The Eastern Counties Leagues below Division One have undergone a radical overhaul with Division Two being split North, South and West, and newly created Divisions Three and Four being similarly separated along geographic lines. At the same time, the Norfolk, Suffolk and Greene King Country Merit Tables have been done away with and all the competing teams placed in the new structure according to geography and finishing positions last season.
There will 90 teams, including St Ives 2 from East Midlands and Halstead Templars from Essex, playing in nine Eastern Counties Divisions, and speaking to club officials and players there is a sense of anticipation as they look forward to playing some new clubs as well as traditional opponents.
One of the objectives is to reduce travelling within the huge area that is Eastern Counties, particularly for 2nd teams and below, meaning fewer call-offs and therefore more games played. A good example would be in Eastern Counties Two West where Haverhill & District RFC’s first team used to have to travel to Fakenham, Broadland-Gt Yarmouth and Holt in Norfolk, and Felixstowe and Harwich on the coast, all of these journeys being three hours or more there and back. It was not unusual for the club to call off at least one game a season because of a lack of players able to commit to so many long away trips every other week, particularly when injuries had already depleted their numbers.
This season, five of Haverhill’s opponents are half an hour away in and around Cambridge with only one away trip of more than hour to look forward to when they play March Bears. Brightlingsea RFC is another club that will see their travelling reduce compared to last season when they played in Essex One with regular trips to East London. Playing in Eastern Counties Two South they will have derby games against Colchester 2, Mistley and Harwich, with Thorpeness and Felixstowe their longest journeys.
But there are winners and losers. March will have to travel to Cambridge for most of their away games, and in Eastern Counties Three North Wisbech 2 in Cambridgeshire have the unenviable prospect of two away games on the coast at Broadland-Gt Yarmouth and Lowestoft & Yarmouth and the rest of their opponents dotted around Norwich. It may be that Wisbech will transfer to Eastern Counties Two West in the future if promotions and relegations allow it.
There is some nervousness about the second teams of the bigger clubs such as North Walsham, Diss and Colchester dominating their leagues but you would expect that teams will find their levels over the next couple of seasons and mismatches will reduce. But if these second teams get into Eastern Counties One, will they be allowed to progress further to the London Leagues? The rules don’t allow it at the moment but without guaranteed promotion for all teams this experiment is in danger of faltering.
The RFU’s Adult Competitions Review is committed to examining second team rugby nationally looking for options for creating competitive fixtures. Eastern Counties has pre-empted the review with this bold reorganisation and other areas around the country will be looking on to see how clubs fare.
The key measure of success must be a higher percentage of games played compared with last season when there was a mixture of RFU Leagues and merit tables, and with the opening Saturday of the new Eastern Counties Leagues nearly upon us there will be a lot of people interested to see the first set of results.