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Going back where it all began

Sandra McDonnell returns to a former haunt

Watching rugby on a Saturday afternoon – what more could a modern girl want?

I was only too delighted to accept my husband’s invitation to join him at Roehampton yesterday to meet with some of his pals at the local National League One derby match between Rosslyn Park and Richmond, two teams that went different ways when professionalism came to rugby union in the 1990s.

Arguably Rosslyn Park, former club of England legend Andy Ripley amongst others, made a sensible decision not to join the professional arms race. Instead they pursued a lesser business model in which top amateurs could still enjoy their passion for the game, leaving options of the club going fully professional to some point in the future, if at all.

In contrast Richmond, one of the founding clubs involved in the creation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871, went for broke. Funded by a tax-exiled superfan, they went out and bought a celebrated band of mercenaries in an attempt to maintain their place amongst the elite professional clubs going forward in England.

Sadly, as often happens in business, the best-laid plans don’t always work out.

Things became tough, eventually their sugar daddy withdrew and the professional Richmond descended into administration. As punishment for this catastrophe, what was left of the club was dropped eight or nine divisions by the RFU and had to begin again. It’s a tribute to both co-tenants of the Richmond Athletic Ground (Richmond and London Scottish, the latter another club that pitched for professional glory and failed) that they are now back in the higher echelons of English rugby union after climbing from the depths to which they were banished when their respective business roofs fell in.

To my shame,  until yesterday I hadn’t attended a match at the Roehampton home of Rosslyn Park since about 1966 when, as a camp follower to my brother who was playing in the Public Schools 7s tournament, I was privileged to see Welsh legend Gareth Edwards in action in the final, then playing for Millfield School. About eight months later, he made his debut for Wales against France.

My impressions nearly fifty years later were overwhelmingly positive. I should estimate that there were over 1,000 spectators – over twice their average crowd – on hand to see Rosslyn Park score four tries in winning by the margin of 28-15. This was thriving grass-roots rugby – half a world away from the commercialism of Premiership clubs, but none the worse for that – smothered in a spirit of amateur, families-encouraged, enthusiasm. The bulk of those I came across were long-time rugby fans who typically like to get out for some weekly fresh air, a sense of belonging, a pint or two, a constant stream of banter with those around them … all with the added bonus of some pretty competent action on the pitch.

Not that I saw much of it. Unless you were lucky enough to secure a seat in the only proper stand, or around the perimeter of the pitch, you were pretty much left standing. Not being one of life’s beanpoles, I was reduced to catching what I could of the play through a forest of stout backs and bobbling heads. That said, this lack of eye-line access didn’t seem to matter to those in my party.

The truth was that ‘Park’ had won comfortably to maintain their push for league honours. Everyone who attended had a pleasant afternoon … and, what’s more,  they’d all be home in good time for tea and Final Score on BBC 1.

What’s not to like?

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About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts