Last season was a tough one for Haverhill & District RFC with a shortage of players, especially in the front row. The club found it difficult to field a second team and almost inevitably the first team called off a couple of games. The decision was made to withdraw from Eastern Counties Division One and play in the Suffolk League Merit Table while the club rebuilt it’s playing numbers.
This season has seen Haverhill go from strength to strength with the first team winning five of its games so far with one draw and a narrow loss. Perhaps more importantly the second XV has honoured all eight of its Division Two games also winning five. The club hopes to renter the RFU Leagues next season so when I went to watch them play on Saturday it was with an eye to see if they were ready to do so. Their opponents were Diss’ 2nd XV, the Saracens, who had a formidable 100% record this season scoring 279 points in their seven Suffolk League games and conceding just 5.
Haverhill, or more precisely the Haverhill women’s team, had arranged a ‘Meet the Players’ Fun Day so there was lots going on when I arrived and a decent sized crowd, including many from the youth section, were gathered to lend their support.
The game saw contrasting styles with the bigger, more experienced Haverhill forwards dominating the scrums, rucks and mauls and the younger, pacier Diss backs looking dangerous when they had the ball in hand. Line-outs however were a bit of a lottery! The game was a tight one throughout with Haverhill taking a 5-0 lead with a forwards try and Diss levelling through their backs. A penalty each side of half time saw the score remain level and although Diss took a 13-8 lead, Haverhill dominated the last 15 minutes and would probably count themselves unlucky to score only one converted try and not come away with more than a 13-13 draw.
Pictures from the game
The result is an important one for Haverhill as is confirms that they are getting back on track with their playing strength and it will do no harm when their application to rejoin the RFU leagues is considered. But it is also significant for a much wider reason and that involves Diss Saracens.
Diss’ second team has been struggling for fixtures over the past couple of seasons. A while back the team competed in the Norfolk Merit Table but the opposition was too week, and they tried a season in the Suffolk League with much the same result. When the first team was promoted to Level 5, currently named National League Three London & South East, they decided to put the Saracens into the second team league that mirrored the first team fixtures.
This league covers all of the London & South East area and although they were determined to travel as far as they needed to to honour their fixtures, they expected, perhaps naively, that the opposition teams would do the same. But London-based club players view Norfolk as almost another continent and increasingly games were called off until Diss’ own players wondered why they should make the effort when it wasn’t reciprocated.
When Diss were relegated to Level 6 at the end of last season they rejoined the Suffolk League and until last Saturday had found it all too easy which may look good for the stats but doesn’t help player development. Most club coaches will agree that a strong first team needs a strong second team to support it and Diss are rightly concerned that the quality of their second string players will decline without regular challenging games.
Over this time Diss, along with North Walsham who have similar geographic problems with visiting teams calling off, were lobbying Eastern Counties and the RFU to do something to help their plight, but opposition of suitable quality cannot be conjured out of mid-air. In one or two areas of the country, 2nd XVs play in the lower tiers of the RFU Leagues and this is something that has been explored in Eastern Counties and for obvious reasons Diss and North Walsham are keen on it being implemented locally.
Although Eastern Counties as a CB is generally supportive of the idea it is up to the clubs already playing at those levels to agree to 2nd XVs entering, and when they have been asked their opinion the answer has been an emphatic No. There are a couple of reasons given for their reticence:
- The 2nd XV teams will be much too strong so the concern is that games will be one-sided and they will dominate promotion places from Eastern Counties Two, where 2nd XVs will have to enter, to Eastern Counties One
- Players at smaller clubs in the Eastern Counties Leagues may not be good enough to make the first teams of the bigger clubs, but they could play in their second teams, benefit from perhaps better facilities or maybe better coaching, and still play the same standard of league rugby they are now. The worry is that big clubs will therefore get bigger and small clubs will wither and die
For me, the significance of the 13-13 draw between Haverhill and Diss Saracens is that the first point above can be refuted. It is rare for Eastern Counties League first teams to play London League second teams so for a non-league team to draw with a Level 6 second team does imply that the gulf is not as great as some fear. The second point is a much harder one to deal with but grass-roots clubs foster great loyalty from their players and I am not convinced that this is as great a problem as some think.
Realistically, the clubs that that would want to enter 2nd XVs into RFU leagues are likely to be North Walsham, Diss, Bury St Edmunds and Colchester, although the latter’s second team get a competitive standard of rugby playing in the Essex Merit Tables. A way forward may be to engineer some games between the second strings of the above four and first teams in the Eastern Counties Leagues and see what results are like. On Saturday’s evidence they may be closer than expected.
It’s a sensitive issue and I would welcome other opinions. Just click the ‘Leave a Comment’ link at the top of this article.