When Phil Howe, who passed away in March 2019 after a long illness, joined HWRUFC in 1976 it was on the verge of becoming the strongest club in Bucks for the next three decades.
His timing was good. The club was now led by a newly-elected, ambitious young captain, with a clear message: the quality of training would be improved and in return those prepared to train regularly would be rewarded with the opportunity of playing in the top teams. This was to set the tone for many years; it generated intense competition for places and formed the basis for the club’s successes.
As a wing three-quarter, Phil’s timing was also good because the club aspired to play 15-man rugby. This was partly because of a lack of bulk among the forwards and very much because there were plenty of young backs eager to feed off whatever ball the forwards could provide and to run the ball at every opportunity.
Phil had played for the RGS High Wycombe 1ST XV, where he had also been Head Prefect, so it was always probable that he would gravitate to the club after graduating from Teesside Polytechnic in Computer Science. He may not however, have expected to find so many other gifted wing three-quarters there when he arrived. Neil Phillips, Kevin Bennell, and Martin Mogford were already well-established try scorers and others such as Wayne Mitchell arrived at around the same time.
Quiet and reflective both on and off the pitch, Phil was good at absorbing information and soon began to make his mark within the new training system, working his way up the pecking order. He established himself with strong performances in the 2nd XV and took the early opportunities offered him in the 1st XV. A report from the January 1977 edition of the club magazine In Touch, said: “Phil Howe is not accepting the big elbow that Martyn Mogford is trying to give him”.
The 1st XV’s performances that season gave the club reason to believe that at last, it could prise the Bucks Cup from Marlow after years of Marlow dominance. Marlow’s ten-man game was based around huge forwards and a fly-half who could kick enormous distances and was the antithesis to High Wycombe’s approach.
When the day of the Cup Final came in February 1977 however, the omens were not good for Wycombe. Key players had fallen ill or were injured and one even pulled out on the morning of the match. To make matters worse the heavens opened, turning the pitch into a bog.
Against this backdrop Phil found himself in the XV for the most significant match in the club’s history, with the odds against them, and with little chance of Phil being able to demonstrate his attacking skills in the mud.
Marlow kicked an early penalty but Wycombe came from behind to win that match 13-3 and Phil scored one of only two tries, the only one by a three-quarter in a match that changed HWRUFC’s history and took the club to Rosslyn Park the year after (when the ”Park” was as good as any team in the country) and in later years to cup matches at venues like Gloucester and Leicester to play their respective 1st XVs.
Phil was something of a try-scoring machine. He enjoyed long spells in the 1st XV yet the competition for places never diminished and he found himself on the wing for the 2nd XV against Richmond (Virginia) in their first match on the inaugural tour of the USA in 1978 – another ground-breaking event for the club.
In case we had forgotten how exceptionally fast he was, he reminded us by gathering the ball behind his own goalposts and setting off on a curve towards the far touchline.
Unusually for the USA, this pitch was wide and gave Phil the opportunity to use this to his advantage. As he prescribed a wide arc, all the opposition players chased across to narrow his angle and cut him down - they had every reason to think they would do so. In the event it was like watching the big boy playing with children because although his opponents continued the chase it became clear at about half way that Phil was outrunning them all.
He was forced to beat the last man near the far corner so that when he finally came to a stop, having run round behind Richmond’s posts directly opposite where he had started, he had, I reckon, run 140 yards untouched – probably unique in HWRUFC’s fifteen-a-side history.
Back in the 1sts, Phil had a good tour and demonstrated another weapon in his armoury: the kick and chase. At Chapel Hill he kicked diagonally across the pitch from half way, recovered the ball and left everyone for dead…and then, arguably, he saved the tour.
The 1st XV was unbeaten going into the second day of the Winston Salem tournament on the weekend. The unbeaten record was important, not because it would have made the tour socially less enjoyable had we lost a game, but because we “Brits” had built quite a reputation within the first week, so remaining unbeaten was a matter of pride and an important goal.
You don’t sleep much on an amateur rugby tour and my recollection is that Phil certainly did not sleep any more than the rest of us. We were invited to attend the Saturday night party midway through the tournament and it would have seemed rude not to (!). Maybe we could have gone to bed before the early hours but after all there were members of the following morning’s opposition there too, so why turn in early and get an unfair advantage?
The following morning it transpired that the advantage was with Fort Bragg (“the largest military installation in the world” says Wikipedia). They had sent a few of their supporters to the party while their players slept. Then what their players lacked in rugby experience they made up for with a level of military fitness that HW could not have matched at the best of times, let alone after a party on tour.
We struggled in that match and were facing defeat on a typically unforgiving, rock-hard US surface with a few minutes to go when Phil got the ball on the right wing. He saw the space, kicked low behind the opposition and won the long foot race, tearing skin off his leg as he dived successfully to touch the ball down first over the line.
We won that tournament and remained unbeaten for the duration of the tour.
By now Phil was carving out a career with BP and his work briefly took him away from High Wycombe. He was well-travelled anyway: he had been born in 1956 in Trinidad, the eldest of four boys. The family had then moved to Beaconsfield and it was when Phil’s father’s work took him to Kuwait that Phil became a boarder at the RGS. On a visit to Kuwait he met and dated his future wife Andrea when they were both teenagers, but they lost contact in the early 1970s. He returned, played again for HWRUFC for a while before moving once more with work, this time to Aberdeen.
In Aberdeen, Phil played with the Aberdeen Grammar Former Pupil RUFC and also became a regular prop and captain with the BP seven-a side team. In 1982 a hybrid Buchan and Formartine side, with ringer Phil Howe, won the prestigious local Ellon Sevens tournament.
In Touch notes that when HWRUFC was setting off from Gatwick in 1982 on the third USA tour, they bumped into Phil at the airport. He was about to set off for Texas with Aberdeen Grammar FP. Phil and rugby were inseparable. House moves simply created more opportunities for Phil to join a new rugby club, often one suspects, before his moving arrangements were completed.
By the end of the year he was back playing once more for High Wycombe, this time supported by Andrea who he had met by chance at a Kuwait reunion the previous year and to whom he quickly became engaged.
They married in 1983 by which time Phil had clocked up more games for the 1st XV and Andrea became an ardent supporter of HWRUFC. As ever, competition for places on the wing remained strong and Phil eventually became an essential member of a very strong 2nd XV which lost very few games and which would have benefitted from more 1st XV opponents in their fixture list. The ability to score tries never left him: “How do you do it?” a team captain Bill McKeever asked aloud in In Touch, referring to two “fine tries”.
A keen cricketer, Phil joined High Wycombe Cricket Club and played many times in a team which included other High Wycombe Rugby Club luminaries such as Dave White, Stan Pearman and Paul Daly.
A move to Norway finally brought Phil’s playing career with HWRUFC to an end.
We former players have the privilege of looking back on careers and eulogising, and why not? Yet Phil, like us all, had his weaknesses, of course. Despite his many tries, he didn’t always realize how difficult he was to tackle, with his low running style and powerful shoulders. When tight to the touchline, he would often kick ahead when pure power and pace would have done the trick. He could also (in the tradition of many good wingers!) be shaky under the high ball. Yet a moment of vulnerability could be followed by a flash of skill: scooping the ball one-handed off the ground while at full pace and going 60 yards to score, against a powerful RAF Strike Command XV, or saving a match, for example in the Bucks 7s when HW’s strong 2nd VII was facing defeat to Slough 1sts. With 3 minutes to go, he ran from his own 22, not once but twice to score and win the match. In contrast to the 140 yard try described earlier, it didn’t always have to be an out-and-out sprint: he could accelerate, cut a new angle, find new space and accelerate again. He was at his best when there was a little space to go for and he was not restricted by a touchline
Phil was 33 when he, Andrea and their first daughter Felicity moved to Norway but in some ways his rugby career was only just beginning.
He not only played club rugby in Norway but became an international, playing for Norway against Finland and Denmark in a knockout tournament as part of World Cup qualification. Against Finland he plundered six tries…and you know how those Finns can run!
Phil was posted back to Scotland where their second daughter Beth was born. When they moved to South Queensferry near Edinburgh, Phil joined Linlithgow RUFC. A few years later, aged 36, he was invited to join the Aberdeen Strollers, a “Golden Oldies” team made mainly from ex Aberdeen Grammar Former Pupils for whom he played into his late 40s.
The Strollers liked touring. Phil went on tours to Dublin and to Canada and the whole family travelled to Golden Oldies tournaments in Toulouse and New Zealand. They all booked the flight to a tournament in Adelaide, Australia too, but after a while, Phil and Andrea realised the rest of the team were not going to make the trip. Andrea’s sister Liz lived in Adelaide, and after all the tournament was still going ahead, so the family went, and proudly marched in front of a Scottish Pipe Band at the opening ceremony. Needless to say, Phil was quickly adopted by another team who donated a shirt with “Baby Stroller” on the back, in honour of his relative youth.
In Scotland he would play in an annual Boxing Day match for a team dubbed “The Exiles” against “The Scots”. The geographical inconvenience of one particular Christmas spent with Andrea’s family in Sussex, didn’t deter him. A car journey to Gatwick well before dawn saw him on the red-eye flight to Edinburgh for the early kick-off. This left plenty of time for celebration in traditional Scottish fashion before a late return to the south of England and family, somewhat the worse for wear.
It is difficult to say exactly when Phil stopped playing rugby and even Andrea cannot remember when it was. It must have been hard to do so after so many years playing for RGS High Wycombe, HWRUFC (three spells), Aberdeen FP, Norway, Linlithgow, Aberdeen Strollers, BP and The Exiles, not to mention guest appearances for many clubs, the innumerable tries and his contribution to rugby in general.
Phil was a gentle man, committed to his growing family. A keen singer, he managed to sing and perform for the G&S Company in Edinburgh, in every operetta ever written by Gilbert and Sullivan. He remained for a long time actively involved in local church affairs where, as always he was respected for his quiet wisdom.
It was in 2011 that he was taken to the doctors by Andrea. Eight months of tests and appointments followed and then Phil was diagnosed with an extremely rare brain disease, including dementia, for which there is no cure.
They decided to live life to the full, travelling wherever they could and spending as much time with Felicity, her husband Neil and their daughter Annabel, and with Beth and her husband Mike.
An illness like Phil’s does not discriminate. It has no respect for athletes who could run like the wind, and as time passed and Phil became less well, Andrea took on the role of Phil’s carer along with Felicity who lived nearby in Dundee, an area Phil and Andrea moved to in 2014. She was able to look after him at their home until the last two weeks of his life.
Phil passed away quietly in his sleep, at Stratheden Hospital in Fife, on 3rd March 2019, with Andrea at his side.