Has English rugby got it all wrong?
Over the years, I’ve heard the odd whisper from under the beam. Some voices would accuse the club of only being interested in the First Fifteen’s results, Second Team players would mention a lack of opportunity in terms of making the step up and the Thirds and Fourths would feel isolated, out on their own, as if they are playing for a separate club all together. Many players really did believe that their team was being treated as the forgotten underclass and although relations have improved recently, I still feel that there are some out there that think we are operating as four individual squads and not as one club.
It must be said that this is not a situation exclusive to Lymm, as other clubs have reported the same feelings amongst its players, especially at the lower levels. It must also be said that there have been many attempts to unify the squads recently, with stash being provided to those who train, the organisation of social gatherings and First Team players representing the club lower down, in fact our top two teams seem to be closer than ever before. But can we be doing more? Especially in terms of uniting the Thirds and Fourths? Also, is this a scenario created by the way in which our club is run or is it the way in which amateur rugby is organised at national level?
I had an interesting chat with Paul Maguire over Christmas, and after six too many pints of an unnamed, strong European lager, he began reminiscing over his time spent playing rugby in Australia. I know what you’re thinking but please stick with me! He made a really important point about the way amateur rugby was set up down under and how it was so conducive to building unified and family orientated clubs. It was a light bulb moment for me and as I heard more and more about his experience, I began to question this country’s league structure and despaired at how our set up has become so fragmented.
When Maggie was playing for Sydney University, all five of the club’s teams played on the same pitch on the same day against the same opposition. Not only that, but there was a points system in place that meant that each result was integral to the club’s success. The Fifth Team would kick off in the morning, then the Fourth Team and next the Third, leading up to the First fixture in the late afternoon. Now, in a system that was based on two points for a win, the First Team would receive 10 x those 2 points for a win (20pts) , the Second team would receive 8 x 2 (16pts) , the Thirds 6 x 2 (12pts) , the Fourths 4 x 2 (8pts) and fifths 2 x 2 (4pts). If your club accumulated more points than any other by the end of the season, then you had won the Club Championship.
It gets better, the day before, the Senior Colts would be battling it out to win twenty points for the club (yes, the Senior Colts’ game had the same importance as the First Team) and the Junior Colts could earn sixteen points for a win! What an unbelievable competition. Each club really was ONE club and the healthiest operating club took home the trophy. Can you imagine how this would revolutionise our club? Instead of the Third and Fourth team having ten people watching (including the physio and the odd canine) there would be a whole club responsibility to cheer each other on. Training would become integral to success and the
First Team would rely on the lower teams to do their bit, building stronger relationships across all squads.
The days of going to Fylde away with twelve players would also be a thing of the past because the Fourth Team would be on the substitute’s bench for the Third Team’s fixture and so on. I began dreaming of a glorious summer’s day at Beechwood, where friends and family lined the pitches, cheering on all four of our squads, with a barbecued burger and a cold cider from the beer tent in hand. What a spectacle that would be, but in here lies the problem I think. We don’t live in Sydney, we live in a completely different climate.
Take this Saturday for example. As I am writing this, it is snowing outside and a walk to the shop would involve ten layers and some sturdy wellington boots. By the time the second team would take to the field on pitch one (which would be the third match of the day), Jim Knowles would have had a nervous breakdown and the pitch would resemble a scene from the Battle of the Somme. Also, fitting in that many games before dark would be a problem and I can’t see many of our supporters surviving four matches on the side-line without contracting pneumonia.
Another challenge would be organising competitive fixtures. If you relate this to Lymm and we put this structure in place at the weekend, the enjoyment levels would differ depending on the opposition. Across all squads, it would be a real challenge to face Fylde but what about Knutsford? And do Knutsford even have four teams? The structure of our leagues has become so fragmented over the years that it may be impossible to organise my dream of the summer’s day at Beechwood.
I don’t think we can ever emulate the Australian experience that Maggie enjoyed but maybe we could find some middle ground here in England. For example, it would be great if the First Team and the Third Team travelled on the coach together to face Ilkley’s First and Third Team, then shared a beer in the bar and a high spirited bus journey home. The same could be said for the Second and Fourth team left behind to celebrate their wins against the travelling Ilkley sides, culminating in a haul of club points to go towards a Club Championship victory. A system created to unify and not segregate through ability.
It may just be a dream, but as we prepare for a weekend where Fletcher’s men face Ilkley away, Millichip’s boys pit their wits against Chester at Hare Lane and the Fourth Team head out to Macclesfied, I can’t help but think we are missing a trick. With only the Third Team playing at home; how many of those travelling away will return to Beechwood for a celebratory pint? Will any of our lads playing in the different teams even see each other on Saturday? Maybe, maybe not. We may discredit those who believe that the club is operating as four individual squads, but I think that they may have a point.
In some respects we are all segregated, but what else can we do?
Let’s all get back for a pint on Saturday.