TAUNTON RFC have made great strides on and off the field 2004 but, amidst all the change, the reliable performances of Jon Gatford at the head of the scrum have been the one constant factor.
After 13 years of loyal service, however, the hooker has decided the time is right to hang up his boots and played his last match for the club in last Saturday’s 33-32 victory over Redingensians Rams.
That result secured fourth spot in National 2 South, and Gatford admitted he was pleased to leave the club on a high note.
“It was nice to bow out with a win – we had a good win over them on the first day of the season but they have improved a lot since then, so we did well against an imposing side,” he said.
“Our goal at the start of the season was to finish in the top five and be the top South West club, so it was pleasing to achieve that.
“It was particularly satisfying to pip Redruth to the top four after they edged us out in similar circumstances last year.”
Taunton are now established in the fourth tier, which is in great contrast to where they were when Gatford joined the club.
Since his debut in Western Counties North, Gatford has been an integral part of the side which has worked its way through the divisions and embarked upon some memorable seasons along the way.
In 2008/09, for example, the club went unbeaten on their way to winning South West 2, and they followed that up with the National 3 South West league title the following season.
Despite those achievements, Gatford admitted that he has taken the most pleasure from the way they have consolidated at National 2 South level in recent years.
“It’s difficult to pick out individual games, but we have had some really successful years – particularly since Tony Yapp, Chris Brown and Keith Brooking came in,” he said.
“The four seasons we have had with them at the helm have been really special to play in, and they have made a massive difference to the club.”
Reflecting on the club’s rise, he said: “I feel I have contributed to that success over the years and have left the shirt in a better place than I found it, but the next challenge has to be to step up a level and get ourselves into National 1.
“To do that we probably need to freshen up the team a bit with players of a slightly higher calibre who can help us bridge that gap.
“We already have some top players here and I’ve been lucky to play alongside many over the years, but in order to go up a level we could do with reinforcements.”
Going up a level was something Gatford had the potential to do himself according to forwards coach Chris Brown, who said in his pre-Redingensians tribute to the hooker that he had the talent to play at Championship standard during the course of his career.
The local lad stayed loyal to his hometown club, however, though he admitted that he had been tempted by the opportunity to take on a fresh challenge at times.
“With hindsight, I probably could have played at a higher level at some point, but work commitments make it difficult and I may not have been good enough, who knows,” he said.
“Having said that, I have really enjoyed my time with Taunton and I wouldn’t change it.”
The hooker’s last match coincided with that of Alec Chase, who has stood side-by-side with Gatford in countless scrummages for the Titans across the country.
“I have been lucky to play with Alec,” Gatford said.
“He has given me an armchair ride over the years and has been a massive stalwart for the club during his various spells.”
Gatford now plans to have “a bit of a break” from the club as he continues his coaching role at Taunton School, and said of his decision to retire: “It is obviously difficult to give up something you love doing.
“After 13 years, though, I felt the time was right, and it will be nice to have the chance to spend weekends at home with my family.”