When Hinckley take to the field against Barnes on September 4th, it will be 539 days since their last competitive fixture. (Photo Credit: John and Ro Burridge)
Back in March 2020, the Hornets were battling towards the top of National Two North after a remarkable run of 10 straight victories but 18 months on, the National League landscape has changed.
Hinckley will be competing in National Two South this term for the first time in over a decade – something which was confirmed for the 2020/21 campaign before it was officially cancelled.
After slowly cementing their status in the northern half of the fourth tier, the men from Leicester Road are now preparing for their latest chapter.
“When it was decided we were going south, I think there was a bit of excitement about it with it being new but obviously the season never happened,” Hinckley Director of Rugby Scott Hamilton told National League Rugby.
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— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) August 6, 2021
“I guess the excitement now is more about just playing rugby because it has been so long. We don’t know too much about the south. Obviously if we had played last year, we would have done a little bit more due diligence on how teams have played, but it has been 18 months and things will have changed.
“There is still a lot of chat about the Guernsey trip and that is one the whole club can look forward to! The other one is Redruth and how that bus journey is going to be, but being where we are in the country when we have gone north, there is still some lengthy journeys the other way so the travel is all relatively similar.”
Hinckley’s pre-season campaign began last weekend against Loughborough Students and the Hornets have pencilled in further friendlies with National Two North newcomers Bournville as well as an Ealing Trailfinders Development XV before the end of the month.
Despite being on the wrong end of a 40-7 scoreline last Saturday, Hamilton didn’t have to look too far to find some plus points, given how long National League clubs have been without rugby for.
Hinckley had actually endured some upheaval during the week due to positive Covid tests and isolations, but a squad mixed with youth and experience played in front of a crowd again – which was a victory in itself.
Even former All Black and Premiership winner Hamilton pulled on his boots: “It was good for us to be back, for sure,” he added.
“Whilst the scoreboard got away from us at the end, it was only 7-7 at half-time. We are a bit low on numbers at the moment with it being pre-season and people being on holidays and we have had a couple of Covid issues too, but it was a good start. You have got to start somewhere. I am not too concerned about the result in pre-season. It is more about getting out of it what we want.
Here it is – your first HRFC 1st XV team for 18 months – 9 players are in line for a 1st team debut for tomorrow's friendly against @LboroRugby with some very well known names also there as well – 3pm KO on Saturday afternoon at Leicester Road #n2s @Natleague_rugby pic.twitter.com/MNX7xxOHQN
— Hinckley Rugby (@Hinckley_Rugby) August 13, 2021
“I couldn’t even tell you when my last game was either! I try to wipe it from my memory! As I say, we were missing a few, but it is what it is. I think I touched the ball five times and got hammered four times! I ended up slightly straining the hamstring five minutes into the second half so I was quite happy to walk off and sit on the sideline after that!”
Whilst Hamilton may not have ditched the boots just yet, he admits making a return in a competitive National League fixture isn’t something that is necessarily on his radar.
Instead, the 41-year-old is now entering his fourth season as Director of Rugby at Leicester Road and having experienced National One with Coventry back in 2015-16, his admiration for the leagues is still as strong as ever.
The former Leicester Tiger knows how important the National Leagues are for emerging players, with current Wasps star Jacob Umaga one of the high profile names to represent Hinckley in recent times.
And with the launch of the new National League Rugby Review Show, Hamilton feels the exposure of tiers three and four will only help talented players make the next step.
“I have always enjoyed the National Leagues,” Hamilton stated. “Once I finished at Tigers, I went to Coventry so I have always found Nat One and Nat Two as a good standard of rugby.
“There are plenty of guys that have come through the leagues from academies or they might have been released from an academy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bad player because of the opinion of one or two people.
“National League Rugby is the perfect place to play a good standard and then work your way back up again and it is certainly a good pathway. There are plenty of names you can throw out there [of players who have progressed]. As long as you put the work in and perform well on a Saturday, it is pretty easy to be recognised now at this level especially with the added innovation of The National League Rugby Review Show this season.”
And Hinckley, along with the other 46 clubs in the National Leagues, will be beaming from ear to ear when the season kicks off in just over two weeks time following 18 months in the shadows.
The Hornets will now be fine-tuning themselves ahead of their first National Two South fixture since April 2011 when they were beaten 64-7 by Old Albanian and with the new campaign now within touching distance, Hamilton and Hinckley are preparing to hit the ground running.
“I am not going to lie, it took me a while to get back into the fold [following the cancellation of the 2020/21 season] because you sort of forget how organised you need to be and how much time rugby takes up!” Hamilton joked.
“You are always sending messages between coaches and players throughout the working day and I suppose I got a bit lazy and got used to sitting at home in the evening and having not much to do apart from watching TV!
“It is back to Tuesday/Thursday’s, selection meetings, training meetings, reviews, previews and watching videos so you do forget how much time it does take up in your life, but it also helps when you get closer to actual games and points and where you sit in the table and who you are playing next! That brings its own excitement.”