By Nick Friend
When Phil de Glanville first applied to Durham to read economics and politics in a combined honours degree, he didn’t even know whether rugby was his favourite sport.
“I came to university having played quite a few sports at school”, he tells me. “At that stage, I wasn’t really sure whether it would be rugby or cricket, which was my top sport growing up. But I went to play rugby in Brisbane for a year and that just tipped the balance in favour of rugby. From then, I just turned up at Durham and really quickly got into the first team and that was it. Overall, I just loved it.”
As we speak, it becomes clear that this anecdote is emblematic of his time at the university – both on and off the field. Arriving at Castle at a time when Hatfield was still a boys-only college, he says that Durham was a very different place then. That said, he enthuses about his time in the college.
“I loved Castle. I made great friends who are now all scattered all over the country. We meet up every so often in London and I’d say, in all honesty, that they are the best friends you make – the ones that you have for life. I’ve got a group of seven of us who are all in very different careers and we all meet up at least once a year.”
It seems a perfect situation and he offers up his secret formula; “We set up a standing order initially of £5 per month when we left and that later went up to £10 and then we kept it going every year and then had a pot to spend when we met up every year. It gave us a real incentive to stay in touch. We’d plan an event of some kind – obviously with plenty of food and drink as part of it too.”
To top off the long-lasting friendships that he forged at the university, de Glanville also has the university to thank for meeting his wife. “All in all”, he summarises, “it’s had a pretty big influence on my life!”
While he thrived socially at Durham, the university’s effect on his rugby was tangibly crucial – if not partially the result of a series of happy coincidences. His form for the 1st XV saw national honours follow as a member of England’s U20 side, culminating in a trip to the Students’ World Cup. Leaving Durham having played alongside fellow future England captain Will Carling, de Glanville’s burgeoning reputation in the sport led him to Oxford University, where he undertook a masters course in politics.
His performances in England colours had not gone unnoticed and, though he took his work at Oxford seriously, rugby was very much at the forefront of everything he was doing.
De Glanville explains to me, “Home was Devon so I was either going to go to Bristol or Bath – they were two most local clubs for me at the time. And while I was at the Students World Cup, one of the coaches was a Bristol coach and he invited me to come and play in a trial game.
“So I played that game in Clifton on Boxing Day and one of the Bath selectors was there. He phoned me up the next day and asked me if I fancied coming to try out for Bath. I knew so little about it and I had no idea so I just went for it. The way things are now and were then are completely chalk and cheese in terms of the way they played rugby. But I impressed them and I got in. I didn’t have a car – I was essentially a penniless student but I got in.”
Of course, at the time, English rugby had not yet been professionalised. He expands on this, admitting, “I didn’t have any idea as to the history or how it all worked. I met Jack Rowell for the first time, who was the coach there [and was subsequently England coach]. It’s a different world now. I’d never met Jack until I’d already signed up. The selector got you along and then you met your coach.”
As alien as it seems in the hyper-corporate environment of modern sport, de Glanville raves about the days prior to professionalization, putting his fruitful career at Bath, where he spent his entire twelve-year career, down to the restrictions that amateur sport placed upon clubs.
“From the moment I arrived at Bath just out of university, I played alongside [England centre] Jeremy Guscott. It helped my career massively. Mike Catt arrived and Jeremy was ruled out so me and Mike Catt played centre for a whole season. Then, Stuart Barnes retired and Catt moved to fly-half and it was left to me and Jeremy as centres and it was like that for four or five years so we were a pretty settled unit. We had a great understanding of what each other were going to do and it worked pretty well for us. Certainly, in the early ‘90s, we were very successful. Then in 1995, when professionalism came along, things changed very quickly. Teams were literally transformed within a year and went out and bought players from all over the world and it all changed very fast.”
The advantages, he tells me, extended to his introduction to the national setup.
“I knew the likes of Catt, Guscott and Jack Rowell. But when I first got into the setup, it was Will Carling and Jeremy playing together at centre. When I was a first year at Durham, I’d played with Carling.” However, he claims that such was the strength of the 1st XV at the time, Carling would be shunted to full-back in BUCS fixtures.
Ultimately though, Carling would make nearly double the number of England appearances, though this is, at least partially, down to the fact that the concept of bench replacements did not exist.
“Unless somebody was injured, you didn’t go on. I got a few caps coming off the bench when people were injured but probably spent two thirds of the time that I was in the squad on the bench but never getting on during the early part of that phase of my career. And there were times, certainly, when I can remember having a massive row with Jack Rowell – in the World Cup in 1995 over selection. There were times when you thought you should be in because you thought you we replaying better but, you know, that’s the nature of professional sport. You’re never going to always agree with selectors and their decisions. If you’re happy with not being picked then you’re not in the right place.”
While his frustration is palpable at the time spent behind Guscott, Carling and Will Greenwood, there is not even the slightest hint of bitterness. That, he reminds me, “is sport at the top level.” His patience paid off, taking over the captaincy following Carling’s retirement, only once again to drop out of the side at the expense of Greenwood, another Durham alumnus. He would play his final England game in 1999, though he continued to represent Bath until injury took its toll in 2001.
He emphasises the toughness of professional sport as he talks me through his retirement. Once again, there is no anger or jealousy – despite retiring aged just 32 and having to watch much of his England side lift the World Cup trophy just four years later.
“It was pretty hard watching the guys – pretty much the whole team of all your mates still playing through to 2003. But I was delighted for them. It was a magnificent effort and a magnificent experience for me – I was lucky enough to be in the stadium in Sydney so it was great. But personally, I never regretted retiring when I did. It was the right time to go for me.”
De Glanville speaks about his career’s denouement with a refreshingly selfless tone, philosophical about what he achieved in a terrific career whose foundations were laid in a three-year period at Durham, both on and off the field.
“They say you know it’s time to retire when you know three things: mind, body and spirit. I’d dislocated a shoulder that season playing in the European Cup against Munster, which took a hell of a long time to come back from and I was definitely at the stage of thinking of the spirit side of things. I was having to smash people like John Mallett, who was a massive prop, in training and I’d end the training session thinking “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I think everyone comes to that time for one of those three reasons – and if it’s more than one of them then you definitely know it’s time to go. I think for me, the mind and the body definitely wanted to call it a day”.
PHOTOGRAPH: Phil De Glanville