RUGBY ROUND-UP: Promotions for Old Walcountians and Croydon RFC, relegation for Streatham-Croydon and Chipstead, some big signings for Warlingham, and uncertainty for all, as the area’s clubs prepare for the new season
Professional rugby kicked off last night in an empty stadium after a five-month coronavirus-imposed pause.
But in the amateur game, after having had their 2019-2020 season abandoned after they played their last matched in March, players and officials at grassroots clubs across the country, including in Croydon, face starting afresh in a couple of weeks still not knowing what their confirmed fixture lists are or what format the game might take in the “new normal”.
“Ten-a-side, no scrums and no tackling?” one local rugby club alickadoo said this week. “It’s not for me.”
Croydon’s leading rugby union clubs, such as Warlingham and Old Whitgiftians, have been as hard hit as many local businesses by the covid-19 lockdown. Grassroots sports clubs depend on the income generated from bar sales, renting out their hall space and fund-raising events such as car boot sales. And there’s been precious little of any of that for six months.
Now, they face getting back to the “new normal” where even the most basic part of the usual Saturday’s socialising at the clubhouse – the pre-match lunch with be-blazered old chums – is unlikely to happen under the challenging demands of operating in a covid-safe environment.
At Warlingham’s Hamsey Green ground, efforts have been made to reopen the clubhouse bar, where last night’s Harlequins victory over Sale was being shown for members on their big screen. But other aspects of all clubs’ operations will take longer to reintroduce to anything resembling “normal”.
Not least because, as yet, no firm decision has been made by RFU officials over playing format, with the first matches of the 2020-2021 season pencilled-in for September 26 – in Warlingham’s case what would ordinarily be an inviting derby in London 3 South-West at newly promoted Old Walcountians in Woodmansterne.
The consequences for other local clubs saw Streatham-Croydon – once one of England’s leading clubs – consigned to playing in Surrey Div 4 at Frant Road this coming season, while Croydon finally dragged themselves out of the county’s bottom-most division to look forward to life in Surrey 3. And while Purley-John Fisher narrowly escaped relegation, Chipstead suffered the drop from Surrey 1.
For clubs, like Warlingham and now Old Walcs, playing in regional leagues, some attention has been paid to restricting the amount of travel the teams have to make to fulfil their fixtures, with “mini-conferences” being arranged for the earlier rounds of the season. Not until after Christmas will matches at rivals in Hampshire be considered possible.
There’s still some hope that when play gets underway again – almost a month later than the usual season start – they will be playing full contact rugby. In plans for that new season submitted to the government for approval last week by the Rugby Football Union, the word “flexible” appeared quite a lot.
Initially, though, for senior as well as junior rugby, the RFU wants clubs to play a 10-a-side version of touch rugby – the game normally used to introduce youngsters under the age of eight to the sport.
Until now, amateur rugby union has been limited to groups of six taking part in fitness drills. Ministers were expected to give the go-ahead to the RFU’s plan this week once it has been signed off by Public Health England.
The sports minister, Nigel Huddleston (Who he? Ed), has warned that playing without scrums may be necessary for the sport to return at community level.
As The Times reported, “The no-contact version will not be used for competitive matches but the RFU hopes that there will be friendlies between clubs, and that the change will encourage people to start using club facilities again in preparation for when the government allows contact rugby for players who are not being tested for coronavirus regularly.
“Schools that play rugby will also be expected to use the 10-a-side no-contact version of the game when they return in September.”
Warlingham, the leading club in the area, after their “assessed” fourth-placed finish in London 3SW last season, has been beefing up its squad to be prepared for any eventuality.
They’ve managed to recruit two players from National 1 club Old Elthamians as player-coaches.
The first, Lew Brown, is the club says, “Renowned as one of the best ‘ball-carrying’ props in National 1, Lew has represented Ealing Trailfinders in the Championship and more recently Rosslyn Park and Old Elthamians in National 1”.
The other is Ben King, the newly appointed head of rugby at Eltham College private school, who because of the responsibilities of his new job can no longer commit to playing National League-level rugby himself. “Ben lives local to Warlingham, so was happy to join and continue to develop his coaching skills,” the club says.
Warlingham have also announced the return of Bradley Saffery after a spell at Westcombe Park and Tom Webster after a season with Sutton and Epsom in National 2. Archie Warren and Freddie Little, sports scholars at Trinity School, will be playing their club rugby at Warlingham, while Kyrone Bennett and Rimarni and Matt Barnett are three products of the Hamsey Green academy who are graduating into the senior teams.
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