Stack Stevens: Cornwall's Rugby Legend by Steve Tomlin
As the stories emerge of Britain’s medal-winning heroes and heroines returning from the Rio Olympics a common theme has been the self-sacrifice, weary of hours of travel, grinding training routines yet that they still emerged retaining an engaging joy in their chosen sport, modesty and sportsmanship.
Forty years ago life was very much tougher still. Rugby Union in England was then a totally amateur sport even at the very highest level and was characterised by public and grammar school young men who were at (or had been to) an Oxbridge college, training in a London medical school or serving as young officers in the Armed Forces. The top clubs carried all the kudos and were generally centred around London and the Midlands with a few outposts like Bristol and Leeds. England teams consisted almost entirely from that somewhat narrow pool of talent.
Brian ‘Stack’ Stevens left school just after his fifteenth birthday to work seventy hours a week on his father’s farm which was situated in a remote village in the far Southwest tip of the country in West Cornwall just a few miles from Land’s End. His village school had played no real organised sport let alone rugby and he was sixteen before he was introduced to his first game for his local Young Farmers Club.
Cornwall has frequently been described as a ‘hotbed of rugby’ and certainly the local towns and villages always followed the game keenly especially when the Cornwall team took the field in the County Championship and this was the only tiny crack in the door when an England selector might just take some notice. Furthermore, living in the far-flung locality of Penzance in the depths of winter - long before the motorway system had been completed - was a massive challenge just to get the chance of playing at the top level. On many occasions he would hitch a ride through the night to a senior match or a squad training session on a broccoli lorry heading for Covent Garden.
His story is how he overcame all this, often in the face of a dominant father who wanted him on the farm 24/7 to finally emerge as one of the leading lights of the England team. Moreover, this team was one which defeated South Africa and New Zealand on their own home soil for the very first time in history and indeed he scored one of the tries in the triumph over the All Blacks in their own back yard. He held his place for five years, was called out to New Zealand to join the 1971 British Lions in what is still their only series victory in that rugby-crazy country and then had to refuse a second Lions tour three years later due to his crushing farming commitments.
This book covers all the twists and turns, highs and lows, triumphs and setbacks of a remarkable rugby player which took place in the face of anti-apartheid demonstrations, IRA death threats and a near miss from being involved in a major fatal air crash. Above all this was achieved with an irrepressible sense of fun and enjoyment of the game for its own sake. Thus the book is littered with dozens of hilarious anecdotes from an age in rugby which has probably now gone for ever.
His courage is now being put to the test even more in recent years by his contracting a debilitating neurological condition which has made normal speech impossible. Hence this book has been written largely through the eyes of his contemporaries many of whom were the very top rugby stars of that era who not only admired him as a rugby player but clearly loved him as a person.
His was one hell of a journey!
Steve Tomlin's new book Stack Stevens; Cornwall's Rugby Legend is available for purchase now.