'You probably have to look a bit harder now but I'm sure the dark arts are still there'
Winning your first England cap at 32 is unthinkable in the professional era – indeed most Premiership players are now thinking of calling it a day by that age.
But convention is not a concept that troubled former Leicester and England prop Darren Garforth too much during a glittering playing career which saw him play more than 300 times in Tigers’ front row and win 25 caps for his country between 1997 and 2000.
Garforth’s route into English rugby’s top flight is a typical of the unorthodox route he took to the top. The story also speaks volumes about the aura of the great Dean Richards.
“I went from my junior club Coventry Saracens to Nuneaton when I was 23 and had a couple of years playing in the bottom end of the National Leagues,” Garforth recalled.
“Dean Richards’ father was the forwards coach and when I’d been there two seasons he told me I should go to Leicester, but I didn’t think I was good enough.
“He kept insisting I should try it, and told me I would soon be too old, but I wanted another couple of years at Nuneaton and kept finding ways to put him off.
“Then one Sunday I was eating dinner and the phone rang. It was Dean and he left me with no choice – I had to go and try it.”
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Garforth’s route into rugby had been equally unusual since like Dai Young – a contemporary about whom he speaks with great respect – the tight-head prop was a footballer as a teenager.
“When I was 17 I came to rugby by chance,” he said. “My football got cancelled and I passed a minibus full of my mates when I was walking home and they asked me to go and play for Coventry Saracens. I loved it and never went back.
“Amazing though it now seems my first ever game was in the front row – I had quite a tough afternoon!
“I then played a bit in the back row, but because I was strong through my job I soon gravitated back to the front row on a permanent basis.”
Scaffolding is the Garforth trade through a family business which has passed from his father to the joint ownership of the former Tiger and his brother Joe, who was also once a front-rower at Coventry Saracens.
For someone whose top-flight playing career bridged the amateur and professional eras, having a first career away from rugby was far from unusual.
However, many of the greats of Garforth’s generation – including his ABC club mates Richard Cockerill and Graham Rowntree – then went on to become coaches or work in the media, but for Garforth eight years in professional rugby was enough.
“I never considered staying in rugby full-time when I stopped playing at Leicester,” he said.
“Coaching wasn’t really for me – I didn’t have that much of an interest in it and I had the scaffolding business set up with my brother just before rugby went professional.
“We both worked for Dad so when he stopped we took the business on and slightly changed it. He just supplied labour whereas we realised we also needed to have the gear to go with it so started buying bits every time we could.
“It was going quite well, but when the chance came to be a professional I took it and played for Leicester for another eight years.
“I never thought I’d last anything like that long so I took every chance to put cash into the business and buying more equipment ready for the day when I’d be back working.
“Garforth Scaffolding has been going for nearly 30 years now, based in Coventry, supply scaffolding and the labour to put it up. We have about 22 on the books now and we keep busy around the Midlands and sometimes a bit further afield.
“I run the business day to day and get involved in pretty much everything including sometimes going out and doing some scaffolding or loading the trucks.”
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With the exception of brief spells helping out at Nuneaton then at his son’s club Kenilworth, Garforth has resolutely refused to go back to rugby – even when occasional requests have come along to help with a professional club’s front row.
“I have a business to run and I don’t want rugby taking up a lot of my time,” he said.
“I played in Lewis Deacon’s testimonial game in front of 16,000 people and it reminded me that I really couldn’t do it anymore. I don’t go and watch Tigers too often but enjoy it when we have a get-together.
“When you’ve been there and done it the danger is you sit there and say ‘they should have done this or that’ but of course the game has completely changed.
“My main connection with the game now is putting up some of the viewing towers for the RFU which they use for cameras. We’ve just done a job at Wellington School and have also recently put one up at Malvern College.”
I put it to Garforth that while it is impossible to compare players from different eras in any sport, the greats would find a way to ensure they remained equally effective.
The former prop agrees – citing Martin Johnson as an example – before going on to prove my adaptability theory.
“We were right at the start of professionalism and you could tell then how it was going to progress with players getting ever bigger, fitter and stronger,” he said.
“With the crackdown on safety the game is totally different now.
“I guess that means you have to look a bit harder at how you are going to get someone back, but I’m sure the dark arts are still there!”
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