National League Rugby is producing a series of articles designed to explore the different elements which come together to make levels three and four the heartbeat of quality rugby.
In our first article, we highlight why the blend of clubs – from an historic perspective – adds a layer of authenticity and intrigue to National One and Two.
To say the start of the 2022-23 National League Rugby season has ‘exploded into life’ might actually be an understatement.
Teams have flown out of the blocks, produced some dazzling performances and most of all, put on a show for the masses who flock to all corners of the country to absorb rugby at levels three and four.
From Tyndale down to Plymouth Albion, from Preston Grasshoppers across to North Walsham, National League Rugby is already entertaining us and the campaign has barely begun.
What is also noticeable about this year in particular is the concoction of clubs all competing across National One and Two, not just from a geographical point of view, but from an historic perspective.
Teams such as Fylde and Clifton are some of the most established clubs woven into the fabric of National League Rugby. Wharfedale and Stourbridge have been at this level for over two decades whilst many sides have provided the springboard for some of the most successful players in the game.
Arguably though, Blackheath encompass all of these elements. Relegated from National One last term, which ended their 18-year stay in the third tier, they remain one of the cornerstones of National League Rugby and as managing director Russ Ticehurst proudly says, they are the oldest ‘open’ rugby club who were formed in 1858.
He rattles off some notable names who have represented the South-East London side including Fred Stokes, who attended the meeting where the RFU was created, William P Carpmael, the founder, first president and captain of the Barbarians, ex-New Zealand player John Gallagher and Jacquie Edwards – Blackheath Women’s Captain – who played in the Women’s World Cup in 1994.
When professionalism arrived in 1995, Blackheath were a level two side but the loss of financial support and various opportunities meant any newly signed players all departed and the club had to fall back on the safety blanket of the National Leagues.
Since then, Ticehurst has seen it all at ‘Club’. He had two spells as a player, and coached the mini and junior section for eight years before taking on the role of chairman and now managing director.
Striving to be the best has never been lost on one of the most historic clubs in the sport but since the Covid-19 pandemic, the bigger picture and stability has been a major focus of Ticehurst’s and Blackheath’s.
“The post-Covid review made us look at the “risk and reward’ on offer with 1st XV promotion from National One,” says Ticehurst. “We could see the risk but we were struggling to match that up with the reward.
“Every club, and particularly Blackheath, has aspirations and a desire to play rugby at the highest possible level but we must settle where our finances put us for the time being.
“Sadly, we could not avoid relegation last season, but in the meantime, what has come from our decisions is a thriving mini and junior section, girls section, a reinvigorated Women’s and Men’s section and we are all looking forward to playing for ‘Club’ this season and beyond.”
That sense of community and growing from within is reinforced time and time again across the National Leagues and newcomers Newport (Salop) can relate to Blackheath when it comes to this mantra.
Despite there being 89 years between the two clubs, they share similar values and are now playing at the same level, albeit in different leagues. This just highlights how diverse and unique the National Leagues truly are.
On their way to promotion in 2021-22, Newport’s squad included 15 players who have played in the club’s junior or Colts’ teams or who are longstanding players. Six of the squad have accumulated 100 games or more for the 1st XV.
During their rise to National Two West, Newport have never veered away from their ethos; ‘Community, Pride, Passion’ and the Shropshire outfit have their pens at the ready to write the latest chapter in their history.
“Everyone is absolutely buzzing”, says chairman Peter Maher. “I always think with a rugby club that the first team sets the tone. We always felt we were part of an important rugby club, but now our name is on the map. We are travelling nationally and it is just brilliant to see us on this stage.
“It is also often being said to me that having a first team playing at National League level would be a diversion from our values. I think it is quite the opposite.
“I think it brings everyone together in the club and brings a focus. It gives people an aspirational target and it is just raising the bar for everybody at the club in terms of performance, and giving us a real identity. We are excited for the journey.”
Maher says Newport is still a growing town of around 15 to 16,000 people. With the rugby club at the heart of its community, many residents will be excited by the adventures which lie ahead this season and that emotional attachment can apply to all 56 teams who have their own stories to tell up and down the land.