Fullerians was once the senior rugby club in Watford and it still would be if those lads from Southgate hadn't taken up residence at Vicarage and stolen our thunder. OK, so Saracens play the likes of Leicester, Bath and Northampton, but do they know what it's like to face Harpenden, Hemel Hempstead and Tabard every week?
Of course they do, because Saracens came from exactly the same place as Fullerians, the grass roots of rugby, where people play because they love the game to pieces. The Saracens lads are undoubtedly world class players in a world class side, but being paid to play is merely a hard earned bonus, because even if they didn't get a penny they'd probably turn up anyway because that's the sort of game rugby is.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Cassiobury Park at the end of Coningsby Drive, Fullerians have been playing without pay for more than 90 years, although we do enjoy the distinction of being one of the first rugby clubs in the world to be accused of “rank professionalaism”. That was back in the 1950s, when newspapers as far away as Australia screamed blue murder when word got out that the Fullerians first team was running a sweepstake to guess when a 14 match losing streak might end. History doesn't record who picked up the pot, but if it came to more than a fiver whoever it was would have had their name inscribed on the club walls in letters of gold. In any case, the accusation was a bit rich, aimed at a club where someone had to turn up six hours before kick-off to stoke up the boiler in time for the post-match bath so that players could wash the mud off before a few pints of Red Barrel in the gas-lit bar.
And we never did find the guy who once used soluble paint to smarten up the bath floor, but suffice to say that for the next month you could tell a Fullerian in any changing room in the county by his bright blue backside.
That's all part of the proud history of one of Hertfordshire Rugby Union's founding clubs, although the very fact of its existence is a paradox. Fullerians has its roots in Watford Grammar School, where for a hundred years the main game was football and rugby might never have caught hold if it hadn't been for the efforts of a sports teacher called Stanley Rous - who later went on to become president of FIFA and the most important man in world soccer! The original club, formed in 1925, gloried by the name of Watford Grammar School Old Boys Rugby Union Football Club, which was mercifully changed to Old Fullerians RFC in honour of Dame Elizabeth Fuller, who founded the school back in the 18th century. It wasn't until 1965 that we dropped the "Old" and turned ourselves into a fully open club, and five years later still before we tore down the old gas-fired shack and thanks to the back breaking labour of club members built the present clubhouse and reclaimed the wasteland upon which our four pitches now stand. First among equals in that doughty bunch was John Hancock, a man without whom Fullerians might not still exist, and who we sadly lost in 2011.
Everybody in Hertfordshire rugby has a story about John, but my favourite is the tale of his wedding, which he made sure took place in the morning so that he could fill his usual slot as first team scrum half in the afternoon, with his late wife Gwennie resplendent in wedding dress and wellies on the touchline.
I joined the club a little after that, dragged down by my brother at the age of 16, fresh out of school and looking for grown-ups to teach me the ways of life. I certainly met a lot of people who were older than me, although how many of them qualified as grown-ups is another matter. I did, however, experience something that will be familiar to any newcomer to any rugby club in the country – despite my increasingly obvious lack of talent I was welcomed into the club with unquestioning warmth and, 50 years later at the time of writing, they’re still my good friends.
Maybe that’s why, wherever I was and whatever I was doing, I generally managed to get down to Fullerians in time to play on Saturdays. Whenever possible I organised foreign work trips to get me home on Friday nights, and when the police unkindly deprived me of my driving license for a year, I took a bus, a tube, a train and a bike to get me from my then home in Muswell Hill to the club in time for kick-off.
It was no more than any rugby player who loves the game and his club would do, although not all of my work colleagues have loved Fullerians quite as much as me – particularly the people I worked with on a live Saturday morning Radio 4 programme called Breakaway. On International days with morning kick-offs for club games, I presented the programme in my rugby kit – generally dug out straight from the bag it had been dumped in the week before (and for several weeks before that) with muscle rub already applied. The BBC never did figure out what the smell was in Studio B16.
Over the years the first team has rewarded our loyalty with moments of glory. Fullerians have won the county cup several times, made it to Twickenham in the Sevens and enjoying a run in what was then the John Player Cup only to be stopped by a Gosforth side boasting 14 current England and Scottish internationals. As a matter of interest, the week after they beat us 48-0, Gosforth put 72 on Leicester without conceding a point.
And while Fullerians can't claim as many international honours as our good friends at Sarries, we haven't done too badly for a junior club. John Taylor, now a celebrated TV and radio rugby commentator and a previous British Lion and captain of Wales, was a Grammar School boy who started his club rugby at Fullerians, and Nick Stringer found his kicking feet with us before moving on to Wasps and playing full back for England. Mark Williams was a Fullers first team stalwart before emigrating to Canada and playing in the national side that beat Wales, and most recently Josh Lewsey went through our Colts on his way to first class rugby and his England caps. Incidentally Josh is now presiding over the odd training session back at Fullers, proof that you never really leave the club that kicked off your life in rugby.
We're properly proud of those guys, and we're just as proud of the fact that we are still turning out four senior sides every week, together with a more-than occasional vets’ side, providing good rugby for anyone in and around Watford who wants to play, at whatever level they can manage. And it goes without saying that we're proud of our first team, currently riding high in the London North West 2, and we're also proud to have formed one of the county's first women's teams.
But if anything, we're most proud of our mini and junior rugby set-up - launched in the mid 90s by Nick Thomas and Clive Mulligan, who somehow persuaded a handful of doughty parents that it would be fun to watch their kids roll around in the mud every Sunday morning. The few, thanks to the dedication of those early pioneers, quickly became the many, and where a handful of boys and girls once scampered around more than 800 children now pull on a Fullerians shirt to compete at every age level in well organised and successful teams. And some of the kids aren’t so small any more – in any given week around half of the current first team will probably have come through our junior ranks while others have been snapped up by the Saracens, Wasps and Harlequins academies. And Will Fraser, whose father Andrew and uncle Robert played their rugby at Fullerians, made his debut for Saracens against the USA national team in 2010.
It's a particular tribute to the parents, coaches and players that only three years after we started mini rugby, Fullerians were awarded the Herts mini rugby tournament – an event we have hosted often since, thanks in part to the fact that we have the space and facilities that few clubs in the county can still offer.
And if every child and parent who took part in that first rain-soaked Sunday came away with one golden memory it was the sight of the superstar Saracens first team, who came not for an hour or two as a duty job but for the entire day, getting down and dirty with the kids, signing autographs until cramp set in and never once showing anything but grace, good humour and genuine enthusiasm for the event. Now that's what real rugby is about, and you can't put a price on it.