Defining moments in sport, as in everyday life, are usually only witnessed by a small number of people. For a very few however, these moments are seen by millions and are reflected on for many years to come as the precise point in time when it was plain for all to see that the events at hand were going to run in their direction.
Such a moment was witnessed around the world last summer during the second rugby union test match between the British Isles/Lions and the World Champions South Africa. South Africa's 22 stone second row forward with ball in hand was charging towards the British line. In his path was Scott Gibbs a mere 13.5 stones. Gibbs unflinchingly stood his ground as the juggernaut advanced towards him. The resulting tackle saw the South African forward bounce backwards from the force of the impact before hitting the ground. On such moments are test matches won. The team and everyone sees that they can do it. Against all odds, the lions won both the match and the series. Fran Cotton was the Manager of that tour and a player in a previous, winning tour. This places him amongst the elite of British Rugby.
Fran Cotton was born near Wigan in 1947 the son of a mining official who played hooker for St Helens and Warrington Rugby League teams.
The young Cotton played Rugby league as befits a small boy growing up in that hotbed of Rugby. His move to Newton le Willows Grammer School introduced him to Rugby Union - the code with which he has since remained.
He left school at 18 and entered the mining industry as a trainee manager and at the same time joined Liverpool Rugby Football Club which in those days played to a first class fixture list. He developed his skills as a prop forward and by the time he decided to change careers and entered Loughborough College in 1970 to train as a teacher he had played one game for Lancashire in the county championship. It was an unusual event for a prop forward of this calibre to come to Loughborough home of the running three-quarters.
His first training session of the Rugby club had a lasting impression on him. He met two people who were to have a tremendous influence on his future life. Jim Greenwood of Scotland and British Lions fame was coach to the College Rugby Club - a world class rugby strategist, thinker and coach who impressed on Fran the concepts of what we know as modern rugby today. The other person was a small red headed extrovert scrum half, Steve Smith, who not only shared some of the great moments of Rugby over the next decade but is his successful business partner today.
The 1970's were heady days for student rugby especially if you were a member of the Loughborough 1st XV. Fran had started a course in Physical Education and Geography but geography lectures on Saturday mornings clashed with rugby so the dedicated Cotton transferred to PE with Maths to ensure his availability for away fixtures on Saturdays. He was awarded an England under 25 cap against Fiji in 1970 and subsequently played for Loughborough Colleges for the next 3 years as well as a regular with Lancashire who were one of the best county sides in the 1970's. Full international honours came in his second year when he won the first of his 31 cups for England. Though he absented himself from college duties on international match days his devotion and support to Loughborough rugby was seen when on one notable occasion Lancashire were playing in the country championship semi-final on the same day that Loughborough played St Lukes Exeter the highlight of the College rugby Calendar - Fran played for Loughborough. In fact, in a conversation we had in 1979, he emphasised that you should play for Loughborough throughout your career here and that those who did not not only missed out but they never got a full international cap. To date that still holds true.
Whilst still at Loughborough he toured SA with England and was a British Lion in South Africa in 1974. Tours to New Zealand with England followed in 1977 and the successful Lions tour in 1980.
In the meantime his career had changed direction leaving teaching to take up a post with the Distributive Industry Training Board where he was involved in developing and delivering staff training courses.
By the early 1980s he had moved again, joining Bukta Sportswear Co. and eventually becoming their National Sales Manager. Bukta floundered and French Connection bought them out retaining Fran and his long time rugby colleague and now business colleague Steve Smith. By 1987 after much deliberation and research they formed their own mail order sports clothing company Cotton Traders. They had been impressed by the fact that the biggest sales of Rugby shirts in the world was by an American co. in the USA - so if the Americans could sell rugby shirts so could they. Today Cotton Traders has a turnover of £25 million. In 1994 Next took a 30% share in the company and the future looks even more promising.
In 1997 he was appointed Tour Manager of the British Lions Touring Party to South Africa. With his coach Ian McGechin and the rest of the tour staff he developed a 12 month business plan to hopefully ensure a successful outcome to the tour, in particular the 3 tests. The selection of the party as usual raised eyebrows amongst the Rugby establishment. But at the time Fran and Ian stated they had picked a party to do the job. Individual players were picked with particular skills or experiences in mind and the selection of 4 ex-rugby league three-quarters was a definite part of their strategy. For those who watch rugby the outcome of that tour and the three tests against the world champions will long be remembered.
In recent months Fran with his typical Northern approach backed by his Rugby and business acumen has looked at, been involved with, and also stated firmly his thoughts on the future of England Rugby. In order to win at the highest levels, and the World Cup has to be seen as the highest level, the successful teams from NZ/Australia and South Africa have a representative structure above the individual clubs and a limited number of matches per year. In England, we have a group of professional Clubs in leagues and an England team. Fran feels that this is not the way forwards and says so. We will see.
Fran is ably supported by his wife Pat - and his two daughters and in his leisure time, such that it is, he plays golf and enjoys hill walking.
To be successful in one thing in life is rewarding, to play for your country in your chosen sport is the pinnacle to which many aspire but few are chosen. To develop a commercially successful business is beyond most people and to manage a British Lions tour that beats the world champions in almost the stuff of dreams. Fran Cotton has achieved all these things.
Chancellor I present to you Fran Cotton. International Rugby player, successful businessman and successful sports administrator, graduate of the University for the degree of Doctor of Technology, honoris causa.
, July 1998.
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