The 100 Club

In the June 2007 issue of International Rugby News we featured the only four men who could lay claim to the unique honour of having notched 100 league tries. This is their story

By Paul Bolton

Membership of rugby’s most exclusive club is hard-earned, jealously-guarded and well worth making a fuss about.
When Coventry winger Kurt Johnson touched down in the defeat by Bedford in February he became only the fourth player to score 100 league tries.

Johnson was formally welcomed into rugby’s 100 Club by the three other members - Eddie Saunders, Nick Baxter and Dave Scully - at a unique get-together at Leicester Racecourse organised by International Rugby News and the IRB’s ‘Total Rugby’ television programme.

The four rugby thoroughbreds may have struggled to pick winners among their equine counterparts at Leicester’s opening flat meeting of the season, but they certainly know a thing or two about try scoring, having rattled up more than 450 between them.

Baxter, who has just retired after an illustrious senior career as a free-scoring winger with Worcester, Pertemps Bees and Stourbridge, leads the way having become the first player to score 100 league tries in January 2002 and the first to 150, in the final game of the 2005/06 season.

Saunders, who began his senior career with Coventry before leagues began, reached the three figure landmark three months after Baxter when he came out of retirement with Rugby Lions, for whom he finished with 101 tries in 99 league games.

Scully, the only non-winger in the 100 Club, joined in February 2006 when he dotted down for Otley against London Welsh. The scrum-half has the shortest combined yardage of the four centurions, but his success is a testament to his longevity having made more than 350 league appearances for Wakefield, Rotherham, Otley and Doncaster since his league debut in 1987.

All are proud of their 100 Club membership but none are particularly statistically motivated. “I didn’t know I had got my 100th league try until about two weeks after the game when a journalist rang me up and told me,” Scully says. “I had no idea I was even that close, though when I found out I was very proud to be in such illustrious company.”

Baxter and Saunders’ achievements were better documented and Johnson found himself the centre of attention from Coventry supporters for some time before he scored his 100th try. “The fuss started after I scored my 97th try,” he says. “There was a big countdown and when I got to 99 it became a big thing with the supporters.

“I was going away to play sevens for the West Indies and I desperately wanted to get the 100th before I went but I probably tried a bit too hard and it didn’t happen for another month.”

The four are from disparate background with only Johnson, a former pupil of RGS High Wycombe, attending a traditional rugby-playing school.

Scully’s career began when he turned up to watch a third team game at Wheatley Hills, his local club in Doncaster, as a 15-year-old and ended up playing for the opposition. “Dronfield were a man short and their captain asked what size boots I wore. I said seven and he handed me a pair of size elevens,” he recalls. “I played at scrum-half and scored two tries for Dronfield. Wheatley Hills picked me to play for them the following week.”

Saunders played football at Moseley School in Birmingham until a new sports master arrived and he was switched to rugby. “The master came in and said: ‘you, you and you - outside.’ I thought I was in trouble, but the rugby team were three players short. I really didn’t want to play rugby but once I started I was hooked.”

Baxter, like Saunders, was a footballer at school in Birmingham and did not play his first game of rugby until he was 18.
“I had a friend who played colts rugby at Kings Norton, we went out for a few beers on a Friday night and I went down to watch him play on the Saturday,” Baxter says.

“Kings Norton were three players short and the coach persuaded me to play. I had absolutely no idea about how to play rugby but I should have scored a hat-trick in my first game. The first time I got over the line I bounced the ball down American Football-style so it was disallowed. The second time I ran beyond the dead ball line, the third time I got it right.”

For Baxter, Saunders and Johnson, try-scoring is also the currency by which wingers are valued. “Scoring tries is your bread and butter,” Johnson says. “The number of tackles and turnovers you make adds to your game, but it’s scoring tries which really counts and by which your are judged.”

As a scrum-half Scully has a different perspective on try-scoring. “As far as I am concerned, the shorter the distance the better. “A scrum-half’s job is to keep your pack going forward and then getting your hands on the ball at the back of a ruck or maul once they get over the line.”

There is obvious respect between the four, not least because Saunders was once Baxter’s hero. “I didn’t know much about rugby when I started but I wanted to know who the best person was in my position,” Baxter says. “So I read the newspapers and every week there were reports about this guy Eddie Saunders scoring all these tries for Rugby. He became my hero.”

Baxter’s hero soon became a respected opponent and rival as Johnson has in more recent seasons.
“We are all good mates off the field but it’s different on the pitch,” Baxter says. “It becomes a bit territorial. You don’t want your opposite number to get the better of you.

“You don’t mind not scoring as long as your opposite number doesn’t score against you. I don’t think I ever really got the better of Eddie or Kurt, but I think we probably finished about even.”
The four will be remembered best for their try-scoring exploits but there are moments of embarrassment which they do not easily forget.

“Mine came against Pertemps Bees when I decided I’d chip between Nick Baxter and his centre,” says Johnson.
“I thought the ball would sit up nicely for me, I would go 60 metres and be a hero. Instead it went straight to Nick who went in under the posts and the Coventry fans haven’t let me forget it.”

Saunders still remembers the acute of embarrassment of almost conceding a try at Harrogate which would have cost Rugby promotion. “I showed their winger the outside and he took it,” he says. “He absolutely skinned me. Thankfully Mark Ellis, our flanker, managed to track him down because if he had scored we would have lost and not been promoted.
“That moment taught me that you should always respect your opponent.”

Despite their remarkable success at National League level, only Scully, with Rotherham, and Saunders have played top flight rugby and all were or are part-time rugby players.

Saunders, who worked in a bank during his playing career, is now an operations manager. He is a fit-looking 46-year-old who still plays occasional sevens games on the veterans circuit and who is on the board at Rugby Lions.

Baxter’s retirement at 34 will allow him more time to run his wine business in Worcester. Scully, a 41-year old fire fighter has yet to decide whether to continue his National League career to a 21st season.
Even Johnson combines his playing and training with a day job as an accountant, though Coventry intend to go full-time next season.

Top international honours have also eluded the most potent try-scorers in English rugby though there are few obvious regrets. “I just enjoy playing rugby, the camaraderie and the friendships I have made,” said Scully who played in England’s 1993 World Cup Sevens-winning squad at Murrayfield.

“We had a squad of ten and we played five games on the first day to qualify and another five on finals day - New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji and Australia twice,” he recalls.

Baxter also played for the England sevens team in the 1998 Commonwealth Games and has kept his shirt. “It doesn’t fit me any more and it’s washed pink but I’m very proud of it,” he says. Johnson has played for Barbados in World Cup qualifying matches as well as the West Indies in the IRB World Sevens Series.

But Saunders’ highest honours came on a Barbarians’ Easter Tour and divisional rugby with the Midlands.
“People ask why I didn’t play at a higher level and it’s difficult to answer,” Saunders says. “I did have a stinker playing for the Midlands against the South West at Bristol. It was one of those days when things just didn’t feel right.

“I played for an unfashionable club and in those days I was a case of making the most of an opportunity if it came along.”
The recent success of Shaun Perry, a former team-mate of Johnson’s at Coventry, and Dan Ward-Smith in graduating from National One to the full England squad suggests that times have changed.

“I think that it’s easier to get spotted now if you are a good player in National One,” Johnson says. “But for every Shaun Perry there are probably three or four good players who still don’t get picked up by Premiership clubs.”

Ward-Smith, who scored 93 league tries for Plymouth Albion before Bristol snapped him up two years ago, needs just three more to become the fifth member of the 100 Club provided he can recover from the serious knee injury he sustained in January.

But with fewer games and shorter playing careers the likelihood is that he will become the last member
“I’m proud of my record but I think that if Kurt can stay fit then he will eventually go past it. He’s certainly got time on his side.

“But if Kurt does that then I’m certain that no-one will ever beat him. Careers are getting shorter so there are going to be fewer opportunities for people to get anywhere near 100 tries.”