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Budge Pountney: Ten years on, still a man of principle

Budge Pountney at his home in the New Forest with his dog Murphy. Picture: Chris Moorhouse
Budge Pountney at his home in the New Forest with his dog Murphy. Picture: Chris Moorhouse

Budge Pountney is reeling in the years. Trying to at least. "Is it really that long ago?" he asks, with obvious incredulity. "I hadn't kept count and I would never have guessed." But yes, it really is that long ago. Next week marks the 10th anniversary of the moment Pountney brought his international career with Scotland to an abrupt and unexpected end when he walked out of a squad training session at Murrayfield, never to return. Over the four previous years he had collected 31 caps, scored five tries and earned recognition as one of the finest and most effective loose forwards in world rugby. And suddenly it was all over.

Bar the shouting, of course.

Pountney's departure rocked the cosy and complacent world of Scottish rugby to its foundations and asked searching questions of the Scottish Rugby Union's competence as far as the business of looking after professional athletes was concerned. But while many, not least his fellow players, sympathised with his actions, there were others outside the camp who accused him of petulance, treachery and ingratitude to the country that had turned him into a Test player.

Pountney's route into international rugby had been bizarre. Born in Southampton, he claimed Scottish qualification through a grandmother from the Channel Islands, although the legal basis for that, in terms of International Rugby Board rules, was distinctly suspect. Yet from the moment he made his debut, against South Africa in 1998, he played with a commitment and fiery purpose that rendered his background irrelevant as far as most Scotland fans were concerned.

He had been involved in all Scotland's matches as they won the final Five Nations Championship in 1999. The following year, he had won the Heineken Cup with Northampton Saints. The next few years had ups and downs for the national team, but at the dawn of 2003 they looked to be in good shape, after five wins from their last six games and an autumn clean sweep that included a historic win over the Springboks at Murrayfield.

As far as Pountney was concerned, though, those wins had simply papered over some critical cracks in Scotland's way of doing things. Having seen how professional clubs in England had begun to look after their players, he thought Scotland was stuck in the dark ages of amateurism. There were issues over kit, nutrition, accommodation and the treatment of wives and partners. Taken one by one, the problems might look trivial; but the frustration was building inside Pountney.

It erupted midway through a harsh training day at Murrayfield. "We came off the pitch after a pretty full-on session," he recalls. "The recovery food we were getting was a dodgy old ham roll and a bit of soup. We had just flogged ourselves silly for two and a half hours out there.

"I don't have a problem with working hard on the training pitch. That's what you have to do at international level, it's part of the job. But to go back out for another two and a half hours on the back of a ham roll and a bowl of soup just seemed absurd. To put all that effort in when people behind the scenes were doing so little made zero sense to me.

"So, essentially, it was a culmination of things. It was very much the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I talked to the coaches at Northampton that afternoon. I talked to my dad, I spoke to Ian McGeechan [the Scotland coach] and to some of the senior players. They all knew the situation. I had just had enough."

Pountney's departure inevitably drew comparison's with Roy Keane's walkout from the Irish football squad at the previous year's World Cup in Japan. However, Pountney's actions were more measured and more considered. Senior Murrayfield figures drew attention to the fact he had lost a testicle after a horrific injury a few weeks earlier, suggesting his judgment was affected, but Pountney denies that incident had any effect on his thinking.

"I think those comments were pretty crap," he says. "Anyone who knows me will say injuries don't affect me that way. On top of which, I carried on playing for Northampton. We simply weren't being given the right kind of back-up to make us play as well as we could. That's all there was to it."

He is more scathing still about those who questioned his commitment to Scotland, or hinted he had been a carpetbagger interested only in himself. "Anyone who wrote that kind of rubbish clearly didn't know the first thing about me, didn't understand my passion for Scotland and for playing for Scotland. It's pretty insulting to hear things like that."

The passion is still there. When he flew back south that day he did not revert to being English. Which is why he remains unapologetic, even to this day, about what he did. Pounteny continues: "Back then, I just thought, 'this is nuts and it's never going to change unless somebody says something about it'. I knew I'd had enough, so I might as well be the one to do it.

"We don't have that many players in Scotland. We have a very small pool. I felt we should be like Australia and put as much as we can into getting this small pool of players into absolutely the best physical and mental condition that can be achieved. In Scotland, we have to do everything we can to get the best out of a very small number of players. It was frustrating that that was not happening. When we lost a game, all you would get was finger-pointing, with people saying we didn't love the shirt or whatever."

So what happened next?

Seven months after he left Murrayfield, Pountney suffered a career-ending injury, damaging an ankle in a pre-season game with Northampton. He moved swiftly into coaching at the Franklin's Gardens club, becoming head coach and then director of rugby over the next two years, And then he quit again. "I loved the playing side of rugby, absolutely adored it, but that's what it was all about for me," he says. "It was a good experience, but it was experience to be director of rugby, which I probably didn't need at that time.

"All of a sudden, I was stuck in charge of blokes I had been playing rugby with. It opened up my eyes to the way the business works, but it was a great way to lose friends and I didn't want to do that. My wife, Ali, and I made the decision that we wanted to do something different and move on."

"Something different" is understating things. In one of the most improbable career moves ever, Pountney turned his back on the world of battle-hardened bruisers and switched to bobbing babies instead, taking on a franchise in Hampshire with Water Babies, a nationwide company that teaches babies and toddlers to swim.

"It was a bit of a culture change," he admits. "We set it up about five and a half years ago and it has grown and grown and grown. We teach about 1000 kids a week, so it's a big operation. I don't do much teaching any more. I've pretty much taken myself out of the pool and I'm now looking at the business. We have about nine teachers and admin staff and it's almost impossible to do the teaching and run the business, but Ali still teaches because she loves doing it."

Pountney's sole connection with rugby now is as an RFU citing officer, looking into discipline issues at Aviva Premiership games and beyond. "It keeps me in the loop a little bit," he says. I love it. I'm off to Sicily quite shortly for the game between Italy and France under-20s. It will be a nice place to go and a good game to watch."

However, Pountney is almost as wary of Twickenham officials as he once was of their Murayfield counterparts. "I've told them I don't want a blazer with a red rose on it," he laughs. "I've asked for one with a thistle, but I don't think that's going to happen.

"I'm still in touch with a lot of the Scotland boys, guys like Tom Smith and Gregor Townsend and Scott Murray. I was lucky and made some really great friends. It is unfortunate it ended the way it did, but I don't regret what I did. I still believe I made the right decision at the time, but I don't dwell on it. When I look back I still think I was remarkably blessed to have the chance in the first place."

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