Alastair Hignell knows more than most that memories are precious

Former England full-back is backing the Sporting Memories Foundation that helps those with dementia by talking about sport with them

Alastair Hignell makes a break for England in their game against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1979.
Alastair Hignell makes a break for England in their game against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1979. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Hlcarpenter.com
Alastair Hignell makes a break for England in their game against Wales at Cardiff Arms Park in 1979. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Hlcarpenter.com
Robert Kitson

Last modified on Sat 6 Feb 2021 05.32 EST

The Six Nations approaches and, with it, the annual riptide of memories. Can it really be 50 years ago this weekend, for example, since Wales beat Scotland at Murrayfield courtesy of “the greatest conversion since St Paul” by a bushy haired, bearded John Taylor? Or 45 years since JPR Williams’s old-school shoulder charge on the French wing Jean-François Gourdon that helped yield another Welsh grand slam? Unforgettable moments.

They are also the foundation stones upon which today’s tournament rests. It can sometimes be easier to remember Taylor’s finest hour – the highlights of that 1971 game are as evocative as the flanker’s uncanny likeness to Roy Wood out of Wizzard – or JPR’s intervention than the finer points (there weren’t many) of England’s last game against Wales. In this locked-down sporting world, that famous old live album of Max Boyce’s – I Know Cos – I Was There!” – feels even more nostalgic.

Not everyone, sadly, can recall everything as if it were yesterday. As anyone who has a family member with dementia will know, even once vivid mental snapshots can fade to grey. It is a cruel scenario familiar to the former England rugby international and Gloucestershire cricketer Alastair Hignell, whose father, Tony, suffered from dementia until his death, aged 87, in 2015. Tony Hignell was also a champion sportsman who threw the javelin for Britain, played first-class cricket and loved watching his boy represent his country. Gradually his son saw it all slip away: “By the end he knew he was keen on sport but he couldn’t quite remember why.”

Which is why “Higgy”, still an inspiration to so many thanks to his own indefatigable 22-year ordeal with multiple sclerosis and, now, myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS, a rare form of blood cancer), is doing his utmost to assist the Sporting Memories Foundation, who are keen for a range of people to share a sporting memory that might just jog someone’s imagination. It is a lovely idea that, as the Hignell family can attest, is often hugely beneficial. “From my Dad’s experience it was the thing that lit him up occasionally. As his memory declined, sport was the thing that really brought him back. Just contributing a memory can do so much good for so many people.”

That prompts the question: which one Six Nations memory stands out for you? Maybe a first game watched at an impressionable age, which was the case for this correspondent. Not everyone will recall Ireland beating England 26-21 at Twickenham in 1974 but to a nine-year-old country boy it left an indelible mark, from the smell of tweed and tobacco in the air to the great Mike Gibson’s timeless genius.

Ultimately, though, it is the ebb and flow of national fortunes that always makes the championship so captivating. In 1977, as this season, England kicked off at home to Scotland before hosting a crunch game against a fancied France a few weeks later. Hignell played at full-back on both occasions and the Calcutta Cup game went very well. England racked up their then-biggest winning margin over Scotland with a 26-6 victory and their No 15, winning his sixth cap, contributed 10 points.

Before the French encounter, a photographer popped up to Cambridge, where Hignell was studying, and took a classic photo of the all-round sportsman on the playing fields of Fitzwilliam College, dressed half in his rugby kit – England socks, shorts and ball – and half in his cricket gear. Alas, every schoolboy’s ultimate dream turned nightmarish: the most multiskilled English sportsman of his day missed a host of kicks at goal and an illustrious France team squeezed home 4-3 en route to an historic grand slam.

“I thought I had quite a good game, apart from the small fact of missing five kicks out of six,” says Hignell, wryly. “It was the year France won the grand slam and they only used 15 players. In 2017, a French journalist came round to interview me. When the piece appeared it was all about how it wouldn’t have happened without me. The headline was: ‘The 16th man of the French XV!’”

Playing for England in those days, though, was an experience that would horrify today’s goal-kickers. “In the mid-1970s it always seemed to be raining at Twickenham, the wind was always swirling around and the grass was over your ankles. You practised with any old ball and then played with a shiny, light brown leather one. It was so new it was slippery to touch. You didn’t see it until just before the game when the captains would press it with their thumbs to gauge if it was pumped up enough.”

Alastair Hignell lines up a kick during the match between England and Wales in 1978. Twickenham was a tricky venue for place-kickers in those days.
Alastair Hignell lines up a kick during the match between England and Wales in 1978. Twickenham was a tricky venue for place-kickers in those days. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Hlcarpenter.com

Players, furthermore, could only gather on the Thursday before and Friday’s priority was to park a car in central London to ensure a swift getaway on Sunday morning after the official post-match dinner. On Friday nights, as Hignell recalls, the squad would be driven into town to take in a show. “It was around the time of the musical Hair and the Age of Aquarius. We saw something called Let My People Come which, as far as I can remember, was full of naked people. It didn’t seem ideal preparation for playing rugby the next day.

“We also went to see the Black & White Minstrel Show, which someone must have regarded as good wholesome entertainment.”

The squad’s nutrition and dietary advice was similarly suspect. “No one knew anything about it. On the day of the game you could choose whatever you wanted for lunch. The forwards would always have a dirty big steak – with chips of course. Bristol’s Dave Rollitt would order raw egg and sherry. You wouldn’t drink too much water. That would swill around inside your tummy, wouldn’t it?”

Memories, memories. Here’s hoping they bring a flicker of distant recognition to someone, somewhere.

To learn more about the Sporting Memories Foundation please go to www.thesmf.co.uk

The other half

Spare a thought, as the 2021 Six Nations extravaganza kicks off, for those who are currently less fortunate. Covid-19 has curtailed any number of hopes and dreams but its effect on the second-tier Championship may yet prove absolutely ruinous. For a number of sides there is no realistic prospect of starting the season because of the financial burden of Covid testing – one club, Ampthill, say the cost will be £120,000 – and the policy of offering loans and not grants to clubs who, without any games or crowds, have had no source of income since last March.

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Central income from the RFU and Premiership Rugby has also been slashed by 75%. Those who reckon a terminally weakened Championship would be no huge deal are ignoring the many international players, past and present, for whom it has been a vital stepping stone. It will be a scandal if those in genuine need are left to wither and die because no one in authority fully understood their value to their local communities and the English game.

One to watch

One man will ultimately determine how close Scotland come to wrongfooting England at Twickenham on Saturday. If Finn Russell enjoys sufficiently quick ball and a little time and space there is every possibility of a crackling contest to illuminate a potentially cold, dank evening. The Scotland No 10 also has the chance to show the Lions coach, Warren Gatland, what he might offer in a red jersey, wherever and whenever that tour takes place.

A fast start from Russell and, even with no spectators, a rip-roaring first Six Nations weekend is guaranteed.

This article was amended on 3 February 2021. In an earlier version, France were said to have won the grand slam in 1977 for the first time; this was actually in 1968.

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