In Memorium David “Benji” Thomas

Sadly David “Benji” Thomas the great Cornish Rugby coach, has passed away at the age of 83.
Knowing him was an honour and a pleasure because he was a great human being and a very humble man.
Below is the story of possibly his greatest day as a rugby coach when Cornwall beat Yorkshire at Twickenham in 1991.
Dave kindly wrote the piece himself when I asked him for his memories of the day for my book Tales Of twickenham.
R.I.P. Dave.
Our thoughts are with his wife Valerie, his daughter Helen and his family.

BENJI’S TALE
“My dream of fifteen years had been fulfilled….”

Penryn schoolmaster Dave “Benji” Thomas took over the coaching of the Cornwall rugby team in 1976. For fifteen years he dreamed of winning the county championship, but when that moment finally came he was almost too exhausted to enjoy it! For “Benji”, the final….or at least the build-up to it….began earlier than for most people:

“From the moment the final whistle had blown on our semi-final, victory over Warwickshire, the final seemed to be the dominant factor in the lives of myself and my family. The media build-up started immediately, and a day did not seem to go by without reference to the game on Radio Cornwall or in the press, and then in the later stages on television.”

“This certainly had the desired effect of mobilising Trelawny’s Army, but I felt that it put a lot of pressure on myself and the players. My telephone never stopped. Well-wishers, ticket enquiries, people just ringing for a chat. But the most amazing thing was the number of people who would stop me in the street to talk about ‘our day’.”

“The training beforehand was all that I had wanted or dreamed of. The players were eager and dominating; totally committed to beating Yorkshire.”

“I had acquired a lot of material about Yorkshire’s championship games, and I spent a lot of time watching their semi-final, which I had videoed from Rugby Special. Going to watch Wakefield play London Irish made me realise the enormous task, but I did feel confident in the ability of the Cornwall players.”

“In the book ‘Path To The Final’ I considered myself an ever optimist, and Chris Alcock in his article promised me a day to remember.”

“The Thursday night before the final I had a long walk with my wife, and we went completely through the game. I felt quite strongly that we would match their front five to release our back row, and at the same time we denied them quality ball to release their backs. In the bottom of my heart I knew that anything less than a win would be a disaster for the thousands who were going to support us. But the players were better prepared mentally and physically than they had ever been, and were a closely knit squad, almost like a club. We enjoyed each others’ company, and there was a single ideal.”

“The coach journey up on the Friday was quite pleasant, mainly because wives and girlfriends were on the coach. Ascot and The Berystede Hotel seemed another world, but we were soon into training gear and back on the coach to go to Bracknell Rugby Club. Everything went smoothly. Everyone knew their role. We would stick to our game plan.”

“Early night on Friday, we had a quiet confidence, despite the growing tension as our supporters arrived and passed on their best wishes.”

“Saturday. Putting, walks in the grounds, idle chatter, but a beautiful day. The press made us underdogs. It suited us fine. People arriving to tell us that the M.4 was a mass of gold and black from end to end.”

“12.30 : The final team talk. I felt really nervous, but I tried not to convey this to the team. I tried to give them a driving motivation that would sustain them through to the final whistle.”

The coach journey to Twickenham was amazing. The police escort had to take us on an alternative route because of traffic jams around Twickenham. I put the Trelawny tape on, and it brought lumps to many throats.”

“Twickenham was bathed in gold and black as we drove into the car park. In everyone’s mind must have been ‘we cannot let these supporters down’. I felt very proud as we walked to the changing rooms.”

“As the team changed we could hear the Cornish voices outside, and what a marvellous sound it was. The players were in their own world; their last minute rituals. I felt extremely restless, and full of anticipation.”

“2.40 : Time for the team photograph, and what a roar as we went out! It was an unbelievable sight; gold and black everywhere.”

“We went back into the changing rooms and many of the players were stunned. A few words from me, and then Chris Alcock was in charge. What an inspiration he had been to everyone. He was a person who was held in a great deal of respect by his players.”

“I went into the stands, and had a chance to savour the atmosphere. Cornwall had certainly come to Twickenham, and it was great to think that the stadium was full. What an atmosphere!”

“In my mind was the lingering thought – ‘How would I react if the worst happened?’ But that was impossible.”

“My mind was so programmed into how we should play, that the first half went by quickly. Their try from the threequarter move was exactly what I feared, but we were closing them down. The biggest problem was their back row who were attacking us behind the gain line and our movements from the pack gained us no momentum.”

“Grant Champion’s penalty just before half-time was a tonic, as we were very much in the game, but Chris Alcock seemed to be limping.”

“I had a brief word with John Lander, the Cornwall first aid man, before half-time, which he could pass on when he went out. My only comment was to stick to our plan of attacking them from the back row – but to run a little wider to get away from their forward defence.”

“I settled down to enjoy the second half, but within minutes my world had collapsed as Yorkshire kicked a penalty and scored a soft try. Sixteen – three down. A mountain to climb. Our opponents were in the driving seat and able to dictate. They were on the crest of a wave – how could we possibly cope?”

“I started to make excuses to myself, but I knew it was silly. The breaks had gone to the opposition, and they had taken full advantage. I only prayed that the floodgates would not open, but at the same time I knew that we would give a hundred and ten percent and our fitness was not in question. Chris Alcock coming off was a blow, but our preparation was such that I had every confidence in the replacements.”

“I felt for the Cornish people in the crowd. How could we face them after all the euphoria of reaching the final?”

“Their reaction was tremendous. Every yard gained cheered to the echo. The team began to respond.”

“Suddenly the Yorkshire tackling was a fraction slower. We began to cross the gain line – crisp rucks and mauls. Slowly we began to dominate. I felt hopeful. Sixteen – nine after a cheeky Nancekivell try, then after a seemingly easy miss, Grant Champion’s penalty — sixteen – twelve.”

“I really began to believe that we could do it, although time was running out. All those endless practices to achieve perfection were beginning to pay off. We were getting stronger, and dominating even more. (By now I was on my third packet of extra strong mints!)”

“A final scrum – it must be the last. Our ball, and I screamed: ‘No Richard, don’t go blind, they are hanging off waiting for you’. He hadn’t heard me, but he’d foxed them all – sixteen – sixteen. The roof had almost been lifted off.”

“I had located my wife at half-time and from fifteen rows we’d been communicating. At sixteen – three it was thumbs down, but now it was all smiles.”

“Grant’s conversion failure did not seem to matter. We had given a good account of ourselves, and my sanity was restored.”

“Over the past twenty minutes the crowd had been phenomenal. We had been lifted on a tide of emotion. The final whistle -consultation – yes it was to be extra time.”

“Glyn Williams was doing a superb job motivating the team and there was a spring in their step as they turned around. Smiles on the faces, encouragement to each other. Yes, I really thought they could do it.”

“We started with such a bang, I had no doubts. The opposition was a spent force, the tackles were being made a long way back, our back row was in business, and our pack was going like I knew they could. Nineteen – sixteen from another Grant penalty, ecstasy everywhere.”

“Tommy Bassett in a rolling maul – twenty-three – sixteen. How pleased I was for him. A friend for many years and a controversial selection. What a justification.”

“Ten minutes of the final period left, could we hang on? The granite men would never give in now, we had spent too much time together.”

“My thoughts were answered immediately with a series of drives and Billy Peters driving over. Grant converted. Twenty-nine -sixteen. I felt absolutely thrilled. There was no way we could lose.” “A dream was coming true. The ghost of eighty-three years was being laid to rest.”

“The final minutes were agony, but I knew we had achieved our goal. The final Yorkshire thrust was a last gesture, the whistle blew.”

“Chaos. I looked for my wife and her face told it all. My daughter was in floods of tears.”

“I had to sit down, feeling emotionally and physically drained. But the final chapter was closed. Everything that happened in the next hour was like a dream. I sat and watched the players fighting to get through the cheering and excited crowd. I felt elated that we were champions of England, but my overriding thoughts were for the players who had worked so hard and been so loyal, and for the spectators, Trelawny’s Army, who could go back down the motorway proud of the black and gold.”

“My dream of fifteen years had been fulfilled. It was as Chris Alcock had forecast – the greatest day of my rugby life. A day to savour, and one for Cornish history.”

A photograph scanned from “Tales of Twickenham” shows Benji holding the cup with Glyn Williams and other players around them.
Plus the great Cornish player “Bonzo” Johns front left.

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