'Horse Drawn Brake to Hyde Park' reviewed by the rugby correspondent for the Guardian, Robert Kitson

Article published:
December 1, 2021

The tell-tale signs of a healthy rugby club have barely changed over the years. The warmth of the welcome shown to first-time visitors, the ability to keep smiling in good times and bad and, ideally, a positive attitude on the field as well. After almost 147 eventful years of existence, Taunton RFC continue to tick all three boxes and are now established among the country’s top 40 sides.

Today’s upwardly-mobile Titans squad in National League One, however, clearly owe a debt to those who paved the way for them. That much is clear from the moment you plunge into the excellent new history of the club, Horse Drawn Brake to Hyde Park - The Complete History of Taunton RFC by Kerry Miller, which charts the club’s ups and downs since its formation in 1875.

Dull is certainly not the word to describe Taunton RFC’s colourful past. Sprinkled across its 480 pages are some fabulous stories and photos, painstakingly culled from assorted archives, scrapbooks and the pages of the Somerset County Gazette. There is much talk of injuries nowadays but what about this from the 1930s? ‘Harry Bird was forced to retire as he had previously been severely injured when he was mauled by a panther and almost lost an arm.’ The incident occurred in South Africa, not the Quantocks, but it still beats a sore hamstring.

Some illustrious individuals have also worn the club jersey, not least Sammy Woods, the Somerset cricketer who played Tests for both England and Australia and also won 13 rugby caps for England, five as captain. He played for Bridgwater, Wellington and Wiveliscombe, too, and was widely renowned for his strong tackling. His contemporary Gilbert Jessop once joked that opponents would prefer to be hit by a car than be tackled by Woods at full tilt.

A similar case could be made for the all-action style of the ex-England flanker and coach, Andy Robinson, who made his Taunton first team debut in February 1982 and was playing for his country six years later. Robinson’s father Ray and his brothers, Sean and Pete, also represented the club and Andy has supplied the book’s foreword. He is not alone in being thankful to Taunton for their role in his rugby education. Did you know that when Exeter Chiefs were crowned European champions in 2020, there were no fewer than three ex-Taunton players - Ben Moon, Sam Skinner and Joe Simmonds - in their squad?

Back in the day Taunton’s fixture list regularly featured sides like Bath, Exeter, Saracens and London Irish but Miller’s exhaustive research has also unearthed some murkier facts. In 1894/95, for example, the club’s poor form was put down to “an almost total lack of interest on training and fitness” while four seasons later there was so much fighting - and and off the pitch - against Tiverton that the Tivvy side walked off with the ball.

Memories, memories. Since moving to Hyde Park - now Veritas Park - 20 years ago, the club’s rise has continued under the smart coaching guidance of Tony Yapp and Chris Brown. In 2010 Taunton were promoted to National 2 and, with Gary Kingdom, Isaac Dalton, ‘Toots’ Vakalutukali and Sam Prior to the fore, the Titans have been competing in National League 1 for the first time. What an eventful journey it has been. Buy this book - what better Christmas present could there be? - and you will be immersed in it for months.

* Horse Drawn Brake to Hyde Park - The Complete History of Taunton RFC is available priced £30 (plus postage and packing) via tauntonrfchistory@gmail.com. Alternatively the book can be purchased from Somerset County Sports at the Cooper Associates County Ground and from Cafe Culture, 49 High Street, Taunton.

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