RUGBY ROUND-UP: The RFU’s league reorganisation has taken a heavy toll on clubs in and around Croydon these past few months. JOHNNY DOBBYN, right, provides the end-of-season report, and discovers some worrying developments down Croham Manor Road
Walcountians ended the 2022-2023 season as the area’s top club, with Warlingham knocked off that perch for the first time in almost 20 years, suffering possibly their worst season in this, the club’s centenary year.
Walcountians finished in seventh place in the RFU-coined mouthful that is Counties 1 Surrey/Sussex. The new league was a result of (yet another) reorganisation by officials at Twickenham designed to reduce clubs’ travelling to help stem the haemorrhaging of players (down by at least 40per cent since 2019) from the game.
For some clubs, the reorganisation reduced travelling entirely: two of the clubs that started the season with Walcs, Warlingham and Trinity in Counties 1 Surrey/Sussex stopped turning up for their matches altogether before Christmas and dropped out of the league.
Being the highest-placed club on the patch, and in a safe position in the seventh tier of English rugby, might satisfy most, but not ‘Counts, according to Rob Murphy, the club’s league and press secretary: “It was a disappointing season for Old Walcountians as it was our first losing season for eight years.
“However, we faced challenges which would have overwhelmed lesser clubs: the reorganisation meant we found ourselves in a league with four teams who had played at a higher level the previous season, we had a horrendous injury list with nine first-choice players missing at one point, and the covid lockdown and the cost of living crisis resulting in several players leaving the game.”
One outstanding newcomer was wing Omarie Brown, who scored 10 tries over the season. In the forwards, the most effective performers were Tom Brown and Joe Lawrence. Another promising newcomer is full-back Hal Mogridge.
If Counts are disappointed with seventh, Trinity (formerly Mid-Whitgiftians) and Warlingham, respectively eighth and 10th, must be in despair.
Trinity’s season started brightly enough with early wins against Walcountians and Warlingham, but deteriorated rapidly with a hammering from Hove and a heavy defeat by Weybridge. In the run-up to Christmas, they found another win and the defeats were relatively narrow, which should have augured well for the New Year.
Unfortunately not. Apart from one more victory against a Warlingham side in free fall, the rest of the year was a litany of losses, including another shellacking at the hands of Weybridge and one from eventual division winners Chobham.
Despite the Counties 1 Surrey/Sussex division “losing” two clubs along the way, the RFU has decided that Warlingham – just 12 months on from their winning the division but being denied promotion, the catalyst for their troubles – are still to be relegated to Counties 2 Surrey.
It might be the kindest thing to do. Warlingham had a miserable time on the pitch this season, conceding an average of 45 points per game. The “Mighty Warl” (as they like to call themselves) only managed one win in 16 games and were unable to field a side at all in two. Some relief was afforded after Christmas, with much closer games and that precious, solitary win against a similarly beleaguered Old Cranleighans, who conceded four walkovers and were docked 20 league points, yet somehow survived the drop.
Despite this annus horribilis, the early signs are that Warlingham are regrouping and looking forward to a season with eight local derbies: home and away games due with Chipstead, Purley John Fisher, Old Whitgiftians and Caterhamians.
While PJF’s fourth place in Counties 2 Surrey (what used to be known as Surrey 1… nothing is simple with the league reorganisation) seems respectable enough, for them it was a year of fine margins and missed opportunities, the team equalling the highest number of losing bonus points in the league. Five of their seven defeats were by less than five points.
Of those losses, the two most disappointing according to club chair Niel Kenny, “were the away game against Old Whits and the home game against Chipstead. The former because the game was lost through two defensive errors in a game that PJF dominated, particularly in the last 20 minutes. The latter game against Chipstead was lost with the last play of the game when Chipstead scored to snatch the game 17-18.”
In a season that saw the 1st XV utilise 51 players, Purley John Fisher’s biggest regret is that their 2nd XV did not get more game time owing to an unprecedented number of cry-offs from oppositions unable to raise sides (are you reading this RFU?) and the poor weather around Christmas.
One remarkable highlight of the season for PJF’s feeder school John Fisher – the only state school that has an annual fixture against Eton – was the possibly unique occurrence of a school fielding former pupils on opposite sides in a Six Nations game.
Alex Dombrandt’s performances for England have been much critiqued of late (in brief: great stats, looked lost occasionally, could be fitter); far more so than that of Ireland’s lesser-sung Kieran Treadwell.
Ulster lock Treadwell won some early caps under head coach Joe Schmidt but seemingly fell from favour as the South African neared the end of his Ireland tenure. The arrival of Andy Farrell in February 2020 did Treadwell no favours that year, yet he has been rejuvenated of late, winning a further six caps since October 2021, including two as a replacement in Ireland’s famous wins against the All Blacks in New Zealand last July.
For those who may have missed it, the John Fisher v John Fisher encounter in Dublin on March 18 was won 28-6 by John Fisher.
Although only one league place behind PJF, a Won 12 Lost 10 season’s match record reveals Old Whitgiftians as being some distance off the top-four clubs.
Turmoil and uncertainty at Croham Manor Road
Although fifth from 12 would be a decent outcome in most years, off-field distractions probably impacted on what might have been a more positive season for Old Whitgiftians.
The problems pre-date the covid pandemic when Whitgift School decided to “reset” its relationship with the Whitgiftian Association, the umbrella old boys’ organisation, usurping its role in alumni relations and as a result reducing the association’s revenue.
The £22,000 per year independent school scrapped a scheme which automatically enrolled parents into the Whitgiftian Association. Previously, the membership subscription was included in the termly fees bill, but the school changed the WA contribution from an “opt out”, which hardly anyone bothered with, to an “opt in”, which hardly anyone bothered with.
This, plus the school insisting that it would seek to directly manage relations with former pupils, has led to a process of “managed dissolution” of the association.
This has implications for the future of the sports ground on Croham Manor Road, which are yet to be resolved, and on the income of the Whitgiftian Sports Club – the “landlord” for all OW clubs using the grounds, including cricket and rugby.
With the WA winding down and funding from the school drying up, the Sports Club and the rugby club fell out over rents and arrears.
This became so toxic that the rugby club was threatened with a “Notice of Exclusion” – effectively an eviction notice – until the bills were settled in February. With that row now behind them, Old Whits’ rugby players can perhaps look forward to a more settled 2023-2024 season and focus fully on the game once again.
Languishing in Counties 4 Surrey, close to the very bottom tier of English club rugby, is where we find Streatham and Croydon and Croydon RFC.
Streatham and Croydon, at their Frant Road ground in Thornton Heath, was once a local rugby powerhouse but has been in decline for many years.
It has been said that Streatham’s problems stem from changes to working practices and the make-up of personnel in the NHS, resulting in a lack of doctors and other staff from Mayday to swell its ranks.
On the upside, Streatham and Croydon has a thriving female, junior and mini section that, if the club holds good for long enough, may provide it with the playing resource to see its glory days return.
The success of its women’s teams is important as it is only the growth in female game in England that is masking the rapid decline in youth and adult male participation.
Croydon RFC, formed in 2003 from a merger of Old Croydonians and Shirley Wanderers, has the dubious honour of lying in penultimate place in the league, one above the woeful Suttonians who failed to turn up for eight of their 16 fixtures.
Like Counts, Trinity and Warlingham, Croydon has grounds to rue the latest league reorganisation. Having won (the old) Surrey 4 in the 2019-2020 season, they survived promotion to Surrey 3, finishing eighth, only to find themselves dropped back down a tier after all their hard work. Worse perhaps for Streatham & Croydon who won Surrey 4 and ordinarily would have expected promotion, only also to have been knocked back this season.
The RFU underestimates the impact on morale and energy-sapping damage caused by such administrative relegations, as seen in both clubs’ recent results. Not that they care.
Read more: Warlingham go from top to bottom at the flick of a blazer’s pen
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