The ECRU League fixtures for the coming season have finally been made available so I’ve had a look through to see what changes there are from last season. Numbers of teams participating have increased from 88 last season to 92 which is very encouraging, although it is worth checking which are the new teams.
There are in fact six teams joining the ECRU leagues as Harwich & Dovercourt have opted to play in Essex 1, having twice missed promotion from EC2 South despite losing just three games and a play off over the past two seasons. Another year in EC2 South would probably see a number of one-sided games and the likelihood of players joining other clubs with more challenging fixtures so, with Eastern Counties’ blessing, they applied to play in Essex. The team will have harder opposition but I am sure they will do well having seen them play. There is also the bonus of a local derby against Clacton and I have already put their first clash in the diary.
Maldon III have done the reverse of Harwich and moved from the Essex Merit Tables to EC4 South. The team was getting frustrated at the number of call offs by sides based in Greater London and decided that a league with Colchester V, Mersea Island II, Mistley II and Brightlingsea II would see the opposition more likely to travel to them while reducing their own travelling too. The furthest they will have to go is to play Woodbridge II and Stowmarket III. A note of caution however as Mersea and Stowmarket struggled to field their second/third teams all last season, but if the opposition can lend players and if the team with a bye each week in this nine-team league can make its players available for other clubs, it could prove to be a rewarding season for all.
North Walsham III, Dereham II and Thetford II are new to EC4 North which has a new format. The ten-team league is split into two groups of five on a rough East/West basis. Each team plays the others home and away, then the top three in one group play the top three in the other group twice giving 14 games in total, while the bottom two teams in each group also play each other giving them 12 league games. This means fewer games than if they played in a traditional format but it means less travelling for most of the season and the likelihood of evenly matched games towards the end of the season, so increasing the chances of most if not all of the games being played. It is a concern that with three new teams clubs may not have enough players available every Saturday, but with at least two sides not having fixtures most weeks I would hope that players would be prepared to play for other clubs for the sake of getting a game.
The final new teams are Haverhill & District II and West Norfolk III who join EC3 West where West Norfolk they are likely to find travelling a challenge. There is a prospect of a local fixture with Wisbech II only 15 miles away but the next nearest opponent is Newmarket II and the furthest away is Saffron Walden III with most away games in and around Cambridge.
In the North leagues the rurality of the area coupled with generally poor road links mean that players are used to longer journeys, although this coming season EC3 North isn’t too bad with Beccles II, Southwold II, Lowestoft & Yarmouth II and Gt Yarmouth-Broadland II all vying for East Coast bragging rights. In EC2 North most of the ten clubs are in and around Norwich although the outliers of West Norfolk II, Gt Yarmouth-Broadland II, Diss II and Fakenham II will have a bit of a trek to play each other.
EC3 South has teams spread all over Suffolk and North Essex with most of them having at least one local derby, although Aldeburgh & Thorpeness will have to travel at least 25 miles for every away game. But I expect the club to do well this season after relegation from EC2 South and motivation to travel is much higher when you have a winning team.
EC2 North has two distinct clusters; Brightlingsea, Mistley, Mersea Island and Colchester IV in North East Essex, and Stowmarket II, Sudbury II, Ipswich II and Hadleigh in Mid/East Suffolk. Felixstowe are the exception but at least the A14 gives them reasonably quick access to the other clubs.
I am particularly looking forward to seeing how the EC1 league pans out. For the first time, non-first teams will be competing in the shape of Bury St Edmunds III and Colchester III and it will be interesting to see how they get on against teams that have ambitions to gain promotion to the London Leagues.
So more teams taking part means that grass roots rugby is growing in Eastern Counties and the structure of the new Eastern Counties leagues, about to start its third season, has had some influence. Along with relaxed registration rules at lower levels and the message from the CB that it is better to play with reduced numbers than not to play at all, teams are less likely to call off. I am a little concerned that some of the new teams will struggle for numbers, particularly later in the season when injury start to take their toll, but if players can be encouraged to turn out for other teams when they have a gap week, we can enter an era of inter-club cooperation that may see our game continue to flourish.
Fixtures for all the Eastern Counties Leagues will be on the ECRU website soon at www.ecrurugby.com or you can view them by clicking here.