Wednesday 17 January 2018

From student daze to curing Northampton's ills

An ex-Leinster man has played a key role in the Saints' revival, writes Brendan Fanning

A t the after-match function following Leinster's win over Fiji in Lansdowne Road in 1973, hooker John Raphael was called aside by a couple of Ireland selectors and asked about his intentions regarding the international game. As in, would be declare for Ireland?

Already two years in Dublin, where he was studying in the College of Surgeons, and playing with Bective, Raphael was qualified through a grandparent. And he was very good -- a big, flexible hooker with a lovely lineout throw. The Ireland hooker at the time was Ken Kennedy, coincidentally another doctor, and he was pushing on. Raphael would have been the ideal successor.

"I told them, well I'm English and I was captain of the under 23s at the time, and that I had to play for them," he recalls. "It didn't really happen in those days that you played for another country, even though I had an Irish grandma. So I told them I couldn't, and Edmund van Esbeck wrote in the next day's Irish Times: 'Raphael declares for England'. And I wasn't picked again for Leinster after that. And Johnny Cantrell came in and that started his Irish career."

Raphael tells the story without a trace of bitterness, even though he was far and away the best hooker in the province at the time. "I loved playing for Leinster," he says. "It was a great thrill and honour and I really enjoyed my time in Irish rugby. The culture over there is so fantastic."

He will be in the Northampton camp on Saturday, as he was when he was medic to the Saints when they beat Munster in the Heineken Cup final in 2000, and indeed as he has been since the Raphael family moved to the midlands town from London when he was seven. His dad brought him along to Franklin's Gardens and, apart from his eight years in Ireland in the 1970s, he's been there ever since -- as player, captain, team doctor and now club director.

The Irish connection started with the Royal College of Surgeons, who were desperate to change their wretched record in the Hospitals Cup. Raphael was an English Schools player who had already played senior for Northampton and was a perfect recruit. Next came Bective. Having found accommodation on Anglesea Road, it turned out that the house was owned by an aunt of Johnny O'Hagan, then a Bective player and now long-time Leinster bagman who brings a Zen-like calm along with the kicking tee when Jonny Sexton is doing his thing.

A big, rambling property, the house on Anglesea Road was home to the O'Hagans as well, and pretty soon Raphael became part of the family. There followed six Hospital Cups, and a host of good times with Bective and Leinster.

It started for the club (he was supposed to join Wanderers) by being dragged out of bed to play a Seconds game down in Kilkenny. "I'd been out on the Saturday night and was lying in bed on the Sunday morning, starkers, and I got a knock on my bedroom door and it was a couple of guys -- I think PJ Smyth and the coach Des Broderick -- and they said: 'You're playing for us this afternoon'. 'I beg your pardon? I'm meant to be playing squash down at Trinity College'. 'Ah that's only a Mickey Mouse game. You're playing for us in Kilkenny'."

And so he did. He was in the Firsts the next week and was never dropped thereafter. Until the Ireland selectors intervened with Leinster. He didn't have much luck with the England selectors either: six years of squad selection and two tours (Australia in 1975 and the Far East in 1977) but no caps. That's the way it was in those days.

Raphael's contribution to Northampton has been immense. He was instrumental in changing the culture of the club in the mid-1980s when he organised a gang of seven to take over the running of the place, promoting talent over nepotism. A few years after that he got businessman Keith Barwell, already a Saints supporter, involved and from there the club was put on a business footing that would take it -- despite a few hiccups -- to its present position as one of the best organised and supported in England.

"In the last three years we've had Jim Mallinder and Dorian West as coaches and they've done a great job in choosing players who are not that well known and not that expensive -- like Tom Wood who came to us from Worcester, and developed really well," he says. "We've a fantastic coaching set-up and facilities and I think we're as fit as any team around. But we'll be underdogs against Leinster, won't we? It's sometimes quite difficult fighting on two fronts but we're all excited about it."

Raphael hopes to catch up in Cardiff with a few of his old friends from the Leinster scene in the '70s. All of them will remember him well.

For more from Brendan Fanning see

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