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Ex-England full-back: ‘I nearly died on 1971 tour to Japan’

By Jon Newcombe
The England XV that toured the Far East in 1971, including full-back Peter Rossborough who had a near-death experience whilst in Japan. Photo: World Rugby Museum, Twickenham

The first time an England XV played Japan on Japanese soil, one of the players very nearly didn’t make it home alive. Peter Rossborough, the former Coventry player and now club president, was in the 24-man squad that embarked on a seven-match tour of the Far East in the summer of 1971, which also included stopovers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon).

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His memories are understandably hazy – not because of the 53 years that have passed have caused his memory to go blank in the midst of the interview, but because he was knocked out cold in the second Test, came round, and then ended up in a coma.

“I fell on a ball towards the end of a close game and I was kicked very hard in the back of my head, I presume by a Japanese player,” he told RugbyPass.

“That was in September and that resulted me in not playing again for six months. Quite rightly, the RFU banned me from playing such was the severity of the concussion, which I am very grateful for even if I found it very frustrating then.”

Rossborough, the Freddie Steward of his day who won seven caps for his country, had the quick actions of his roommate Peter Glover, of the RAF and Bath, to thank for still being here to tell the tale, or not as the case may be.

“Pete Glover was very good to me, I shared a room with him and after I got severely concussed he wasn’t able to go out with the rest of the guys to dinner and that sort of thing because he was needed to stay and keep an eye on me,” he said.

“I suspected he saved my life because I fell into a coma whilst the two of us were back in the hotel. Obviously, I don’t remember any of this, but I am just surmising what I have been told, that he made arrangements to get me to hospital.

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“I woke up surrounded by several people in surgical greens and they were just about to give me anaesthetic and open up my skull and look at my brain. So I don’t have particularly fond memories of that tour.”

“They wouldn’t let me fly home early, quite rightly they insisted I stayed with the party, so while I can’t remember anything much at all at least I enjoyed a good holiday in Singapore and Ceylon!”

Rossborough was stood down from playing until April, meaning he missed the 1972 Five Nations Championship. Only six players (Jeremy Janion, Rodney Webb, Jan Webster and Geoff Evans) and two forwards (Tony Neary and Chris Ralston) made the step up from the England XV side that toured the Far East to the senior side that spring, despite all seven games being won.

The England XV began by beating Wasada University Past & Present 56-4 – the four coming from the hosts’ only try after the International Rugby Board, as World Rugby was known then, had increased the value of a try from three points to four that year.

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The first Test of the tour came straight after, in Tokyo, and ended 27-19 to the England XV – but only after two tries were scored in the final four minutes.

England were desperately hard pushed in the second Test, too, needing a heroic defensive rearguard – minus Rossborough’s calm assuredness – to hold on for a 6-3 win. In the end, the two penalties Rossborough had kicked before his departure were enough for a narrow victory against a side whose speed of movement surprised the tourists.

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From there, England headed to Hong Kong, Singapore and Sri Lanka, winning games against the respective national teams comfortably. A hat-trick in the second and final Test against Sri Lanka resulted in Webb beating off stiff competition from Charlie Hannaford and Alan Cowman to finish as the tour’s top-scorer, having taken his total to eight.

Sixteen different players in a squad that got their names on the scoresheet and no less than 14 clubs were in a squad that represented the length and breadth of the country, with the strongest team of the time, Coventry, having the largest contingent of five.

Whilst players like Bath prop Mike Hannell and Birkenhead Park’s Dave Robinson were never ultimately capped, four (Roger Uttley, Neary, Peter Wheeler and Fran Cotton) were integral to England’s Grand Slam success in 1980.

Peter Rossborough
Coventry Rugby president and former England player, Peter Rossborough

Peter Rossborough’s guide to the England XV squad that toured the Far East in 1971

Three-quarters

JP Janion (Bedford, 12 caps): Jeremy Paul Aubrey George,  to give him his full name. He got a fair bit of stick from the players because of that. A very good player, reasonably quick as a wing, but a massive guy with huge thighs who was very difficult to tackle. Made lots of ground for us. Playing against him at Bedford, he was always devilishly hard to stop.

*Did you know? Janion played in the England team that pulled off a shock 18-9 win over the Springboks at Ellis Park in 1972.

Rodney Webb (Coventry, 12 caps): His real name was Rodney but his nickname was Sam. I think the notable thing about him was he set up a sports company, which he christened Webb Ellis. He made an awful of rugby balls in the town of Rugby, and he had a small museum attached to the factory. He did very well for himself, as you can imagine.

Did you know? Was a former Warwickshire javelin champion.

Pete Glover (RAF & Bath, 3 caps): We stayed in touch for a while because, after all, he did save my life. He had a very good career in the RAF.

Did you know? Spent some time in the Pakistan Air Force Academy.

Bob Lloyd (Harlequins, 5 caps): I remember him being a very nice guy, as most Harlequins are. He was a good centre.

Did you know? Lloyd scored two tries on his Test debut, a 23-11 defeat to the All Blacks in 1967.

Dave Roughley (Liverpool, 3 caps): A very good, solid defensive player who wasn’t bad in attack either.

Did you know? Coached Warrington, where he was club president.

Chris Wardlow (Northampton, 6 caps): Went from Carlisle to Northampton and eventually moved up to Coventry, where he finished his career. A very hard tackling centre and highly skilled as well. Was at the centre of every party going.

Did you know? Missed the 1971 Lions tour to New Zealand after breaking his jaw in a  practice match at Coventry.

Geoff Evans (Coventry, 9 caps): As a player he was exceptionally quick, especially over the first 20 yards. Very solid and tackled hard. Went on tour with the Lions to South Africa in ’74. A good bloke and a good friend. Had a successful career in finance. He only lives about six miles down the road from me.

Did you know? Was a former all-England Schools long jump champion.

Half-backs

Alan Cowman (Loughborough Colleges, 5 caps): Everyone called him Dick. Another Cumbrian who knew Chris Wardlow well. Started his career as a teacher in Coventry and was a very accomplished fly-half. Another cracking bloke.

Did you know? Taught Chemistry and P.E in Coventry..

John Finlan (Moseley, 13 caps): Very skilful and quick and could kick goals. Played for Coventry’s arch-rivals, Moseley and was always a tough opponent.  I went to his funeral a little while ago.

Did you know? Following his retirement from playing he became an England selector.

Nigel Starmer-Smith (Harlequins, 7 caps): A very good little player who obviously went on and made a name for himself in the media as a commentator.

Did you know? His son, Charlie, has recorded several songs about his dad’s struggles with dementia to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Society.

Jan Webster (Moseley, 11 caps): Extremely gifted and was a pain in the neck for Coventry for years and years as scrum-half for our arch-rivals. A really nice guy who made a very good living for himself as sports goods entrepreneur.

Did you know?  Was once approached by revered football manager Joe Mercer to play for Aston Villa F.C, aged 14.

Forwards

Jim Broderick (Coventry, 0 caps): Was around the first-class scene with Coventry and Warwickshire, but he only went on two England tours, to Japan and previously to Canada, both of which were uncapped. It didn’t leave him in a very good mood to know that he had played five games for England without getting any recognition. A very hard man, a very funny man, always the heart and soul of parties. Enjoyed the odd pint, so I am told.

Did you know?  Returned home from the tour of the Far East on a stretcher after badly injuring his back.

Fran Cotton (Loughborough Colleges, 31 caps): Was just coming onto the scene at the time of the tour. Joined Coventry the year we got back and was with us from 1972-74 before returning to Lancashire. One of the all-time greats, no doubt about it.

Did you know?  With former Loughborough Colleges’ and England team-mate,  Steve Smith, he founded the clothing company Cotton Traders in 1987.

Mike Hannell (Bath, 0 caps): A prop forward, not in the same class as Cotton and Broderick but a really decent guy, quiet and assuming. I think he was a little bit overawed by his elevation to the edge of international rugby.

Did you know? Hannell taught at Marlborough College.

John Gray (Coventry, 0 caps): Another who could start a party anywhere at any time. Immensely talented, at 15s and 7s. Turned to Rugby League and after a couple of seasons up north he was signed by an Australian team and became a huge superstar in Sydney. I stayed with him once and when walked down the street it was like being with George Best, everyone was trying to get his autograph.

Did you know? As well as enjoying a top career in both codes of rugby and being offered a trial by Coventry City F.C, Gray played first-class cricket for Warwickshire alongside the then England captain, Mike Smith, taking five wickets on his debut.

Peter Wheeler (Leicester, 41 caps): There was a big rivalry between him and John Gray, which was as amicable as it could be when you had two hookers competing for the same position. A good captain and a fine player. You might be surprised to know that he was also a bit of a goal kicker. Leicester didn’t have one in those days so they turned to him, and he did his best.

Did you know? Became CEO of Leicester Tigers after 349 appearances for the club.

Peter Larter (Northampton & RAF, 24 caps): Saw him at David Duckham’s funeral and he is still as huge and as amenable as he ever was. An immovable object in the middle of the England pack.

Did you know? Later became an administrator for the golf greenkeepers’ association.

Tony Neary (Broughton Park, 43 caps) – Played basketball for England Schools and was very tall for a seven so won a lot of lineout ball. A tremendously gifted athlete; very quick.

Did you know? Was a two-time Lions tourist in the ‘70s, and played in the North’s famous win v the All Blacks.

Roger Uttley (Gosforth, 23 caps): One of the greats of the game and the only man to have been made better looking by playing rugby, as they used to say. Very unassuming off the field, but on it he was always very hard and dangerous with or without the ball.

Did you know? Was a schoolmaster at Harrow for 26 years.

Charlie Hannaford (Bristol, 3 caps): Excellent number 8, very skilful and athletic. Even though we were there at different times, he went to Durham University, so we always had that connection.

Did you know? A try-scorer on debut vs Wales in 1971.

Chris Ralston (Richmond, 22 caps): Stood 6’7/6’8 and had hair down to his shoulders. It didn’t make him look any more like an athlete! Great lineout player and another who made himself known whenever there was a party.

*Did you know? Inherited a family business that published in-flight and cruise ship magazines.

Budge Rogers (Bedford, captain, 34 caps): Brought him out of semi-retirement to bring a bit of experience to an otherwise young squad. Cracking player.

Did you know? Captained Bedford to victory in the RFU Knockout Cup and became England manager and RFU President,

Dave Robinson (Birkenhead Park, 0 caps): Like many northerners, he was very friendly and open and always up for laugh. A cracking tackler for a small man, who always put himself about and enjoyed that side of the game.

Did you know? One of Cumbria’s most celebrated players. Robinson played in the NW Counties rugby team that beat the All Blacks 16-14 in 1972.

Manager: Bob Weighill. Assistant Manager: John Burgess

*With thanks to The English Rugby Who’s Who, which is available to buy here

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