Promotion and relegation issues were sorted out last weekend except for Colchester and Wisbech who still have play-off games to contest. Beccles come down from London Two to be replaced by Holt and Stowmarket, both achieving their highest ever league status, while Wymondham and Newmarket drop into the Eastern Counties Leagues with Cantabrigian coming up to the London Leagues.
Two Suffolk sides are promoted from Eastern Counties Two to Eastern Counties One; Thurston, who needed a bonus point win to be sure, and Hadleigh, for whom this marks a truly remarkable renaissance.
Hadleigh started life as recently as 1984 and slowly moved through the lower Eastern Counties Leagues until the mid 1990s when, with the help of players from RAF Wattisham, Colchester Garrison and others from clubs both local and further afield, the club became one of the most feared in the East, reaching London Two, winning four Suffolk Cups and losing in the final of the Eastern Counties Cup. However, it would be fair to say that although their policy of recruitment from far and wide won them many games, it didn’t win the club many friends in the rugby family.
Then in 2007 the Director of Rugby and the club’s main benefactor both left and with them went most of the non-local players who no longer had an incentive to play. It’s not the first time this has happened nor will it be the last, but it is another example of the dangers of chasing success through the cheque-book (see Cambridge to be an amateur cub again).
Hadleigh was left with club stalwarts, most of whom had been playing merit table rugby with the second team, having to cope with bigger and faster (and younger!) opponents in London Two. After some heavy defeats (I watched them lose 92-5 at home to Harlow) they took the decision to withdraw from the league and start again at the bottom in Eastern Counties Division Two.
The club was in crisis. They had to find games to play for the rest of the 2007/8 season, find players to play the games, and find a new committee to somehow keep the club viable. Many of us at Eastern Counties and Suffolk feared that the club would not survive more than a year or so, but thanks to the efforts of a small band of committed volunteers, Hadleigh got its off-field structures right and decided on a policy of making itself a community club with players and support from the local area. They set up a mini & youth section, and through promoting itself at carnivals, fairs and at local schools, children started to join.
A particularly significant step was to adopt the originals colours of maroon and white hoops for their playing strip after playing for a number of years in shirts of various designs.
Adult players came out of the woodwork and some returned from bigger clubs to help out, and they not only survived that season, they honoured all their games the following season, even winning two of them. 2008/9 saw some second team games played although the first team finished next to last in their league, but the youth section was growing as was optimism for the years ahead. Another season and the results started to come finishing fourth in the league, but I could see that the Hadleigh RFC had secured its future when I was invited to their club dinner which had over 200 guests. Gone were the worries and concerns to be replaced with a growing confidence and a thriving membership, all from the town and surrounding villages.
Sundays now see dozens and dozens of children all enjoying the game and looking forward to representing their town club, and the senior sides are beginning to see the benefits. Last season saw the first team finish in third place and now Hadleigh are champions. I was at Felixstowe for the last game of the season and it was good to see a large, good-natured contingent from Hadleigh supporting them and celebrating their promotion after being so close to extinction.