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21/01/1982 - 14/02/2003
Nick Duncombe was born on 21st January 1982. He was educated at RGS Wycombe and in 1998 was spotted by then Saracens coach Mark Evans. Speaking in the Independent, Mark Evans said "That day in the autumn of 1998 still stands out clearly in my mind. RGS High Wycombe were playing Abingdon in a pretty undistinguished game. But there was no doubt that the Wycombe scrum-half was a bit special. Wiry, quick, powerful, with a beautiful pass; he was the best young No 9 I had seen in years."
Nick won honours for England at under 16 and under 18 and had received a number of very good write ups for his style of play. However Nick's rugby career was in doubt soon afterwards. He was selected for England under 18s against Wales but early in the match he was tackled and it was clear that he had suffered a serious injury. Nick was taken to Chester General suffering from a shattered vertebra and there was concern that he would never walk again let alone play. It looked like his career was over before it had started but he was given the same operation that Jason Leonard had early in his career and thanks to the skill of the surgeons and Nick's courage and willpower he started to recover.
Nick was given the all clear in September 2000 and after a long rehabilitation was thrown into the deep end on his comeback match when he played for the England Under 19 side against France in the FIRA World Championships in Santiago. After nearly three years out it showed the measure of the young man and the esteem in which he was held that he returned in such a tough match.
Mark Evans was now at Harlequins and had kept in touch. He offered Nick a contract at Quins at the beginning of the 2001 season but kept him with the under 21 side at first. I expect most of us hadn't even heard of Nick Duncombe at the start of the 2001/02 season. In the programme for the first game of the season, against London Irish, he had a picture and brief details, date and place of birth (21 Jan 1982 in Taplow) height (5' 8") weight (74kg) and honours, in the player profiles and he was mentioned by Mark Evans in his piece "don't be surprised if the likes of Chris Bell and Nick Duncombe, both under 19, are challenging for first XV places throughout the season".
Nick also played for the reserves (2ndXV), he was mentioned in the programme after the 24-28 defeat away to London Irish as having given a good performance. He then played against Bristol, Leicester, Cambridge University and Oxford University and he put in a very fine performance against the Army at Aldershot on 28 November.
Keith Jenner writes – "This was the first reserves game that my wife and I attended and was a 43-8 win for Quins. The thing that sticks our mind about that game was the little scrum-half who seemed to be everywhere. When we got home after the game we found out who he was and made a mental note that he was a player to follow. Once again, little did we know how soon things would happen for him."
He made his Quins 1st XV debut in the Heineken Cup match on 5th January 2002 away to Munster. In a game that Munster ended up running away with (51-17) Nick played well and he scored a fine scrum-half's try just before half time when he ran from behind the pack and dived under the defence and over the line. (NB This try was attributed in some match reports to Tony Diprose).
The following week, against Bridgend, Nick was on the bench at the Stoop for the first time. He replaced Scott Bemand after 56 minutes and the home crowd had their first chance to see him in action for the first team.
So to the 19th of January 2002, and Nick's second start for Quins against Leicester in the Powergen Cup semi-final. We all know the result of this game, but I think that Nick Duncombe's contribution has never been fully recognised. You are never going to beat a team like Leicester is your scrum-half isn't up to the job, and it is a testament to Nick's reputation at this time that he managed to outclass Jamie Hamilton for much of the game.
The official Quins report said that he had "an impressive game throughout". He was on the cover of the programme the following week for the game against Northampton, and was also featured on the injury news page in that programme. This is where most of us found out about his previous injury and were informed that "A bone graft from his pelvis stabilised the fracture site. The spinal cord had only been bruised so when the swelling settled normal function was restored"
It was on the back of this performance that Clive Woodward called Nick up into the England A squad. We all expected him to perform well in the match and to slowly rise through the ranks and end up in the full squad perhaps the following season but it was all to happen so much faster.
Before we come to his first England cap Nick was once again in the starting line up against Northampton at the Stoop. It was a disappointing game all round, played on a pitch which resembled a bog following heavy rain, but the day was lit up by a fine break from the base of the scrum from Nick, who passed out to Chris Bell to score. It was a superb moment in an otherwise bad game for Quins.
Matt Dawson (who had gone to the same school as Nick a decade earlier) was injured and was removed from the England starting line up, this meant Kyran Bracken would start against Scotland at Murrayfield, leaving space on the bench which was filled by Duncombe. By this stage he had only played something like 270 minutes of first team rugby and had had just three starts. Bracken was injured in the first half but continued until half time when he was replaced by Nick.
In such situations you would usually fear for a player, but you just knew that Nick would get through it with credit, and that is exactly what he did. His brief foray with International first team rugby did create quite a stir with the press, who were keen to find out more about this new up and coming star. The stories about his old injury resurfaced again, but the praise was universal. There were features on Sky's Rugby Club, where Nick explained how he had to introduce himself to members of the England squad who hadn't met him yet. Rugby World magazine featured him and included comments from Richard Hill, who sung his praises. We were told that he wasn't afraid to organise the defence and pull players like Keith Wood and Garrick Morgan into line. Bossiness was now a feature of his game. The article also included comments from Jonny Wilkinson who said that he was astonished by his mental strength. "It took some doing to come out at Murrayfield at half-time and go straight into a Six Nations game for your debut. He had to cope with some very difficult conditions out there but he just got on with it and dealt with the pressure very impressively"
A few of us were lucky to have tickets for this Calcutta Cup game and a couple of us even managed to get close to the victorious England team after the final whistle, Jase was congratulating Nick and we started cheering for him. Nick didn't hear us but Jase did and pointed us out to him and said "that's for you", Nick looked very pleased and very proud, and justifiably so because he had had a great first game for England.
After England's win (3-29) at Murrayfield Nick came off the bench near the end of the victory (45-11) against Ireland and he was on the bench again for the France game.
By this time, Nick was a fixture in the Quins team and was in the starting line up for the next 5 games. Whilst it could be argued that his form wasn't quite up to the standard he set with his first games, he was still showing that he was a scrum half of rare promise, and individual moments of brilliance still shone through.
Nick sat out much of the end of the season, but came on as a replacement against Sale in the final match. He was soon back in action for England as preparation started for the Commonwealth Games Rugby 7s where he again showed himself to be a star of the future.
A bruised foot kept him on the sidelines for the start of the current season, and he made his first appearance for the Reserves against the Army at Aldershot on the 25th of September (he had been on the bench against London Irish the previous weekend). Another scintillating performance showed that he was back to his best, and he carried this form with him when he came on as a replacement for the first team two days later against Sale.
A try followed a week later against Newcastle, and two in the rout away to Caerphilly. His performance was one of the highlights of the disappointing return leg and he was CAW man of the match against Bath at the start of November.
By all accounts Nick was one of Quins' best players in the away game against Saracens the following weekend, and a week later against Wasps the match was billed by some as a clash between Duncombe and Rob Howley, but Nick was forced to leave the match after only 4 minutes due to a hamstring injury.
When he returned from that injury, it took a couple of matches to get back to the form which he was at before his enforced break, but he was approaching this level when he was again sidelined with a hamstring injury and wasn't seen playing again after the game against Bristol on the 4th of January.
Nick was a very talented young man. None of us will forget his performances against Leicester in the Powergen Cup Quarter Final last season or his man of the match performance against Bath this season. After that match Mark Evans enthused about Nick. "He has time on the ball, a lovely pass and is a great running player... He's a class act and very strong for his size."
Nick suffered a few injuries this season but scored four tries in his nine appearances. He was a lovely young man who always had time for a chat. Injury in the past few weeks precluded a call up to the international squad for the Six Nations. He would almost certainly have been on the bench for the match against France.
Nick Duncombe passed away on Friday 14th February while in Lanzarote after a short illness. He leaves his parents, Steve and Helen, his brother Simon and sister Lucy. He also leaves a number of friends and team mates and many, many supporters from the rugby community.
A huge number of tributes that have been paid to him in the media and also on this site.
Jason Leonard said: "Nick's been in my thoughts from the moment we heard the news. Even during the game I couldn't help thinking of him. All the players are choked. There's a sense of shock."
Clive Woodward said: "Our immediate sympathies and thoughts are with Nick and his family at this difficult time. Nick was one of our brightest and most talented players in the game. The two caps he gained with England last year, would have been, I believe, the beginning of a long international career, which had already started so well with some superb performances for the England under-19 and Sevens teams. Nick was hugely popular with the squad and at Harlequins and his attitude to the game was outstanding. I'm sure that all supporters and players will share the loss of one of rugby's brightest stars."
Dan Luger said: "I had a few tears through the national anthem. The minute's silence for Nick was hard. I played for Nick. I only spoke to Nick a few days ago, he was enjoying himself. He was such a strong guy, so tough. It has not hit home, really it hasn't. I've never felt like this on a rugby field before".
Most of us must have watched the England v France game, a few of us were lucky to be there, none of us can have failed to be deeply moved by the sight of Jase coming out alone to receive the salute from the crowd wearing a black armband (as were all the players) or by the minute's silence that was impeccably observed by the 75,000 spectators in Twickenham.
The spontaneous postings on this and the Official Harlequins site just go to show the depth of feeling not just from us at Quins but from people around the rugby community.
The postings from people who knew Nick all give the same view of the man, firstly he was a very good player at the beginning of what was likely to be a very long and illustrious international career, Nick had only celebrated his 21st birthday a little over three weeks ago.
The next thing that has been mentioned by so many people is what a nice and polite chap he was off the pitch, he was often seen signing autographs always had time to stop for a chat with fans and offer advice for youngsters wanting to emulate him.
To Nick's family all we can say is that our deepest condolences go to you and however much you are hurting at the moment you should be very proud indeed of him, he was very mature for his age, a great player and a nice lad – he is a tribute to you and to Harlequins.
Watching him play rugby gave us all a lot of pleasure – thanks for that Nicky, God bless.
Message from the Duncombe family:
We would like to let you know that we have visited the Stoop Memorial Ground this afternoon (19th February 2003) and would like to say a big thank you to all of you who have sent in floral tributes and messages of condolences to the club in memory of Nick.
We have been truly overwhelmed and touched by what we have seen and read.
We have yet to decide what type of memorial we are going to set up to remember Nick by. However, those of you who wish to send in donations, NEC Harlequins will be collecting money on our behalf and holding on to this until a decision has been reached.
Once again, our sincere thanks for your kind messages and donations.
Steve, Helen, Lucy and Simon Duncombe.