STUART Simmons is a fearsome man. But when he played his final game for Crewe and Nantwich RUFC after 25 years of dedicated service, he admits he cried his heart out.
PETER MORSE reports. AT 50, you would think that Stuart Simmons would be glad to quit running about a rugby pitch with lads less than half his age.
But nothing could be further from the truth. A serious medial ligament injury to his right knee has finally forced the Hungerford Road man into submission after more than 500 games for the club.
It is the first ailment serious enough to stop him. The 6ft 2in second-row hardman brushed off more than 10 broken bones and dislocations, and countless torn and ruptured muscles and ligaments in the past.
A special tribute game, featuring a Crewe and Nantwich select team against the club's colts, was his send-off at the end of the season. Now he is contemplating a very different life, and an operation to completely rebuild his knee.
Stuart said: 'It was very, very sad. There was a lot of tears in that game from some of the lads as well. I have won a few league titles and got to the final of the Cheshire Plate, but for me the high point is just the way Crewe is as a club.
'The people are so friendly and I could not pick one weekend where I haven't enjoyed playing for the club. I am not a big ballpark player, I am the sort of person who likes club atmosphere and people, and I couldn't pick anywhere better.'
Originally from Derbyshire, Stuart was in the Navy when he first played for Crewe and Nantwich in 1971. He featured in fixtures only while on leave then, until he left the service 21 years ago.
Then he established himself in the club's first 11 where he was a pivotal member until the age of 40. Only three years at Winnington Park - a higher level of rugby union where he played alongside the likes of international Dewi Morris - broke his spell at Crewe.
Injuries by then had begun to take their toll, and Stuart, who sites Matt Farr and Paul Hackett as two of the best players he has played with at Crewe, moved down to the second and later third teams over the years.
After leaving the first team, Stuart, a manager at British Salt, had taken up coaching with a group of seven-year-olds, including his son Joseph.
A decade later, the side - which also features the likes of Tom Maguire, Dean Carter, Simon Burley who have made the first team - made up the colt team which beat Stuart's select outfit 50-34 in his career finale.
The father-of-three, who actually spent the last two months of last season back in the second team because 'they were getting bullied a bit', said: 'If you coach someone from an age where they can barely pick a ball up, and there they are in the first team, it is brilliant. I found the coaching very rewarding.
'I have a passion for rugby but you have to cut it off at some stage because I am going to do myself damage. I was nearly in tears polishing my boots after (the final match) and I wondered why I was bothering.
'But I will never turn my back on the club. I will still do the odd bit of coaching and I will be there watching the lads at the weekends.'
And with Stuart watching from the sidelines, the players will know they had better be on their toes. The gentle giant is not always so gentle.
The club's first team narrowly missed out of promotion last season, largely due to throwing away a 22-0 half-time lead at Ruskin Park, eventually losing 28-22.
Stuart, who has also completed two London Marathons and the Great North Run, raising thousands of pounds for charity, said: 'I can't believe they let that happen. I would have taken the dressing room door off its hinges and they would have all known about it. They should have done it properly.'
Club spokesman Alan Jones said: 'Stuart has been a stalwart of our club for many years and he will be missed. He is like our version of (England World Cup-winning captain) Martin Johnson. He is battle-hardened and has seen it all.'