremy and grandson James will be there. Sharp will watch it quietly at home on TV, perhaps enjoying a small half-time whisky, with his photographs and the cries of St Ives's seagulls for company. It would be nice if English rugby also raised a glass to the silent wraith of cold winters past.

15 John Willcox 16 caps Became games master at Ampleforth 14 Peter Jackson 20 caps Went on to run an export packing business and was the president of Coventry RFC. Died March 2004 13 Malcolm Phillips 25 caps Former president of the RFU 2004-05 12 Mike Weston 29 caps Retired in 1968. Managed England at the first World Cup in 1987 in New Zealand 11 Jim Roberts 18 caps 10 Richard Sharp 14 caps England's captain on that day at Twickenham. Taught geography after retirement then worked in the china clay industry 9 Simon Clarke 13 caps Also played first-class cricket for Combined Services and Cambridge University 1 Nick Drake-Lee 8 caps Youngest prop to play for England – said to weigh only 12 stone 2 Herbert Godwin 11 caps A foreman before running a guest house. Died in January 2006 3 Philip Judd 22 caps Behind project to revive rugby in schools in Coventry 4 Mike Davis 16 caps Advertisement Coached England from 1979-82 winning 1980 Grand Slam 5 John Owen 14 caps President of the RFU from 2007-10, awarded MBE in 2011 6 Budge Rogers 34 caps Went on to manage various England teams. Became RFU president in 2001 and was the first rugby player to be honoured by the Queen with an OBE 7 Dick Manley 4 caps Current Exeter Chiefs president 8 David Perry 15 caps Retired at 27 due to severe neck injury and joined John Waddington (who produced Monopoly) and went on to become the chairman and chief executive of the company Topics England rugby union team The forgotten story of... Rugby union Six Nations 2013 Six Nations Scotland rugby union team features

Robert Kitson
Wednesday 30 January 2013 09.12 EST First published on Wednesday 30 January 2013 09.12 EST
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