Rugby clubs everywhere are always full of characters – those larger than life people that bring special, sometimes unexplainable qualities both on and off the pitch.
At Firwood Waterloo amongst our characters, we have Cyr Nijke Tchakoute known to everyone as Cheeky. He is still a current player and former international player for Cameroon.
We are delighted that you agreed to be our third ‘In conversation with . . . ‘ guest and chat to us about your life in rugby
That is very kind of you but there are plenty of big characters down there so I am very honoured and flattered to speak with you.
Not at all. So let’s find out about your life in rugby. You were born in Cameroon – how did you start to play rugby?
I started when the French expats brought rugby to the country. They used to gather on Saturdays and play social rugby to keep the French tradition going. It was seen as a high-class expat sport at the time. Initially, local lads were a bit scared to play as the game seemed quite violent. They saw people coming off the pitch with their shirts ripped and in Africa clothes are quite valuable. My friends used to say “I don’t fancy playing that sport!” We had few clothes and they didn’t want to risk damaging them to play rugby.
So despite the possible damage you still went and played. What age were you then?
I did decide to play when I was about 16 and I think I showed a bit of bravery, but I did not play seriously until I was around 18 in the Men’s team with full contact.
So when did you come to the UK?
I met my missus when she was working in Cameroon and we came to the UK in 1996. I played some social rugby with Liverpool Collegiate at Aigburth Road. After a few games they were very honest with and told me that I was too good for the standard of rugby that they played. They could see that I was a player with ambition so they referred me to Sale Sharks in Manchester. So I went there and met John Mitchell, the director of rugby. He asked me for my rugby CV – I explained that it was all in Cameroon and a tiny spell at Collegiate for the first and second team. With such limited experience they referred me to New Brighton and promised to keep an eye on me.
I went to New Brighton but it was really challenging as I was a French speaker, still learning English. It was hard for me as at that time New Brighton were really pushing for promotion, wanting to win everything. They had players like Lol Connor, Sean Gallagher and our own Kevin Brookman who was captain.
I felt a bit intimidated by the quality of those players and recognised that it would be hard for me at that club and I seriously thought about giving up playing. They were so committed that there was little time for learners. I did play a few games with the thirds and the seconds and had a good run, but the first team was out of reach. Then Liverpool St Helens approached me – we had a game against them and they knew that I lived in Liverpool so they asked me to join and play for them. I joined them 1997/98 and they gave me a really good welcome and opportunities, something I felt I missed out on at New Brighton. Straight away I went into the second team. They knew I was working on my English and they helped me with the language barriers checking that I always understood things. I came to recognise that with New Brighton’s focus on promotion they did not have that time to work with me, which is understandable.
I still remember my first game for LSH against Henley on Thames. We had never beaten them, but we went there and I had a cracker. After the game many people spoke me to me about where I had come from and where I had played. I discovered my confidence and really started to enjoy playing. I had a very happy three years there.
So why did you make the move to Waterloo?
Initially, when I was thinking about leaving New Brighton I thought about Waterloo. My wife and I drove out to find the ground but we got lost. The closest we came was to West Lancashire Golf Club! That is a true story on my kids’ lives. So I thought “You know what . . . sod it, let’s go home! There is more to life than rugby.” We played against Waterloo in a Lancashire cup game at LSH. We beat them and I had a good game and Malcolm Baucher and Ian Aitchison approached me to ask if I would join them as they were building a team at Waterloo.
Things were changing at LSH. They had strong links with Rugby League and had new players coming in from there and a different type of rugby started to be played. I was not really in the plans for that so when Waterloo came knocking at my door, I moved over in 2001, the year my daughter was born. The rest, as they say is history.
What is your favourite memory of playing for Waterloo?
If you don’t want to pick the big one, the best of the best to play at Twickenham in the Powergen Cup against Bristol, you always remember the first time you wear the jersey. It doesn’t matter whether it is the firsts, seconds or thirds, the first you pull on the jersey is “WOW!” The first time playing for Waterloo was at home. My registration was still coming through from the RFU so I could not play for the firsts. I played for the thirds at home to Preston and they were unbeaten in three years. I was a new player, new people, new environment, the captain Dave Raywood came over and shook my hand and said “These people are top of the league, it is going to be a good game. Believe me, you won’t get bored, just go and enjoy it.” Then I saw a minibus coming into the ground with their players. I wondered whether they were the first or second team. They were all wearing a shirt and jacket, so well dressed - I thought that they couldn’t be the third team. Normally players just wore track suits with kit stuffed into a plastic bag. They came for business and looked really professional. They even had a separate kit for the warm up. During our warm up I just kept an eye on them. They were so well-organised – the forwards and the backs. I said to my team mates “I think we are going to get smashed here”. Back in the changing room the captain told us just to give the best of ourselves.
So I went out onto the pitch, the first time in a Waterloo shirt, playing for the third team and I gave 200%. We had a cracker. Maybe they just needed someone crazy on the pitch. Every single Waterloo player gave their all for the green red and white jersey. The whole team was galvanised and we destroyed Preston - they did not see that coming. After the game they just locked themselves in the changing room, they eventually came out, had a few beers and then disappeared.
After that comes the Twickenham experience. I never thought starting from I started playing rugby that I would ever play at the home of rugby, one of the biggest stadiums in the rugby world against a (semi)professional team, Bristol. I would love to see Waterloo back there some day. I played seven times for my country but the experience of playing at Twickenham is engrained in my memory for ever.
So how did you come to the attention of the Cameroon selectors?
Although I left Cameroon I was still in touch with a few local players. As a sport, rugby was growing in popularity and I had links with the Cameroon Rugby Federation. Before being able to play in another country you need a letter from your home Federation to confirm your rugby credentials, such as you have not been banned for a period, or life – you have a clean record. In 2003 we built our first national team and we were allowed to compete for World Cup qualification in Australia. We were in a pool with Uganda, Madagascar and Zambia. My first international game was against Uganda and we won.
You are still playing, when you can smuggle your boots out of the house, when are you going to stop playing?
You know, rugby is a bad addiction. You don’t play rugby for money, you play rugby for the passion and the love of the sport. You have to play rugby to understand it. It is something so special. Even though your body may say to your brain “Do you know what, I can’t take this anymore”, your brain replies “Yes you can, you can still do it.” You will never meet a rugby player with all bad memories. There is always a positive. No matter how far you travel to play, you finish the game, get changed and then go into the bar. People talk to you, sometimes they buy you drinks. You have genuine conversations with them and make lasting friendships, whether you have played against them or they are spectators. I could be driving around, say Cornwall and there are people who in the past have said, “Just give me a call, you have a place to stay.”
Rugby is the worst addiction in the world. Worse than drugs, worse than alcohol, cigarettes. You see people who have played 80 minutes, they get beaten up, winded, get 10, 20 stitches and then two weeks later . . . they’re back on the pitch. With rugby it is all about camaraderie. Your team is not only your team, they are your third family. You have your first family, your mum and dad, your own family, your wife and children and your third family when you play rugby is them. When you go onto the pitch your life can depend on them. You look after them and they look after you. They give you confidence that nothing is impossible and after the game, win or lose, you celebrate. It is not easy to explain.
So, whilst my legs will continue to carry me, I will still play because I will know when I stop I will miss it. I will push it until I can’t walk. And whilst I am still playing, I want to pass on any knowledge I have to younger players.
One thing I have always noticed about you is that after the match you always go around the whole of the club chatting to people
People come from far away to watch us play at Crosby, from Penrith, the Lake district and they choose to spend their weekend with you. They make a sacrifice and we need to let them know how much we appreciate their support. It is an opportunity for people to find out about what it was like on the pitch, the decisions we took, were they right or wrong. We often feel the weight of responsibility on the pitch and we can then explain ourselves to the supporters after the match, such as why kicked for touch or a goal. The supporters – Boozers Bank in particular are part of me. The travelling support the team gets is fantastic. So no matter what team we play for, it is important to let the supporters know how much we appreciate them and the sacrifices they make.
There is always one question that keeps coming up from the supporters and that is “You are a lovely lad, it is nice to talk to you, but when you cross that white line, you are a different person, a demon. That is something that puzzles us”.
My response is often “Well, it is just a sport, but you don’t want to come second best. The real reason is . . . well, I’ve never said this before, but let’s go back to the first time I played for Waterloo against Preston. As I joined Waterloo I did some research about the club’s history. I went through all the pictures in the players’ bar and the Memorial to those who had worn the shirt and went to war giving their lives and didn’t come back. I just thought what a sacrifice. I thought I was such a lucky person to wear this shirt. Others wore it and went to fight for their country and never came back. When you know the history of the club, you go out onto that pitch knowing that the spirit of those people is there. There are even ashes of some who have died scattered on the pitch. I don’t want to go on the pitch and let people walk over me in front of the spirit of these past players. So that is my mission – give everything that you’ve got, don’t come second best.
Cheeky – thank you