“There was this one player at Rotherham, an awful man, who shall remain nameless,” Phil Boulton begins. His 6’2” and 18st prop-forward frame is stood in my kitchen, the sideboard creaking ever so slightly under the strain. We are talking about his nigh on ten years in a Championship front row; the players he’s loved, the games he remembers. Talk has briefly digressed to a moment where he felt he might have made a mistake.
“This bloke wasn’t liked by anyone; we had a particularly horrible nickname for him. And this one match, we conceded a pushover try, and even though he was a forward, he hadn’t been involved in trying to stop it. He ran over to the rest of us, we were stood in a huddle, as you do, and he starts having a go, swearing and telling us how useless we all were. And I said ‘You can’t say that to us.’ And he said, ‘That’s typical of you Phil, always trying to blame other people.’ So I just punched him, really quite hard, square in the face. I smacked a member of my own team, underneath my own posts.”
There is an unmistakable smile across Boults’ face as he recounts the story. He goes on to say how the DOR made them sort it out on the Monday. “After the game, I held my hands up and was told to report at 9am for some extra fitness, which I did. I was then handed some boxing gloves and told to put them on. But this other chap, he never turned up. I ended up paying a fine as well I seem to remember, but I’d made my point. That side of my game has changed I think; maybe I wouldn’t do that anymore. Mind you, he had it coming.”
Boulton has agreed to talk to me on the proviso I don’t make him cry. His eight seasons at Bedford, where, at the time of writing, he has amassed 199 appearances, is coming to an end. He has agreed a move to Coventry but his career at Goldington Road is nothing but positives. He describes his time with the Blues as an incredible journey. The pride with which he talks is palpable; he has had the very best of times. “I was only staying two seasons, max. But then, there never seemed a reason to leave.”
He joined Bedford from Leicester (he was on loan at Rotherham) in 2008 and was a new boy alongside such names as Tupai, Howard, Dodge, Gillanders and a certain Billy Twelvetrees. “That was an incredible season. Nick Walshe had come in as player coach and I remember the way he had a plan for everything. There was a massive game, early April, us against Donny. Everyone was saying how tough it would be. And I remember talking to Walshey about how we were going to beat them. And him saying, ‘I know what we’re going to do, it’s watertight, don’t worry.’ And we blew them off the park, forty points, they were never even close. It was the game where Billy scored that try, diving underneath the posts, pointing at the crowd.”
Two seasons later Boults was still at the coalface, in arguably Bedford’s best campaign. A British and Irish Cup final and an unforgettable league playoff semi against Worcester at Sixways. It was a pretty special team, and interestingly, in light of this year’s Six Nations, it contained two of the northern hemisphere’s form players: Duncan Taylor and George Kruis. “I still have people ask me about that game. And in truth, it took me a while to get over. I’m usually pretty good at putting losses to bed. I work in a school and kids won’t let you dwell too long. But that game against Worcester (a 23-22 loss) took some swallowing. I remember thinking the drop goal had gone over and I was kinda celebrating. And then Dunc (Taylor) was putting the ball down claiming he’d scored a try. It took quite some time to work out what was going on. But ultimately, we’d lost.”
“I remember people telling me how proud I should’ve been of the performance but I didn’t feel it. We should’ve won. The Worcester players told me they’d dodged a bullet. We got a lot of credit but it could have been so different. A week or so later we lost the B&I Cup Final to Bristol in the rain at the ‘Mem’. We didn’t execute the right game plan and they did us. I’ve got two runners up medals in my drawer at home, which hurts.”
“But I think that game really stamped our style on English rugby. And lots of people saw it. We finished second in the league the next year (beaten by the eventually promoted Welsh in the semi-final) and then we came second best against Newcastle in the final in 2013. It was an incredibly long season which contributed to the next year’s fall. We were victims of our own success, we hadn’t rested properly, recruited late, and then Vassy (Ian Vass) came in with his new defensive system. It took a long time for everyone to learn and execute what he wanted. I remember him saying it would take until Christmas for it to bed in. He didn’t specify which Christmas though.”
Typical Boulton comedy. Bedford spent those next two seasons fighting at the wrong end of the table, and only this year have things clicked again, finding themselves back in play-off contention. Boulton is very good at talking; especially good at finding the right line. I’ve seen the Bedford Blues’ Marquee on its feet after Phil, injured at the time, delivered a pre-match interview that was Churchillian in its call to arms; they loved it. He also came up with one of the most memorable moments at a club dinner. Tim Stimpson, the former Leicester and England fullback, had come to give the after dinner speech. He had arrived early and, naively, got himself five pints down with some of the former players. Stimpson stood in front of a packed room, trying desperately to recall his words; he got names embarrassingly wrong and, after ten minutes of material poorly delivered to a crowd curling its toes, he gave up, turning to the audience and instigating an impromptu question and answer session; a decision as bad as any on the night. The microphone ended up in the hand of Boulton, who raised himself to his feet and, with trademark deadpan delivery, said, “I’ve got a question for you Tim, have you got any funny stories?” The laughter lasted for minutes.
I ask Boults who he has enjoyed playing alongside; there have been many instrumental Blues along the way. “Nelly (Neil Cochrane) was important for me. Again, like Toops (Paul Tupai), a man who is a leader. Someone who will never ask you to do something he isn’t prepared to do himself. He could change a game, with an incredible turnover; get into positions, no one else could. Another one is Darren Fox. He should have played test match rugby: incredibly uncompromising. The archetypal man who you’d want on your side, not in opposition. Foxy was a lot of fun. As is Vassy; he leads the charge. If you’d said to me back in 2008 that he’d be coaching me at Bedford, I would have laughed you out the room. But, much like Nick (Walshe) his level of detail is superb. His understanding of the game is incredible. Very dangerous man to be with on a night out, though.”
Boulton’s tenure at the club is not unique. There have been many Blues players who have represented the club for as long as he. An extraordinary testimony to Mike Rayer and his team, and the work of Geoff Irvine, is the sheer number of players in the last ten years who have played more than a hundred games for Bedford. “The town itself is unusual. Rugby is the main sport by quite some way. I can’t go into any supermarket without seeing fans, them coming up to me and saying ‘well played at the weekend’. They don’t hold back either, they’ll come and tell me where I’m going wrong. The club is a focal point and I think that has its own attraction for the players.”
But Boulton, himself, is unique. He leaves a sizeable hole. No one plays in quite the same manner; his square chest and long back; his oft shaven head; the way he dips and rolls opposition out the way; the socks rolled down; the finger pointing; the sideways look and smile. And I have no doubt he will continue to do well. Coventry has gained a very good human being.
“I have one final adventure with the Blues. We’re eight points clear of Jersey but have to play 1st and 2nd in the league (Bristol and Doncaster). They (Jersey) have to play Yorkshire last game of the season so it’s all to play for. I’d like another go at the playoffs. Maybe get Bristol, we’ve beaten them home and away this season. They won’t want to see us. It could be fun.”
Fun is one way of looking at it. Bedford has brought that to the Championship party. And Phil Boulton has always been involved. He’d shake his head if you called him integral; tell you rugby has too many moving parts to single him out. There will be others whose contribution to the history books maybe more obvious, but for so long, there has always been Boults; his service to the club should always be remembered. He will wave to the Goldington Road crowd one final time pretty soon. My thinking is, when the moment comes, we should all wave back.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved
What a fantastic article, Sam. It was Phil who was responsible for me changing from an intermittent visitor to GR to a regular supporter after working with him at Newnham. A great colleague and a wise decision! Lucky Coventry and lucky kids who are going to grow and gain from his experience.
As you say, Sam, we are clearly very lucky to have signed him for next season. You probably know that we at Coventry are currently going through a mass clear out which will involve the recruitment of a surprisingly large number of players, and it sounds pretty good to me that one of them is going to be Boults. With the signing of Pritchard as well, I’m sorry we’re raiding your ranks, but it can only be good for us.
Thank you Sam, a fantastic piece of writing that brings back my own happy memories and great times in the Blues back room. Good luck Phil, a fantastic servant to the Blues