Every rugby player and fan have that special ground, one that sends a tingle down their spine, either due to the fact they know they will be in for a tough game or because of the views or smells that are afforded them in the grandstands as they place their pre-match bets.
Modern stadia seen on TV, in the Premiership, and other major pro competitions are often a bit soulless, as the focus is on packing in as many people in as possible, rather than maintaining a certain ambiance. Here are some of the most intriguing and beguiling grounds that exist in the National League system, ones which any self-respecting fan should put on their bucket list to visit. After all, it makes all the difference if a fan can make use of an online sports betting deal, sit down with a steaming homemade pie, and look out over a ground whose backdrop is either one of stunning nature or historical architecture. Sometimes such things can even make up for a bad result for your team or for your weekend acca.
North Devon is also known as the Rainy Country and with good reason, because this small coastal region receives more rainfall than almost anywhere else in the country. This can make for particularly gruelling games at Pottington Road, with the local team revelling in dragging more accomplished sides into all-out dog fights.
Aside from all the mud and pouring rain, the ground’s surrounding countryside is as lush and as dramatic as one would expect, meaning that visiting fans often take the opportunity to stay on in Devon for a few days after a game, to soak up the beautiful inland scenery as well as the county’s stunningly rugged coastlines. The only downside to all this is that it can be a real mission to get to, with Barnstaple only really being serviced by single carriageway roads, which can quickly get clogged with surfers heading to the coast when the swell is up, or by a local tractor taking it easy between fields.
Footes Lane is the name of this stadium, which is unique in the National League for being located as it is on an island. The stadium is not perched on a cliff and instead is about as inland as you can get on this tiny atoll that is famous for attracting tourists who want nice weather without leaving the comfort of the British Isles. Indeed, the island is closer to France than it is to the UK.
In 2019 the whole ground underwent a renovation, with a bright blue running track being laid around the pitch to give it the feel of a national stadium. There’s no doubt that this is one of the most unique stadia in the National League, not least because visiting teams have to arrive by boat and banish their seas sickness before they get down to scrummaging and lineouts.
There is something truly biblical about Flyde’s Woodlands Memorial Ground, which is in the leafy town of Lytham St Annes. That is because it is overlooked by the steeple of St Joseph’s Church. The grand old building really does loom over the ground and can even cast a shadow across the pitch on some match days.
The Yorkshire Dales are the backdrop for this famous old club, whose players and fans have long relished turning over their big city rivals, as wild animals screech and charge around in the undergrowth. Thick copses further hem in the ground, protecting it from the elements to some degree while also creating something of a cauldron atmosphere. Their biggest local rivals are Otley, a team they have managed to match on many occasions in recent years, which is no small achievement for a team based in a village that, without the rugby pitch, people would drive straight through without a second thought.
Many of the club’s players come from farming stock, using the backbreaking work that their day job provides as a unique form of training. This makes sense, seeing as the Wharfedale ground is surrounded on all sides with arable fields as well as steep pastures where countless flocks of sheep roam and graze to their heart’s content.
All the grounds mentioned here are the sort that will leave boots completely sodden and muddy, after a hard game of ruggers
The Sycamores is the new home of the Leeds Tykes, a club who continue to have an identity crisis, having previously called themselves Yorkshire Carnegie, Leeds Carnegie, and just plain Leeds. Whatever they might choose to call themselves in the years to come, it appears that their new leafy ground on the outskirts of the city is where the Tykes are likely to be based in the long-term. They previously played at the much roomier Headingly; a ground they say they have not completely abandoned.
The Sycamores is an apt name for the new ground, as it is surrounded by trees and green fields, meaning it fits in quite well with many of the other countryside stadia in the National League.
Darlington Mowden Park’s facility is not the most scenic stadium in the land, but what it lacks in old world charm it makes up for with incredible high-tech and modern facilities. The Darlington Arena was first built with football in mind, but eventually that project went south, meaning the rugby club could step in and purchase the stadium for the cut price of just £2 million.
With a 25,000+ seater capacity the club is aiming as high as possible, so that one day it might be able to fill their beautiful stands. First things first, though, they need to get their National League form in order, or all those shiny seats might just go to waste.