- Veteran scrum half to retire from playing after 50th season
- Bridgwater President Mike Berry speaks about half a century in rugby
Mike Berry is the next subject of Real Rugby Stories, our series of features that celebrates heroes across the grassroots game, from club stalwarts to inspiring youngsters and everything in between.
At elite level in the modern era of professionalism, a decade representing one outfit is more than enough to earn someone ‘stalwart’ status, a money-spinning testimonial and a mountain of accolades. Certainly, a 10-year shift in such an inherently physical sport requires an impressive degree of longevity. However, the grassroots game has always been a source of special characters with no regard for moderation.
On 20 December 2014, Mike Berry turned 67. He could celebrate comfortable in the knowledge that his 15-year term as the dedicated, infectiously enthusiastic president of Bridgwater & Albion RFC was moving along smoothly – complementing a seven-year stint as treasurer in the 1970s and generous sponsorship. But administrative responsibilities signify just one arm of his half century-long allegiance to the Somerset side.
Though now restricted largely to the replacements’ bench, Berry is still immersed in playing duties. Having made his debut for the colts in April 1965, he has reached a milestone of 50 seasons. Truly, this is a remarkable individual woven into Bridgwater’s red, amber and black fabric.
Berry, a scrum half who earns his living as an accountant, has meticulously recorded each one of his 1589 appearances across all teams. Such a staggering period has naturally taken in some unforgettable experiences.
He can easily recall facing illustrious adversaries, such as former England men Richard Hill and Jan Webster and ex-Wales internationals Allan Lewis and Billy Hullin. The memory of his best individual performance, during a 14-0 victory for the first XV over Clifton in March 1982, also burns bright. Consulting his exhaustive archive, Berry can tell you he has filled in for other clubs on 51 occasions.
The most striking thing when listening to Berry’s cheerful West Country burr is his appreciation for rugby’s innate values. There is a light-hearted grumble about the “turgid” nature of modern forward play, but his self-effacing reflection on his career as a whole emanates as much gratitude as anything else.
“I feel extremely proud, but I’ve only been doing things I like doing,” he explains straightforwardly. “In that respect it’s pretty simple. It’s the camaraderie that I love, meeting up with so many different people over so many years, and so many of them with the same approach. Representing Bridgwater, on and off the field, is something I look forward to every week.
“Perhaps I haven’t done as much in my role as President as well as I might have done because I’ve still been playing. Other clubs find it intriguing that I’m with the thirds most of the time, and the seconds and colts on occasions. Most other presidents stay with their first team, but I rarely do that. I feel there’s enough baggage with them as it is.”
For Berry, the diverse range of personalities and standards clearly forms part of the charm. A youngster who turned up to training “in trepidation” has grown into a hugely respected figure, not just at home but across the surrounding area.
“The friendships with members of other clubs is very prominent, especially now as I go around with the thirds. We’ve got to make sure that continues for players today.
“For example, just this weekend Tor in Glastonbury had their game cancelled. A few of their old boys came over to us and watched our games against Wells. We had a great nice afternoon. At the same time, I know I can walk in anywhere and be greeted, looked after.
“Somerset is a rugby hotbed and there are a group of great rivalries in a small area – ourselves, Taunton and Weston were all founded at the same time. Wellington and Bath are a bit older. The clubs have evolved and the rivalries have evolved with them.”
The South West undoubtedly offers a wonderfully profound rugby landscape, and Berry’s anecdotes only add vivid detail. He jokes that he’ll never forgive his mother for giving birth to him in neighbouring town Taunton and laughs about the afternoon in 1985 when he featured in Bridgwater’s 34-0 defeat of Exeter – now a established in the Aviva Premiership side.
“The 50-season mark has convinced me to retire. I’ll still be coming down to training though.”
Each of these stories is told with sincere fondness. Even so, while Brian O’Driscoll was famously tempted into one more year by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, this veteran is not wavering on retirement. Well, not much.
“I’m normally on the bench now and I have been for the past seven or eight years. It’s not quite the same. I’m always shouting at the skipper to get me on, and occasionally I get loaned out to the opposition. At least then I get a full game.
“I’ll continue to train, but I definitely won’t play. The 50-season mark has kind of convinced me and I’m watching quite a few games at the World Cup, so I wouldn’t be available anyway. I’ve got tickets to a few games including the final – I just hope England are in it.”
And Berry’s concise, charming message to those looking to take up rugby revolves around self-discovery: “the spirit and style of the game teaches you so much about winning, losing and friendships. You never forget those lessons”.
For him, the essence of his beloved sport was crystallised in a single game. As you might expect, harking as far back as 1966 does not dull the tale.
“My second match for the first XV was against Penzance & Newlyn,” he says. “My opposite number Peter Michell was playing in his 500th game.
“He was an absolute model of sportsmanship. He was a gentleman, and extremely skilful to boot. He certainly taught me how to play the game properly.
“You’ve got to enjoy yourself and make sure everyone else enjoys themselves too. I’ve tried to take that approach ever since.”
Do you know any individuals or organisations that could feature on Real Rugby Stories? If so, please email email@example.com. Thanks to Tony and David Pomeroy for their help in compiling this aritcle.