History

January 27th, 2017

This article appeared in the September 2013 edition of “This is Skipton”

The Yorkshire Dales is an area of great natural beauty, known for its green rolling hills, its limestone scars, its country inns. Sportsmen come for its shooting, its trout fishing, its fell-walking, its potholing, its extreme rock-climbing – and its rugby.

For Grassington (or to be more accurate its sister village Threshfield) is home to Wharfedale rugby club. Nothing exceptional about a Yorkshire village having its own rugby team, except that Wharfedale rugby club plies its trade in National Division One, in the top forty clubs in England and is about to commence its 18th season at that level.

The introduction of league rugby in 1987 was great news for this ambitious village club. It had been striving to improve its fixture list for some years, an objective which gained momentum when it became one of the first clubs to install floodlights; the introduction of leagues brought genuine competition, the chance for little clubs to measure their strength against big clubs, an opportunity which Wharfedale grasped with both hands.

Beginning at Level Seven, Wharfedale finished divisional champions in their first-ever league campaign, to gain the first of the four promotions (with no relegations) which took it to its present status. In the course of these league campaigns, the club has at various times recorded victories over Worcester, Leeds, Rotherham, London Welsh, Plymouth Albion and Nottingham; in the current season its opponents will include such iconic clubs as Blackheath, Richmond, Rosslyn Park, Coventry and Fylde.

There have been enormous upheavals in rugby union in the 25 years since leagues began, and many clubs in Wharfedale’s division have become professional, supported by the deep pockets of private benefactors and investors. This represents a sea change, many say an unwelcome one, in the ethos of the rugby union game as many used to know it, but Wharfedale is determined to keep its soul intact, sticking closely to its community roots.

Tragically, several of those professional clubs, some with long histories and great pedigrees, have gone out of business, unable to make their revenues match their ambitions. But although over the years Wharfedale have had to compete with many big-money clubs, its management has consistently refused to stretch the club’s resources, relying instead on bringing on their own talent where possible. Indeed, in last season’s league matches Wharfedale’s first XV fielded at different times no fewer than 18 players who had learned their rugby in the club’s flourishing junior section, which has just produced the winners of the Yorkshire Colts Cup for the first time.

This comes at a time when many clubs at Wharfedale’s level do not field so much as a second XV; by contrast, Wharfedale take pride in fielding four sides, their second-string Foresters last season retaining their Yorkshire Premier league title, winning every match. The spirit of the club is best shown in the person of veteran lineout specialist Rob Burnett, who has played well over 300 matches for the second XV; still playing in the side, Rob now works with the coaching staff bringing on young talent.

A glance at the honours board in the clubhouse reflects the dynastic farming community on which Wharfedale was founded: the same names appear over the years as one generation follows another: names such as Dean, Harker, and Harrison, men who have captained the club then gone on to be President.

The current Chairman of Rugby is the perfect example: local farmer Michael “Clarty” Harrison, in his day the England Schools centre, only ever played club rugby for Wharfedale, and for many years was the club’s leading points scorer. He was head coach for some decades and now chairs the northern branch of the National Clubs Association. His grandfather James was a founder member and his father John was President for many years; his mother Cath was club secretary and matriarch; his sons and nephews both played for the First XV and now the next generation is knocking on the door.

But the best known of Wharfedale people is its President for the last 30 years, former England captain and British Lion, John Spencer. Grassington solicitor Spencer, who was first chosen to play for England when he was at university, moved to Headingley before returning to his roots at Wharfedale.  When he could no longer play for the first XV,  Spencer dropped down to the seconds, then the thirds and so on, until his knees begged him to stop. Spencer is now on the boards of the Rugby Football Union, the International Rugby Board and the British & Irish Lions, and is chairman of the famous Barbarians.

The Wharfedale club takes no satisfaction from the fact that other clubs at their level – and indeed many at levels below – have bigger rugby budgets, and can pay their players more than Wharfedale does. It is clear that those clubs are relying either on benefactors or on the proceeds of asset (land) sales. Each of those sources has its own perils: a benefactor can fall ill or become disillusioned, a major corporate sponsor can fall on hard times or its management change,  and the proceeds of land sales don’t last for ever. What Wharfedale has that those clubs don’t is the confidence that it will still be here tomorrow, and the year after. Its finances cannily managed by professional accountant Alex Howarth, the club’s boast is that it has always been able to record a surplus and never been in debt, surely a unique achievement in current times.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Wharfedale club basks in the affection of its supporters, both individual and corporate. This has shown itself over recent years, despite the tight control of its finances, in the development of its facilities. In the period since league rugby began, with the benefit of generous contributions from members and sponsors – the latter brought in largely by the persistence of Wharfedale’s unique David Procter – the club has built a covered enclosure, a grandstand, a tackle shed, an entertainment suite and most recently a fully-equipped weights room.

Perhaps the greatest strength of any community rugby club lies in its volunteers. Apart from the players, at Wharfedale only the medical team and some of the part-time coaching staff receive any compensation at all, leaving on a typical matchday around 25 volunteers – gatemen, car park attendants, changing room attendants, photographers, pressmen, raffle ticket vendors, groundsmen, ballboys etc – who do it just for the love of their club.

As for the supporters, the rugby management acknowledges the unique contribution they make. Despite its rural location, Wharfedale’s attendance figures, normally in excess of 500, are always well above the average for the division, with many travelling from far and wide – inevitably, as the local population numbers only 2,600. The rugby management and the players know the contribution the vocal crowd can make, lifting the side, assisting the referee when he misses some offence (but only by the visitors) and intimidating the opposition.

As for the future, the going just gets harder, with the emergence in the league of what seems to be a north/south divide. No-one sees this more clearly than Michael Harrison. “In three of the past four seasons, two of the three clubs to be relegated from National One have been in the north, whereas in four of the last five seasons two of the three clubs promoted into the division are from the south. Not only are there more wealthy rugby enthusiasts in the south, but that’s where young men go to look for work.”

The amount of travelling involved puts a strain not only on the club’s finances, but also on the players and their families: in the coming season Wharfedale can look forward to eight trips which leave on the Friday evening, returning late on the Saturday. Club Treasurer Alex Howarth bemoans the shortfall in support from the RFU: “We are officially at the top level of the community game, yet the financial help from the RFU has been cut, year after year. They do pay for our hotel accommodation and travel costs up to a point, but there are substantial costs other than players wages that have to be met from our own resources to play at this level.”

In Wharfedale’s early years in the division, before the Championship developed into a fully professional league, promotion was a valid goal for the club, and indeed in season 1999/2000 that ambition was very nearly realised, when the club finished just four points off the promotion places. All that has changed, however, and although the players themselves would love to test themselves against fully professional sides, the fact is that the physicality of fully professional players in the Championship and beyond means that promotion has become a mixed blessing for all but the richest sides.

Promotion to the Championship is always, in theory at least, an objective, but it would bring with it risks to the very character of the club: whereas Wharfedale’s first XV features many players who have come through the club’s junior ranks, if the club wanted to compete successfully at a higher level it is inevitable that experienced players would have to be imported to fill key positions, with it the risk of changing the club’s ethos irrevocably. “That is not something I would contemplate: we would not stretch our finances in pursuit of this or any other objective” says Mike Harrison. “We will continue to compete to the best of our ability within our resources. Promotion and relegation will be decided on the pitch, not in the committee room: we’ll do it our way or not at all.”

In the past four seasons Wharfedale have lost no fewer than nine players to the professional ranks, gone with the club’s blessing to test themselves out at the highest possible level. On the other hand, at the pinnacle of the community game in this part of England, Wharfedale is able to welcome to their ranks players wishing to play at the highest level without damaging their business careers, a good example of which is schoolteacher Aaron Myers, the England Sevens player.

As the standard and intensity of the rugby in the division increases season by season,  particularly in and around London, retaining its status in the top forty clubs in England has occasionally been quite a struggle for this village club. It is admired by its peers, making Grassington by general consensus the away trip of choice for visiting club supporters, bringing valuable trade to the Dales. But everyone knows that the longest fairy-tale in rugby must come to an end some day.

Or must it?

Update February 2017

The dream ended at the end of 2015-16 season when Wharfedale was relegated from National League 1. Many teams in the south had to say goodbye to their annual trip to the Dales and wives and partners had to put up with not being on their own on a Friday night as all matches were reachable by leaving on a Saturday morning. The drop coincided with a huge change in personnel at the Avenue. Cameron Hudson, Matt Beesley, Ali Wade and Dan Tai all got professional contracts. Huw Morgan and Ricky Cano moved south and others returned to clubs nearer to home. James Doherty, having suffered from various bouts of concussion during the season, became Head Coach.

The book, Riverball,was published during late 2015 and covered the previous season and covered Wharfedale travels up and down the country and their continuing battles on the pitch. The author, Simon Ravens, just got the book written in time as it was Dale’s last season before relegation. Not only did the book go through the season match by match but also covered many of the characters that shaped the club and made it what it is today.

Also, Guardian rugby correspondent, Rob Kitson, paid the club a visit in October 2015 and witnessed a fantastic game against Fylde. The club was part of his feature about grassroots rugby leading up to the world cup. He paid Dale a huge compliment at the end of the season by picking Dale as the second best place in Europe to watch and enjoy rugby. Twickenham was third.

 
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