STEVEN DOWNES with a review of how the local rugby clubs, and players, have done over the course of the season, with some becoming unlikely stars of the small screen
Warlingham RFC could feature on Sky Sports this evening, the second time in a fortnight. That means that the area’s biggest and most successful rugby club will have been on the telly more often recently than Saracens or Toulon. Though not as much as Nigel Farage.
In fairness, the first visit, shown on Sky’s The Rugby Club last week, was bought and paid for by one of the game’s sponsors, QBE, as they featured some development work and showed the England captain, Chris Robshaw.
Robshaw was returning to the club where he learned the game as a mini and junior.
He was accompanied by his coach from Harlequins, Conor O’Shea, and another graduate of Hamsey Green who has made it all the way to England honours, Kay Wilson, the World Cup-winning wing.
You can see a video of Robshaw and Wilson’s homecoming here.
Tonight’s programme, if all goes to schedule, may be a little less stellar.
Sky’s cameras returned to the club last Saturday for Warlingham’s 4th XV’s final game of the season. The fixture pitched Warlingham (Played 15, Lost 11), the bottom-of-the-table side in Surrey Combination 3rd division (almost as low as you can go in the county league tables) against the league leaders, Bec Old Boys’ 3rds (Played 17, Won 15).
Understandably, home hopes were not high. In Warlingham 4s’ previous fixture, they had been whupped 60-0. And they were lucky to get the nil.
The Sky cameras had been up the club in midweek to record a couple of interviews all for a piece on grassroots rugby, centred around just three players, the Warlingham front row, combined age somewhere north of 150 years.
These are players who don’t put their gumshields in as the game begins; they take their dentures out.
Of these gnarled “powerhouses” who inhabit the inner-most areas of the scrum, only prop John Waghorn is under 40. Playing alongside him was club living legend Ron Head, who is rumoured to have been around when William Webb Ellis first picked up the ball and ran with it.
Despite having pondered retirement from his playing career some time in the last decade, Head still runs the line, fixes the clubhouse boiler, and turns out for the 4s whenever he is called upon, even now that he and his wife, Avril, are both MBEs, awarded last year for their efforts in providing a caring and stable foster home for more than 130 local children.
The third amigo in Warlingham’s creaking front row is Steven Gauge. Five years before, happy hooker Gauge was captaining the team in between managing the election campaign for Nick Clegg. Yes, the “I agree with Nick” Nick Clegg.
Last Saturday, as the Sky TV report should reflect, Gauge was enjoying some early success once again, as Warlingham 4s were unlikely half-time leaders, thanks to a couple of breakaway tries by a pair of their whippet-like teenaged backs. But that’s the nature of grassroots rugby, bringing together an unlikely wide range of ages, abilities, fitness and physique.
Come the second-half, and Bec raised their game. Or lowered it, if you believed some of the grumbles from the touchlines about late tackles. The table-toppers got ahead and hung on for a 30-26 victory. But it was a close-run thing. And then it was off to the bar.
Warlingham are rightly proud of being a broad-based community sports club, having the top-performing first XV side in the Croydon area, nearly 500 youngsters, aged from six to 18, at mini and junior training on Sunday mornings, and fielding three other senior and one vets’ side most weekends.
By finishing fourth in London 2SE, off the back of seven wins in their final nine games, including 37-23 at Old Reigatians last Saturday, the Hamsey Green club enjoyed its best season for a decade. Their 2nd XV finished a respectable sixth in the Surrey Conference 2, and the club continues to reach out into the local and sporting community, with netball, cricket, lacrosse and now a rugby league club now based at their grounds off the Limpsfield Road.
It’s fair to say that the area’s other sides did not enjoy such an encouraging season. One division below Warlingham, in London 3SE, Old Mid-Whitgiftians, based at Lime Meadow Avenue, and Purley John Fisher, both saw their early-term challenges peter out. MidWives finished the season fourth in the table, having threatened something even better in January, when they registered a couple of 50-point winning scores. But disappointing away defeats in the last two months weighed them down.
PJF, too, struggled for consistency in the season’s run-in, and were blanked – failed to score a single point – in three key matches in the last few weeks against the division’s top three sides, including a 50-0 reverse against Eastleigh on Saturday in their season’s final game at Parsons Pightle. They finished the season a comfortable mid-table seventh.
Injuries and players’ other commitments made it difficult for them to field a settled side.
“Phil Jones our impactful flanker has a continuing shoulder injury, talisman three-quarter Dan Leidecker has ongoing hamstring issues and winger Nick Owen has knee problems. Other players also bear the scars of a heavy season,” said Martin Bruck, the club’s spokesman. “Strength in depth is an area we are looking to improve on for next season.”
MidWives claimed the local bragging rights, at least until next season, after winning their two clashes with PJF, 30-21 at the Pightle in September and 34-17 in the reverse fixture just before Christmas.
Old Whitgiftians, based at Croham Manor Road, possibly had the best season of the local clubs, finishing third in Surrey 1, though it finished off disappointingly with a 55-26 defeat at Old Cranleighians. Whits were in any case a long way off the promotion places. If anything, the 18-10 defeat to struggling Chipstead a fortnight earlier was even more disappointing. Chipstead staved off relegation fears with three wins in their final four games.
It was in Surrey 2 that the hardest season imaginable was faced by West Wickham-based Croydon, who went the whole league season without winning a single game. Old Walcountians, by contrast, enjoyed terrific success: they won six of their 18 matches to finish eighth of the 10 clubs, and avoid relegation.
Streatham-Croydon, in Surrey 3 after being relegated last season, rallied in the later part of the season to finish up seventh – and at least ahead of Mitcham – to live to fight another season. But it seems a way off before Frant Road will again be witnessing the area’s best rugby.
Elliot Daley has been named as the Premiership’s Player of the Month for March, recognition which could see the 22-year-old Wasps centre win a place in England’s training squad ahead of the World Cup this autumn.
“If England are going to go out and win the Rugby World Cup, he’s the type of player you’ve got to have in the team,” said Dai Young, Daly’s club director of rugby.
Any promotion to the full England squad would see Daly re-united with Marland Yarde, now a team mate of Robshaw’s at Harlequins.
As schoolboys, Elliot and Yarde both played in the Whitgift School team which twice won Daily Mail Cup finals at Twickenham. Might they run-out in the same shirts at HQ again this autumn?
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