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10 England rugby players who defied convention

By Neil Fissler
Immanuel Feyi-Waboso walks out for his England debut (Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Manny Feyi-Waboso became the 1460th player to be capped by England when he came off the bench against Italy last month. I have selected ten interesting players from the new book The English Rugby Who’s Who by myself and Adam Hathaway.

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1. The son of a lion tamer and a trained circus acrobat, Jimmy Peters, who played for Bristol and Plymouth Albion, became the first black man to play for England when he won the first of his five caps against Scotland in March 1906 in the days when they played their home games at the Inverleith Sports Ground. The fly-half, who was a printer and then a carpenter, lost three fingers on his left hand in an accident at work and, when he was 34, turned professional with Barrow and St Helens before returning to Plymouth, where worked at the Royal Naval Hospital, Stonehouse. Peters died in March 1954.

2. Three-quarter Jack Sutcliffe only played rugby for three seasons, playing for Kirkstall, Bradford, and Heckmondwike, making his England debut against New Zealand Natives at Rectory Field Blackheath in February 1889, scoring a try and kicking a conversion. After being suspended for professionalism, he switched to Association Football with Bolton Wanderers, playing in goal in the 1894 FA Cup final. He won five International caps, making him the only man to play football and rugby for England. Sutcliffe also played for Millwall Athletic and Manchester United, later became a football trainer and lived in Bradford until his death in July 1947.

3. Flanker Wavell Wakefield, the poster boy of rugby in the 1920s, captained Cambridge University and was a Harlequins stalwart for a decade, as well as a member of the Quins side to win the first Middlesex Sevens in April 1926. He won the first of his 31 test caps against Wales at the St Helens Ground, Swansea, in January 1920 winning three Grand Slams leading the 1924 success. Wakefield, who founded the Rediffusion Group, became a Conservative MP, and was knighted in 1944, and, on his retirement from Parliament in 1963, became the first Baron Wakefield of Kendal, where he died in August 1983.

4. Born in Inyati, Matabeleland Wardlaw Thomson was sent to England to be educated at Bedford Modern School and became the first Southern African-born player to represent England when he won the first of his four caps against Wales at Rectory Field, the home of his club, Blackheath. Even though he later moved to Glasgow, the full-back would return to London and play important games for Blackheath. Thomson was regarded as the finest three-quarters of his era, and after returning to South Africa, he worked for a paper-making firm for many years and lived in Wynberg near Cape Town until his death in April 1921.

5. Sir Lancelot Barrington-Ward was the first rugby player born in Worcester to play for England when he made his debut aged 26 against Wales in January 1910 in the first-ever match at Twickenham. The No. 8, who played for Oxford University and Edinburgh University, was an ever-present, helping England win the Home Championship. He was appointed house surgeon at the Great Ormond Street Hospital and an abdominal surgeon at the Royal Northern Hospital, where he became a senior surgeon. Barrington-Ward served as a surgeon to King George VI and was an extra surgeon to Queen Elizabeth II died in November 1953.

6. Jeremy Spencer was offered a trial with Spurs while at Royal Grammar School Guildford. The scrum-half was heading to Laren, Holland, to exhibit handloom weaving when news of his unexpected selection to face France at Twickenham in January 1966 broke. The elastic in his shorts snapped in the final trial and was replaced. A brilliant artist, he travelled to Europe in his Volkswagen Combie, working in education, and was a painter who once had an exhibition of his work with the Spanish artist Juan Benito. Spencer lived in an air shelter and did his national service in the army under protest as a conscientious objector.

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7. Derek Wyatt, whom Saracens rejected, won his only cap off the bench against Scotland in 1976 when he came on for David Duckham, but he had already toured Australia with England in 1975. An RFU Knockout Cup winner with Bedford in 1975, he scored 145 tries in 152 games before moving on to Bath, equalling their try-scoring record in his first two seasons. He won his Oxford University blue when he was 32 and worked in publishing before becoming the Labour Member of Parliament for Sittingbourne and Sheppey from 1997 to 2010.

8. No. 8 Chris Butcher played his final Test against Australia in 1984, having toured South Africa with England that summer. Struggling with a knee injury, he worked as a debt collector in the Middle East and sold advertising for a travel magazine in the West Indies before taking a job in the City. Butcher was on his travels again, backpacking in Botswana and East Africa shortly afterwards, before working in foreign exchange in Japan and then in Hong Kong and Singapore for 11-and-a-half years. In 2023, took part in the Round the World Clipper Race.

9. Tom Beim won his two caps in 1998 when England took a depleted side to the southern hemisphere and toured Argentina in 2002. A winger, he scored five tries for Gloucester in a Heineken Cup match against Roma in 2000 before leaving three years later to play in Italy. He has carved out a successful career in international polo. He had played the game before rugby took over but represented his country in a second sport. Beim is now a builder in Cirencester, Gloucestershire.

10. Brian Boobbyer, an outstanding rugby player and cricketer, turned his back on both sports, aged 24, to travel overseas and work with Frank Buchman’s Moral Re-Armament movement. With the bat, he once went a whole season at Durston House prep school without being dismissed, won cricket and rugby blues at Oxford University, where he read history at Brasenose College, and could have played for Middlesex, but his Christian ideals sent him elsewhere. His work with MRA took him all over Asia, and he lived in Hereford when he died in January 2011.

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The English Rugby Who’s Who is available from Amazon.

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