England legend Martin Bayfield revisits his extraordinary life story and tells how Harry Potter saved his life
“Where is Polly?”
Martin Bayfield was enjoying breakfast with his family in Majorca when he suddenly slammed his knife and fork down.
“Where is Polly?”
His 18-month-old daughter had slipped away from the table, unnoticed. With growing horror, Bayfield scampered around the holiday complex, every step without seeing her increasing the tempo of anguish.
He saw her hair first, the golden strands draped on the pool water. She was face down in the water. “POLLY!” He dived in, retrieved her, blue-faced, not breathing. Then a dash to the hospital. She survived, chiefly because although she was immersed in the water, she had not breathed in. Another 20 seconds, though, and she would have succumbed.
They completed the holiday; Polly, with grimmest irony, won a competition for holding her breath under water. She was resilient, her father, less so.
“I don’t know if I had post-traumatic stress but I’d wake up with night terrors, be physically sick,” says the Englishman who stands 6ft 10in but can crumple into half that size when the fears return.
“I’d create an alternative scenario where she didn’t make it, and you’re coming home with a small coffin on a plane.
“And so after all that rugby didn’t seem so important. I remember playing Samoa in 1995 and these images would flash through my mind during the actual game.
“The whole episode shook me to the core. I’m supposed to be the protector. I know she survived. But everything else, the anguish, the guilt, the trauma, for me, still remained.”
Professionalism would accelerate his waning rugby passion.
“Nobody prepared me for professionalism. I gave up my job and found it boring and repetitive.
“I missed being a policeman. I thought it was all about getting bigger and stronger but I just ate too much, threw weights around and got injured a lot.”
Go past the self-deprecation and Bayfield’s career is worth regard; two Grand Slams, a Lions tour and a World Cup semi-final the highlights of 31 caps earned in the raucous early 1990s.
His languid excellence in the ‘row’ allowed other enforcers like Wade Dooley and Dean Richards to throw their weight around.
Bayfield’s father, John, had always warned him not to use his size as a weapon; he wouldn’t run from a punch-up – or a p**s-up. But he’d never start one.
“I only played ten games a year until I was about 16 and I also grew up in a rather relaxed, genteel non-aggressive environment.
“It created a particular persona but not someone who went out to rip people’s heads off because that was how the sport was back then. I realised I was a very good rugby player and that was fine. I wanted to be angry and violent but it wasn’t me. I never thought a rugby field was somewhere to beat people up. It’s fine if someone is trying to rob your house.
“I remember when Colin Meads (former All Black) died and there was a story about him pulling a guy out of a ruck with so much force, he never played again.
“Is that something to celebrate? I wouldn’t run from a punch-up but I’d rather run with the ball. We had enough punch-up experts.”
His dad was 57 when Martin entered the world – “You were the last bullet from the gun” – and 81 by the time Bayfield first played for England; by then, he was too infirm to go to games.
“When I was a kid, he was in his 60s and he was literally an Edwardian gentleman. He’d come back from work, change and have a whisky and do the Times crossword, then change to do some gardening, then change for dinner and then change after dinner. He was a great storyteller and listener and I get that from him. He worked until he was 71 and by then he was broken by then, he went into rapid decline.”
When Bayfield retired, bitter and twisted, coaching wasn’t for him either until a chance call – the late Scottish forward Gordon Brown missed a speaking engagement – gave him the break to become a renowned after-dinner speaker.
And it was at one of his gigs that an agent spotted the potential for this gentle giant to act as a body double for Robbie Coltrane’s Rubeus Hagrid character in the Harry Potter franchise.
Now came Bayfield’s second act.
Again, as with the rugby and the corporate speaking, his diffidence prompted imposter syndrome. What am I doing here? A Limerick man would characteristically break the ice.
“Bayfield! Your team should never have won that f**king game!”
The voice belonged to Richard Harris in a Dumbledore costume, still seething after Munster’s 2000 Heineken Cup final defeat to Bayfield’s former club Northampton.
“He only wanted to talk about rugby, I only wanted to talk about acting. He eased me into this world because people saw this strange fella in a fat suit talking to Richard Harris and thought he must be alright.
“I had the most magical time. I once had a long dinner in Scotland with him, Robert Hardy and Michael Gambon which I still replay in my mind from time to time.
“Robbie Coltrane became a dear friend, he loved his rugby too, he was a decent schoolboy. Given how I felt about rugby at the time, it’s fair to say Harry Potter changed my life.”
He will be on TV duty this weekend but is not expecting anything other than a Slam for Ireland. “Ireland used to be the whipping boys until they put in a proper system. And now they’re a team who will reach a World Cup final.
“The seeds of England’s 2003 World Cup winners were formed on the 1997 Lions tour – Johnson, Bracken, Back, Dallaglio, Hill, Rowntree – they carried England through at a high level and that memory even persisted to the World Cup final in 2007 despite everything.
“And it filtered down to multiple Heineken Cup wins. But nobody really looked under the bonnet to see how they could ensure sustainable success. What comes next? And the state of the sport now is a legacy of that neglect.
“Everyone else has caught up. The English club game is creaking and cracking. Are we seeing that in the national team? We may well be.”
‘A Tall Story’, by Martin
Bayfield, is published by Simon & Schuster