Only began playing when he joined the Army, as a teenager. Went on to represent the Army and the Combined Services at all levels. Played for Saracens for two years and was in the London side which beat the 1988 Wallabies. Joined Wasps in 1989 and was with the Club for six seasons, three of them as captain. Won the first of his six England caps in 1990. Moved to Newcastle in 1995 and helped them win the first ever Premiership title, in 1998. Also played for Bristol for two seasons, before retiring in 2000. Was head coach at Gloucester and Director of Rugby at Worcester and was also Scotland's forwards coach in the 2013 Six Nations. From 2016 to 2019, he was the RFU head of International Player Development and is now DOR with Newport-Gwent Dragons.
I’d broken my arm and had a plate put in it. When I tried to have the plate removed, it was hard to get it done in the Army and Saracens didn’t have the contacts. Somebody at Wasps said, “We can sort that out for you”, so I joined them.
I broke the arm again in my first season and Mark Taylor suggested I should play in New Zealand, so I spent a season with Bay of Plenty, which was a fantastic experience.
The main difference between Saracens and Wasps was the fact that the Wasps backline was made up almost entirely of Cambridge blues. Their sense of humour was way over my head. Colin Pinnegar, Buster White, Riggers and I didn’t understand what they said and the only way to respond was with threats of violence.
Wasps was a great learning ground for me, and one of the best things was the diversity. It was friendly, but you always had to be on your game, as the banter was funny and very sharp. Also, there was no sort of segregation between 1st team players and the guys in the lower sides. We were all part of the club.
We played some great rugby and were consistently one of the top three teams. The league was nothing like as competitive as it is now and Bath, Leicester and Wasps were that bit better than the rest. So, for me, the standout memories are winning at Welford Road and the Rec.
We won at Leicester in the 1995 Cup semi-final. We were something like 15 points down, well into the second half. I got the team together and said that we had to turn things round or were out. We came back and won 25-22.
Playing against Bath was always a bit special, particularly in the back row, up against the likes of Jon Hall, Andy Robinson, Ben Clarke and Steve Ojomoh. In 1991, we became the first team to win at the Rec in years. We were losing, with time almost up, when we had an attacking lineout. I was completely exhausted and made a call which was complete nonsense. Sean O’Leary stared at me and changed the call. He won the ball; Riggers made a break - a major event in itself - and we scored the winning try. I only wish I could claim to have played a key role in such a memorable moment in the club’s history.
When the game went professional, after the 95 World Cup, it might have seemed sudden from the outside. The reality was that talks had been going on for months and just about every international player had signed for Kerry Packer. It was going to be a global competition, with big money. When some of the unions started contracting their own players, Packer fell through at the last minute. Having been about to make good money, I was now back on the building site. I spoke to Wasps about it, but they didn’t have the finances to help. When John Hall took over at Newcastle, the offer they made was simply too good to turn down.
It could perhaps have been handled better, but the club was forced to act and they decided to make Lawrence captain. I consider myself very lucky to have played with him for several seasons. We were great foils for each other, as he did things I just couldn’t do. He had so much athletic ability, he was enormously competitive and passionate and had a huge influence on others. He just made the game look easy, which was bloody hard on the rest of us who were slogging our guts out to keep up.
I’ve been involved with a lot of clubs, but Wasps is the one which played the largest part in my career. It had a huge influence on me and really developed my passion for the game. I still attend reunions and always enjoy going back for a beer. People sometimes talk about a Wasps mafia at the top of the game, with Rob (Andrew) spending so long in a major role at the RFU, Nigel (Melville) being head of the professional game and also interim CEO, and Damian Hopley setting up and still running the RPA. Then there are all the former Wasps who’ve been top coaches.
THOUGHTS ON MODERN GAME
In terms of the players’ approach to the game, the first few professional years weren’t that different from their last years as amateurs. The only big difference was that we trained during the day and we were paid. Nobody knew how it would pan out and I don’t think any of us could have predicted where the game would be now. It’s quicker, more skilful, more physical and the ball’s in play for much longer. It’s a much more entertaining product.
Before professionalism, players very rarely changed clubs. Now, it’s completely different and people who were used to players spending their whole career with one club are forced to accept that they now move around. It’s much harder to develop the long-standing friendships that used to be the norm. The successful clubs are the ones who identify those elements which are still fundamental to the game and incorporate them into their own environment.