This week beginning Monday 17 May 2021, whilst Britain celebrates a return to indoor drinking and France celebrates the return of outdoor drinking and dining, those of us in the rugby universe that Jim Rowark inhabited will be mourning his departure and at the same time celebrating his life and the enormous impact he had on many other people’s lives - as a teacher, parent, husband, mate and, yes, a fantastic rugby man.
When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1983, Jim was already an elder statesman of the sport and of the Hong Kong Football Club being Chairman of the rugby section. He had just hung up his playing boots and was the head coach of the rugby section in a season where the four teams swept all before them winning almost every cup and every match. Not to mention the post match singing led by captain Nigel Pearson (NP) and coach Jim who had forged a dream ticket between them. As a teacher, Jim knew how to instil some discipline into our twice weekly training sessions and I for one don’t think I have ever been fitter. The Hong Kong Football Club Rugby Section have published an excellent obituary to Jim, so I won’t dwell too heavily on his rugby career in Hong Kong apart from touching on a couple of areas that will always stay with me. The South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Rugby Union have also published articles paying tribute to Jim’s exceptional rugby career and achievements.
For those of us who know the walk of fame down the tunnel from the HKFC entrance to the Sportsman’s Bar, it is well nigh impossible to avoid Jim’s cheeky grin looking out at us as we head to the bar these days rather than the changing room. I think Ian Petersen has calculated that Jim appears as player or coach in no less than six photographs of winning fifteen, ten and seven a side rugby teams and two honour boards on the walk of fame. At least as many as anyone else from any sport at the Club and in itself quite an achievement over a thirty year period in Hong Kong. Jim was as comfortable in the Sportsman’s Bar as he was on the rugby pitch and there will always be a place for him in this hallowed institution.
The glorious 80’s were the start of Jim’s stellar coaching career, as well as seeing him pass his 40th in 1987 with a party organised by NP. The only instructions: bring 40 of something. Eric Blondeau, who had introduced himself to Hong Kong at the Captain’s Dinner with a glorious rendition of the Marseillaise, toasting la France and eating, yes eating, the glass inevitably turned up with 40 frogs. Of the eating kind that is. In the same year, Jim helped NP with some coaching advice ahead of the Asian Barbarians taking on the All Blacks in Japan under the captaincy of NP. All was going to plan after the first 5 minutes when the Asian BaaBaas raced into a 3-0 lead. Final score: All Blacks 94 - Asian Barbarians 3. Enough said.
Jim’s coaching career in HK has been well documented as has his remarkable input into the wellbeing and advancement of the game of rugby in Hong Kong. So much so that I imagine Jim is unique in having done a ‘Denis Law’ in Hong Kong. Whilst Denis moved across Manchester from Man Utd to Man City, Jim crossed HK harbour and for two years coached HKFC’s eternal rivals Kowloon RFC! Who does that without being barred from every rugby bar in the city? Well Jim did and what’s more, after his two years in rugby exile in Kowloon, common sense prevailed and he returned to coach HKFC once again.
As coach of both the HK fifteens and sevens sides over many years Jim took Hong Kong to new heights on the global rugby stage before the sport turned professional. To lead a small rugby nation like HK to dine at the head table of the sport is no doubt one of his finest rugby achievements. Who will forget the sight of Jim racing down the touchline at the Sevens to berate the touch judge for disallowing a crucial last minute score in a knock out match. All passion and perfection. However for me, when Jim wasn’t coaching the HK squad at the Sevens he was and no doubt still is a great man to watch rugby with. During the Sevens we would often seek each other out and watch a few hours of rugby before the Carlsberg prevailed. His knowledge of the game combined with his dry Yorkshire wit made for better commentary than you could ever imagine. If this wasn’t funny enough it was even more entertaining listening to Jim having a similar conversation with his big mate and fellow Yorkshireman Small Morgs who between them made it sound like they could play the noble game with their eyes shut and one arm tied behind their backs. Legendary.
Jim and Hilary have long had a connection with France and still do. Jim had planned on spending as much time as possible in France during the 2007 World Cup and taking in as many matches as he could. So we met up in Nantes for the England v Tonga match - a must win for England after their 29-0 shellacking in their opening game against the Springboks, when frankly England were lucky to get 0. Jim was staying at an Ibis hotel (and I think I was as well) but for those of you who are familiar with France and French cities you will know that there are many Ibises in most cities. And so it was that on the eve of the match Jim and I found ourselves drowning in a large quantity of French wine until at some point we thought we should call it a day in preparation for the big match. The problem was that Jim couldn’t remember which particular Ibis hotel he was staying in and fourteen years ago all our mobile phones did was make phone calls. And so a lengthy and expensive call home to HK enabled Hilary to access Google Maps and talk Jim through the deserted streets of Nantes. He has probably never been so quiet in his life as Hilary eventually managed to get Jim back to the right Ibis Hotel and to his bed by 3 a.m.
Yes, England made the final and Jim and I met up again on the morning of the match with the only possible option being a lengthy lunch in a seafood market in the heart of Paris with my son Jamie and James Barrington. I can still clearly recall that lunch to this day and always make a point of seeking out the same place every time I am in Paris.
Jim and Hilary eventually moved on to Bahrain for work reasons and it didn’t take long for Jim’s HK rugby reputation to find him and for Jim to have a similar impact on the rugby world in the Gulf. The Gulf News published a fitting tribute to Jim last week. He and I would continue to connect during my years in Dubai and at the Dubai Sevens and of course in the Sportsman’s Bar pretty much every year for the Tens and the Sevens. By this stage Jim was working on his golf game under the expert eye of Craig Wootton with an annual visit to Manila on the Craig Wootton Invitational Golf Tour. Probably the less said about this the better, although there is photographic evidence of Jim playing a Seve Ballesteros like rescue shot with his trousers down around his ankles. Craig will no doubt supply the fine details. It is sometimes remarkable how serious conversations can get with beer involved and NP and Jim agreed on one Wootton tour that they would give each other’s eulogies when the sad day(s) arrived. Now it doesn’t take many San Miguel beers to realise that this is an impossible agreement but no doubt one that both mates entered into with gusty resolve.
So it is that from Yorkshire to Truro to Hong Kong to Bahrain to a final resting place in Surrey there will always be a place at the bar for Jim and a corner table available where he can share his infinite wit and wisdom on rugby, life, wine, people and world affairs. Jim was always great company, a fine motivator driven by passion and perfection the lack of which he perhaps could not tolerate in others. For this reason, he made such a huge impact on many people’s lives, raised the bar wherever he went and ultimately left us far too early.
Jim’s funeral will be held in the UK next week, at 11:15 a.m. UK / 6:15 p.m. HK times, on Wednesday, 19 May 2021. Under UK government guidelines this will be restricted to a small number of attendees. However, those who wish to do so, can attend online as the service will be streamed live on the following link
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If anyone wishes to make an donation in Jim’s memory, his family are supporting the work of Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice and you can donate by visiting Jim’s online tribute page