It’s fair to say that Paul Turner was less than impressed when he first came across Ampthill Rugby Club in the mid1990s. “The pitch they played on was in a right state,” he tells The Rugby Paper in a thick, rumbling Welsh accent. “The surrounds were very pretty – beautiful woods, a lovely town. But as far as the pitch was concerned, it wasn’t up to standard. It was very patchy and the poles weren’t in good condition. It probably reflected where the club was at the time.”
Back then, Turner, the former fly-half with three caps for Wales, was serving as Bedford’s coach while also seeing out the final days of his playing career. Ampthill was little more than a community club, scratching an existence in the lower reaches of regional rugby.
Turner didn’t dwell at the East Midland minnows. The next 13 years would see him coach at Saracens, Gloucester, Harlequins, Newport Gwent Dragons and Wasps. In 2011 his phone rang. Ampthill’s director of rugby Mark Lavery wondered if Turner fancied a shot at a Cinderella story.
“It was convenient for me,” Turner explains. “I live in St Albans, have done so now for almost 25 years. Ampthill is just half an hour up the M1. I could do it part-time and also focus on coaching at schools (Turner runs a successful private coaching business). I thought, ‘why not’. I suppose you can say the club has grown on me.”
At the start of Turner’s tenure, Ampthill were competing in the seventh tier of English rugby. Last Monday, the men in claret and gold faced the three-time European champions Saracens in the Championship. They lost that match 69-12 but when they host Richmond on a much-improved pitch later today – the old one now serves as a training ground – they are effectively the 18th best side in the country.
“I’m incredibly proud to have played my part in putting Ampthill on the rugby map,” Turner says. “Some of the teams we used to play against probably didn’t even know who we were or where we were based. When I speak to some people back in Wales they still don’t know. But it’s changing. Playing against Sarries was a huge moment.”
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