Chris Kelly: “Rugby at Durham made me”

By Alexandra Murphy-O’Connor

Chris Kelly is the former President of the English RFU and Hatfield alumnus. In his time at Durham, he was captain of the DURFC First XV in its centenary year and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law in 2020 (for contribution to rugby and education). Maintaining close ties with the University, he worked as a mentor with students and now steers the exciting fundraising appeal to build “a new all-weather pitch which will be at Durham City’s ground for community use, although the University may well practise and play on it,” set to be complete in 2025 – a significant year as it is the 150th anniversary of DURFC.

In this piece, I reflect on our chat and the life of one our most acclaimed rugby alumni.

When I ask Chris about his time at the university, it is clear that rugby was the light that lit up the experience. Whilst he “took Economic History tutorials” alongside peers such Lord Richard Dannatt (who later went on to become Chief of the General Staff in the British Army), at the heart of his experience was DURFC for which he played for 4 years. He was also Vice-President of the ‘Durham University Athletic Unit’ (now ‘Team Durham’), and was President of the Hatfield JCR.

Rugby at Durham made me because of the integration in the team

“Rugby at Durham made me because of the the integration in the team” he says. “To this day, some of my best friends are DURFC rugger buggers”.

“I saw Peter Warfield play against the All Blacks one year before I went to Durham and then I played alongside him in my first year! It was not uncommon to play with and against rugby internationals at university level, especially as the Durham team was of a particularly high quality. The 1st XV reached the Twickenham National Finals in my first two years” he adds with pride.

In 1975 as captain, Chris led Durham to a phenomenal draw against the Oxford University team which featured internationals from Australia, South Africa and Scotland. This was unique as neither Oxford nor Cambridge had played against any university other than each other, and this is clearly something he looks back on fondly. “I played rugby for South-East England schools before going to Durham. I actually first played for Harlequins while I was at Durham, then for the first four years of my teaching career before I was injured. I then went on to become coach of the South-East England Schools team. From 1990- 1997, I was a national selector for English Schools’ rugby, and I first saw Johnny Wilkinson play for Hampshire Schools at U16 level. “I also scouted players such as world cup winner Matt Dawson and coached British & Irish Lions player Richard Hill”.

After graduating, Chris began teaching at Epsom College, and subsequently, Mill Hill School, where he became a House Master and Head of Rugby. He then went on to become Headmaster of St. John’s, Northwood. Chris thrived in this role for the next 20 years.

As a “people person”, he told me he enjoyed “leading the school staff and writing reports for governors”, yet always supported the boys playing sport at all ages and levels. Staff members at St. John’s still talk of his leadership fondly. Simultaneously, he was on the RFU Committee, predominantly as Chairman for Playing Development This equipped him to become President of the RFU during the 2018-19 Season, after retiring as Headmaster. “I undertook about 230 engagements in this prestigious role – the largest amateur role in England rugby”.

I undertook about 230 engagements in this prestigious role – the largest amateur role in England rugby

When asked about his proudest moment, Chris is categorical – “the weekend of the Armistice Centenary Year. Particular celebrations were held at Merchant Taylor’s Hall on the Friday evening before Saturday’s match.” Guests included Lord Stirrup, former Chief of the Defence Staff; Maurice Trapp, then-President of the NZRU; and Vice Admiral Timothy Lawrence – Princess Anne’s husband and Chris’ contemporary here (alumnus of University College, and former Editor-in-chief of Palatinate).

“Match day arrived, and I hosted distinguished guests: Prince Harry, then-patron of England Rugby; Winston Jones, then Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand; then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt; and Eddie Jones. As they began presenting wreaths it started raining. I fondly remember remarking to Prince Harry: ‘… how appropriate, we could be on the Somme(!)’”. “I was handed an umbrella to hold over Price Harry, although a lot of people watching on television suggested I held it more over myself!”.

A prominent figure in the rugby world for five decades, I asked Chris what needs to be done next in the game. “Professional and semiprofessional players today are so physically fit and large that they are more prone to severe injuries, including concussion. The highest levels are having to legislate hard regarding this: the game can and should be changed to protect those who play it and keep everyone safe”. During his prolific career, Chris has built up an international network. Over the past couple of months, as President of Old Millhillians, he embarked on what he likes to call his “world tour” during which he attends worldwide events of the Old Millhillians Club – “one of the biggest old boys’ clubs in the country”.

Having been in the same room as him on numerous occasions, he does not go unnoticed, partially due to his height, but mainly because he always wants to speak to everyone in the room and leaves such a strong impression on each person. He relishes his frequent visits to Durham, which remind him of the “happiest days of his young adult life”. He is an epic character who excels in senior leadership and has enjoyed a glittering career at the top of rugby’s national presence. He is truly an esteemed alumnus of our university.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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