RUGBY ROUND-UP: While the England team’s preparations for the World Cup are in disarray following injuries, brainfade and piss-poor performances, the outlook locally is far brighter, with clubs using the off-season to re-group, re-build and, in some cases, lick some pretty deep wounds.
JOHNNY DOBBYN, left, reports.
With unsurprising unanimity, the feedback from local clubs prior to their games this weekend – the leagues proper kicking off on September 16 – is all good: good numbers at training; good morale regardless of problems caused by last year’s league rearrangements or poor results (or both); and good response to the new tackle height law.
Although how on Earth you’re supposed to defend the try-line “pick and go” under the new regulation is still anyone’s guess.
And, despite the haemorrhaging of players from the “community game”, Surrey rugby appears to be in relatively rude health, with its five leagues (including Counties 1 Surrey/ Sussex) theoretically able to field 51 senior sides.
As one club chair says though, “We’ll see about all that when the season starts”, referring to his own club’s preparations but also to last season seeing two clubs (Old Emanueland Old Georgians) fall out of their league altogether, unable to fulfil their fixtures, and two (Warlingham, Old Cranleighans) lucky to survive to the end.
And if positivity is the by-word for the season to come, then this first weekend is tinged with sorrow, as will be the third in October.
Purley John Fisher meet Old Caterhamians tomorrow to contest the Mark Crowe Cup. Crowe was a popular and committed PJF sponsor and the parent of Charlie, a First XV regular. Mark Crowe died suddenly in the evening after a league game in March 2022 and the cup match in his name doubles as fund-raising event for the British Heart Foundation. Charlie Crowe learnt his trade as a centre, supported by his dad, as a mini at Old Cats. Mark is missed by both clubs.
Another tragedy will be marked when Walcountians meet East Grinstead in Counties 1 Surrey/Sussex on October 21,, when Matt Ratana, the murdered Met Police sergeant, will be remembered with a fund-raising supporters’ lunch.
New Zealand-born Ratana, who was shot dead at Croydon’s Windmill Road custody facility in September 2020, played for Walcs and at the time of his death was head coach at East Grinstead.
The pre-game lunch at Walcs’ Woodmansterne ground will be used as a fundraiser for the Matt Ratana Foundation, which promotes rugby and its values to disadvantaged children in schools and in the community.
Walcountians finished top of the local sides last year and aim to go better in Counties 1 Surrey/Sussex than the seventh they managed then.
Club captain this year is Remy Claustres and First XV captain is Joe Henderson, while Dave Rees is the new director of rugby, overseeing the playing side of things.
Their first league game, on September 16 at their Clockhouse ground will be against Trinity, who last season were hard on their heels in eighth, despite themselves having had something of a shocker of a season, only mitigated by the poor Cranleighans and relegated Warlingham.
Ex-player Matt Higgins has rejoined Trinity from Dorking as head coach and Harry Wilson is the new first-team captain. One further feature of Trinity’s new season is the purchase of a VEO system to film all matches so that matches can be replayed online and used for training purposes.
With Warlingham down, the real action this term will be in Counties 2 Surrey, with 18 derbies to be played (as reported by iC’s Brian More-Orless).
For all their woes in their centenary year, Warly are in an optimistic mood, according to club communications manager David Halliwell, who notes that the youngsters that stuck out the annus horribilis have had their characters forged on an anvil of adversity.
Popular and respected coach Nick Warren is back after some serious health problems – “It’s great to see his recovery,” Halliwll says – and is supported by a coaching team of six, including Tom Street, the head of rugby at the John Fisher School. One wag, not related to Purley John Fisher, commented that Warlingham now has nearly as many coaches as they had first-team players last season.
If Warly are feeling chipper, then so are PJF – not least looking forward to a huge financial injection from affiliated association The John Fisher School Old Boys, which recently obtained planning permission for 100 houses to be built on its old ground at Hamsey Green.
Captain this year is Luke Couchman, with about 60 players having trained pre-season.
Niel Kenny, club chair, says the long term future is secure with the financial boost, a strong minis and a partnership with the Oasis Academy Coulsdon paying dividends with the formation of a new junior side in the offing.
With Old Cats, Old Whits, Chipstead, Old Ruts, Old Blues and others not just there to make up the numbers, this division of the league – apart from reading like it did 30 years ago – surely must be one of the most competitive ones in the community game.
In Counties 4 Surrey, the penultimate league of the English system, you’ll find former English powerhouse Streatham-Croydon facing, assuming no one folds, a full calendar of 18 league fixtures featuring other former greats such as Guildfordians, Cranleigh and Staines, all of whom have waned in the past few years.
More “waners” are to be found in Counties 5 Surrey – the lowest tier of club rugby in England – where Croydon, a hybrid of Old Croydonians and Shirley Wanderers, face the likes of Mitcham, Merton, Raynes Park, Wandsworth and the generally woeful Suttonians, who cried off eight times last season.
At least one benefit of being in the bottom league is that there is nowhere else to go and the risk of relegation is removed.
- RIP Neil Johns, Purley RFC ‘front row mafia’, May 25 1963-July 30 2023
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