Former Bristol Rovers goalkeeper converts from football to rugby at Ilfracombe
IT WAS on FA Cup first-round weekend three seasons ago that goalkeeper Rob Holmes was called into the Bristol Rovers squad for the first time.
At a cold and wet Memorial Stadium in Bristol, nearly 7,000 spectators waited eagerly for the all League One clash between Rovers and Southampton.
Memories were still fresh from two seasons earlier when, on the same ground, Rovers had beaten Saints 1-0 to reach the quarter-finals.
It was a Friday evening and, as the teams warmed up, Holmes could be forgiven for dreaming big.
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There he was, at just 18, sharing a stage with a bulging contingent of Premier League players in the making.
But while Rickie Lambert, Kelvin Davis, Morgan Schneiderlin and Adam Lallana would move rapidly onwards and upwards with Southampton, into the top tier of English football, Holmes slid just as rapidly down and out.
Right down as far as Ilfracombe Town reserves, then out of football altogether within three years.
But he would probably still be playing had men carrying oval balls not come knocking.
Now 21, Holmes has switched from football to rugby union and, four months into his new adventure, he is earning rave reviews from insiders at Ilfracombe Rugby Club.
Still the last line of defence – he has exchanged goalkeeper's gloves for full-back duties – he has become a regular member of the Tribute Devon Two side.
"We think he will be a cracking player for us in the future," said Leo Cooper, the Ilfracombe forward and former captain.
Peter Wright, the coach, added: "He is making an excellent fist of it."
Wright even went as far as to say: "The sky's the limit for him. He's got the physique, the hands and the boot. All he needs is more experience and the confidence that comes with experience."
So while Lambert, Davis, Schneiderlin and Lallana were preparing for last night's trip to Manchester United, Holmes was high on a hill overlooking the sea in Ilfracombe, playing a busy part in a 38-3 home win over Buckfastleigh Ramblers.
Before walking out to contribute 13 points – four conversions and a try – Holmes recalled that night at the Memorial Stadium, which turned out to be his only first-team squad appearance.
Regular goalkeeper Mikkel Andersen, on loan from Reading, had not received permission to play.
Rhys Evans was promoted to the starting XI, freeing a place on the bench for the former Ilfracombe College student.
"I wanted to get on but it was a good experience just to be involved," said Holmes, who had a close-up view of Southampton's 3-2 victory.
He had joined Rovers from Kidderminster Harriers only three weeks earlier. "But I didn't get a look-in again," he said.
Playing mainly for Rovers youth and occasionally for the reserves, Holmes trained regularly with the first team but, having been signed in October 2009, he was released eight months later.
"I got a few offers from Conference sides but I said no and moved back down here," he said. "I think I was so down at not getting a contract that I just decided to come back to Ilfracombe.
"I have lived in Ilfracombe all my life and I missed home, so I came back, played football, and worked.
"I got a job in a restaurant down on the seafront and I always doubted my decision in the first year, thinking, 'Why am I doing this, could I have made it in football?'
"But I gave it my all in that year at Rovers and obviously I wasn't good enough, or progressing enough, to carry on.
"When I came back I tried Bideford but couldn't get in there, so I played for Ilfracombe reserves in the North Devon League."
Although he made a handful of first-team appearances in 2010-11, by the following season Holmes was a regular in the reserves.
That was last season and he even began this season there, playing the first six games.
But then Jay O'Beirne, the rugby club captain, suggested Holmes give rugby a go.
"Jay runs a pub in town called Buddy's and I have known him for a while because I have played pool and skittles with him," said Holmes.
"I was just chatting to him about how I wasn't enjoying my football and he said, 'Come along to training'.
"I went training on the Wednesday and, as we didn't have a football match that weekend, I played in a rugby squad game on the Saturday.
"I played in the first team the week after and I have been there ever since."
So when Buckfastleigh visited, Holmes was there again.
The visitors scored first from a penalty kick and Holmes made a shaky start, missing a straightforward chance to level the scores from 25 yards.
Soon, though, blind-side flanker Tim Bird put points on the board for Ilfracombe, shrugging off three Buckfastleigh players to go over, and Holmes converted.
Then, on 15 minutes, Holmes finished off a well-worked move to score a try, although he fell short with a difficult conversion attempt.
Another Ilfracombe try, this time when outside centre Jake Thompson burst through Buckfastleigh's defence, presented Holmes with a conversion in front of the posts.Now the home side led 19-3.
Ilfracombe added one more converted try before half time, No 8 Cooper securing the five points out of strong Ilfracombe scrummaging. Holmes converted via the inside of a post.
As the home pack drove over from a scrum, Cooper scored his second try, but Holmes missed the conversion attempt.
However, the converted was soon converting again, succeeding with his last conversion effort after prop John Spain had powered over.
Ilfracombe's superiority was never in question. "That was our best performance for a long time," said Wright.
Furthermore, it was achieved without O'Beirne, who was recovering from bronchitis, and injured props Matt Stocker and Kieran Laffey.
"We had a few playing out of position and they all did a great job," said Wright. "John Spain was the cornerstone of the forwards. He made the platform and everybody played off that."
Spain is more than twice Holmes's age and 1,000 times more experienced. But, at 43, this was his first match at this level for five years, having come out of retirement to answer an emergency call.
"They needed a prop forward and you can't let your old club down," said Spain, who retired because "I was getting slower and it was time for young people to come in".
His contribution was not one of a man shaking off rust.
"He scrummaged well and got his reward with a try at the end," said Cooper. "I don't think we are going to let him retire again."
At least not before Stocker and Laffey are ready to return which, according to Wright, will not be before the end of the season.
Neither will Holmes be allowed to escape back to where he came from.
He seems to relish the physical side of rugby and, as well as his 13 points, he was keen in the tackle, if naively late on one occasion. Neither was he afraid to run with the ball.
However, his rawness showed in his failing to release the ball before being brought to a halt and he is still not fully familiar with the rules.
"This is my first year and I will just keep training, learning and progressing," said Holmes. "If a bigger club asks me to come, we'll see, but if not I am happy to play with Ilfracombe."
And his potential is? "Certainly well above this," said Wright.
"I shouldn't say that because it would be lovely to keep him. We would love to say that, in five years' time, Rob will still be here and that he will be one hell of a player for us."