The entertainment National League Rugby clubs provide each and every season is indisputable but levels three and four are so much more than just the 80 minutes on a Saturday afternoon. (Photo Credit:Chester RUFC)
To the end. Right to the very end.
Back in April when the whistle blew on the 2022-23 National League Rugby campaign, it brought the curtain down on a remarkable eight months of rugby across levels three and four.
With energy reserves emptied on the pitch, players and coaches have been recharging with September now beginning to creep into view.
But National League Rugby is more than just the 1st XV’s of the 56 clubs that make up tiers three and four.
While the moments of ecstasy and despair have been put on hold, behind the 80 minutes on a Saturday, these clubs are hubs of their respective communities and that doesn’t stop just because a long and gruelling season has come to an end.
In 2022-23, Rosslyn Park finished fourth behind Cambridge, Rams RFC and Sale FC in National One and while their 1st XV continues to be strong year after year, the work behind the scenes to grow a thriving senior section – and the club as a whole – is always ongoing.
📈 Club Results
— Rosslyn Park (@rosslynpark) January 17, 2023
With concerns surrounding decreasing levels of participation leading to clubs having to reduce the number of teams they can field on a weekend, Park have managed to build on their offering. They currently have five senior sides which contain 150 players across the board.
“I think we have been able to build a vibrant section of the club, especially coming out after Covid,” Rosslyn Park Director of Rugby Kieran Power says.
“You can get lost sometimes and it is all first-team centric. In the last year or two, I have been taking a step back from just being purely first-team focused to looking at it from a holistic view.
“Since being able to do that, it showed we needed to give some love back to the other side of the club that supports us so, so much. You do have other clubs where their focus is mini + juniors and not the first team whereas it has been the other way around here. If we can get that fine balance across the board, you will only get a bigger membership, a bigger support and a happier club.”
National One compatriots Rams are in a similar boat with 110 senior players spread across five teams, while Bishop’s Stortford, National Two North champions Sedgley Park – along with National Two West’s Hinckley and Luctonains as well as National Two East’s Canterbury (to name but a few) – also offer excellent senior men’s programmes.
Another National Two East club that is also putting a huge amount back into the game in their own impressive way are Sevenoaks.
At the heart of it is their thriving Mini and Junior section, one of the largest across the whole of National League Rugby: “We are a large community, family-based rugby club with circa 900 boys and girls ranging from U5s to our academy section,” Sevenoaks Director of Rugby Adam Bowman explains.
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“The youth sections are running two teams every week. We have got over 900 playing members in that section and that is supported by at least 120 volunteers helping out every weekend which is great to see. If we didn’t have a vibrant mini + junior and youth set-up, I don’t think our senior sides or the first team would be where we are now.”
Sides like Barnes – who have no less than 20 M+J teams consisting of 650 children – Taunton Titans, Bournville, Bury St Edmunds, Preston Grasshoppers (the list could go on) are really growing the game from within which is attributing to a vibrant community around those particular clubs.
Chester, like so many of the other teams we have highlighted, are achieving this in more ways than one. They have a flourishing women and girls’ section with their women’s side consisting of 40 players while their girls’ programme contains four teams made up of 100 players.
“The club as a whole support it from the bottom up which is brilliant,” says women and girls’ lead Sabrina McGill. “Even though the women and girls are kind of like a standalone section, they are integrated within the club. So the M+Js look after the girls’ programme and then the women are included in the senior set-up as well. It is all-encompassing and part of the club.”
Darlington Mowden Park’s relationship with DMP Sharks is an obvious – and excellent – synergy between a National League outfit and a senior women’s side while clubs like Sheffield, Old Albanian, Hornets, Henley Hawks, Tynedale and Hull Ionians provide healthy set-ups for women and girls’ rugby.
Giving people the opportunity to experience rugby at a level which suits them is an unrelenting theme across National League Rugby whether you are trotting out for a 1st XV on a Saturday afternoon or taking part in walking rugby and touch rugby during the week.
Esher are one of the clubs that can offer both ends of the spectrum, from Little Lions (2-4yr olds) all the way through to walking rugby for the over 50’s. Their walking rugby sessions – which have been running for eight years – consist of mixed teams and include over 40 members. The club are also represented in friendly matches as well as summer festivals.
Maxine Thompson, who heads up the walking rugby programme, said: “When you say walking rugby, people picture old people with Zimmer frames! People don’t get what it is.
“If you come down and have a look, it can be quite fast and is really good exercise. To play a team sport when you’re over 50 is wonderful.
“There is a huge focus on the social side, on-pitch banter and getting people out. We have a lot of people come down who say it is the only time they come out and have that chance to have that banter with fellow players. The good thing is, you don’t have to have been a rugby player to play it. You don’t have to know the game so it is great for the whole community.”
Like Esher, Worthing Raiders also provide both walking rugby and touch rugby while Canterbury’s touch rugby offering is backed up by their wheelchair rugby programme.
In truth, every single National League Rugby side plays a crucial role in their community. Whether it is going into schools to promote their club and the game, proving an array of opportunities in a senior section, creating a vibrant women and girls’ programme or offering their facilities to other sports clubs, all of these elements help shape what levels three and four are all about.
It might be the off-season, but the dedication and commitment in National League Rugby never stops.