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‘I had months to live but was not afraid to die’ - Cooch's Interview in the Times

5th February 2017

For those of you who have travelled with Venatour will know that Gareth "Cooch" Chilcott is a larger than life character.. What you may not know is what he has gone through in the last couple of years.

Today, in the Sunday Times, he reveals all to David Walsh.

Here is the whole interview.

Chilcott: ‘I had months to live but was not afraid to die’

Gareth Chilcott tugs gently on the goatee beard that he’s shaped into a small ponytail. Held together by three rubber bands it sits just below his chin, a spark of difference in a world of uniformity. He’s kept it because friends told him it was terrible. That’s him, though. There’s a tale behind the ponytail, poignant you might say, but let us leave that for a bit.

He’s 60 now. Thirty years ago he was loosehead prop on the England team that made its way across the Severn Bridge for its biennial beating at Cardiff Arms Park. England’s 1987 team decided they’d had enough. The forwards were going to show they were harder, meaner and better than Wales.

Chilcott, Graham Dawe, Wade Dooley, Jon Hall and Peter Winterbottom were all terrific players, but that afternoon they got too wound up. It was a nasty and violent match. England won the fight but lost the game, both on unanimous decisions. Now sitting in a small office at a music venue he owns in Bristol, Chilcott recalls how he felt that evening in Cardiff. “We sat there and the thing that disappointed me was everything we worked on, we didn’t do. Every tactic, every game plan, everything we were going to do we didn’t do. Bloody frustrating, it was. We were only worried about the physical battle, winning that. The Welsh enjoyed it, ‘OK, we’ll play some rugby’. We learnt a lesson and didn’t make the same mistake again.”

Chilcott played 26 times for England and 373 games for Bath. In 1989 he toured Australia with the Lions. With Bath he won five leagues and seven cups. Winning meant much at the time but now, all these years later, his memories are of the people he encountered and his debt is to the game itself.

It may be a stretch to claim that it saved him but it is what he believes. He came from the tough part of Bristol, followed Bristol City and found it easy to get into trouble. “Nowadays I sit in the stand at Ashton Gate and watch the game. In the old days, before my rugby, I would have been a slightly different football supporter. I went all over the country and got into all sorts of trouble with other football hooligans. Old friends from my neighbourhood, some now with criminal records, are still doing it. It’s quite sad.

“As a teenager, I was banned from going to football. An old teacher, Norman Ridgeway, said, ‘While you’re not allowed to watch football, come and play for my little local rugby side, Old Redcliffians’. They became my first club. Hard blokes, many of them dockers you could have a laugh with but never go overboard with.”

Rugby allowed Chilcott to let off steam. Afterwards he and the opponent he’d traded punches with would share a drink at the bar. They took it. They gave it. They forgot it. With the Old Reds, he showed he could play. From there he went to Bath and they loved him at the Rec. The game was amateur but for the right man, even one with little formal education, there were opportunities. He was the right man.

He got involved with Gullivers Sports Travel and when that was sold he set up Venatour, another sports travel business, with his friend Alister Strahan. “I’ve got various other businesses, I’ve enjoyed the diversity of my working life,” Chilcott says. “I’ve got the music venue in Bristol, and a building company that looks after youth offenders and kids that are finding it hard in the academic world. They come and learn tiling, bricklaying, carpentry, plastering and we sometimes try to get them jobs after and they get diplomas and certificates. It gives kids a chance to get off the streets.”

He became one of rugby’s most sought-after public speakers. Year after year, he could do two dinners a week, telling rugby folk about sharing a room with the Scottish flanker John Jeffrey at a pre-departure training camp for the 1989 Lions and Jeffrey asking if £45 would be enough to see him through. “John,” said Chilcott, “we’re going to be away for more than two months.”

The game is better now, he sees that, far less dirty, and top players earn good salaries. He’s not complaining about that, for the game has been good to him. Not one of today’s players will ever be paid as much as an after-dinner speaker as he has been over the past 25 years. “The phone,” he says, “never stopped ringing.”

The game, he also says, helped him to be strong and through the past two-and-a- half years he has needed to be. He lost his wife in April 2015. “I have had a bad couple of years. I lost my wife more than 18 months ago, Ann, and miss her dearly. She died of a brain tumour. We fought it for nine months so I didn’t work while we fought it. Sadly it didn’t work. My kids Chloe and Ethan had to grow up quite quickly. They are now 23 and 20. Ann died at home. Towards the end she couldn’t speak or walk or move. Nurses in all the time. It wasn’t a pleasant time. A year or so after she passed away we were getting to the stage where we were remembering the good times and then I got ill.”

He tells of his illness matter-of-factly. It all started with a sit-up, a pulled stomach muscle and a visit to the doctor. There was a small hernia that needed fixing. At Bristol’s Southmead Hospital they did a routine test that showed his liver was in a bad way. “How bad?” he asked, and was told: “A few months, that’s what you’ve got.” They sent him to King’s Hospital in London and there it was confirmed he needed a liver transplant.

The average waiting time for a liver to come along is three months. He wasn’t likely to be around for that deadline. “Death didn’t worry me at all. I know it sounds like a big thing but it didn’t. Nobody wants to die, but I have had such a full life. Somebody once said to me, ‘It is not how long you are here, it is what you have done while you were here’. I have written books, been on radio and TV and been on stage.

“I have been a rugby player, played for Bath and England and the Lions, had a beautiful wife who gave me two healthy kids. I have had jobs, was never short of money. And I just think, ‘Wow, I have travelled the world with my rugby and my touring business. I have a house in Lanzarote which we used to go to with the kids, growing up, spending six weeks there in the summer’. Lovely times. As long as it weren’t a painful death.”

He had one reservation. “I worried how it [his death] would affect Chloe and Ethan so soon after losing their rock, their mum, a year earlier. I didn’t want their lives defined by losing both their parents within a year of each other. Their lives should be defined by what they do. They are strong kids. Ethan is at Exeter University taking economics, he loves his rugby and cricket and acting and drama. He’s a bit of a singer. My daughter, who I am immensely proud of as well, she helped me with Ann. And of course she had to travel to London to be with me. So then she became a carer for me.”

At King’s Hospital they suggested he return to Southmead while waiting for his transplant. That sounded ominous to him but it made sense. There, it would be easy for Chloe and Ethan to visit. Resigned to a degree, he travelled by ambulance down the M4 and four hours after arriving at the Bristol hospital they told him they were going straight back to King’s as a suitable liver had become available. The flashing blue light was switched on, they used only the fast lane and three days later he woke at King’s with a new liver.

“September 10 was the operation, so it is nearly five months on. I am back driving and swimming every day, as much walking as I can, doing some light weights, because liver disease just eats your muscles away. So I am beginning to build back up. I feel great. I have had a second chance thanks to the donor. It gives me some more time with the kids. We are doing all right.”

During his treatment he wasn’t allowed to shave for fear of infection. His facial hair grew ridiculously long before a nurse finally shaved his cheeks. She left the beard, which went down almost to his chest. He cut some of it, put the rest in a little ponytail and as well as earning the disapproval of his friends, it now reminds of how lucky he has been. As if he needed reminding.

You can read it on The Sunday Times website here - http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/d26bb67c-eafc-11e6-9222-6a3870c84e04

IMAGE ADRIAN SHERRATT