How the ‘Mighty’ have fallen: relegation haunts rugby clubs

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How the ‘Mighty’ have fallen: relegation haunts rugby clubs - Inside Croydon

RUGBY ROUND-UP: After ill-tempered local derby clashes which had more cards than Christmas, and a revised formula for relegation that would leave Einstein confused, JOHNNY DOBBYN pulls on his flanker’s jersey, right, for the final time this season to preview this Saturday’s crunch fixtures

It had been building up for weeks as a match with much more at stake than simple local bragging rights. Only in the last fortnight or so have the blazers at the RFU offered more clarity about the relegation prospects facing our leading local rugby clubs that we now know – at least, we think we know – that Saturday’s last game of the league season at Lime Meadow Avenue between Trinity and Old Walcountians won’t now determine whether either club gets relegated.

Derby games always have an added “edge” – see what happened between Purley John Fisher and Warlingham below – but this last-gasp game of the season appeared to have its status affected by events that occurred hundreds of miles away, and to a club playing in a rugby division seven or eight tiers above Walcs and Trinity.

The league reshuffle ahead of next season has been forced on the RFU by the bankruptcy last October of Jersey Reds, who played in the semi-professional but not very profitable second-tier Championship level of English rugby.

The complex geographical structure of the English rugby leagues means that increasing promotion from lower leagues for one season isn’t possible, as it can result in asymmetric team numbers in the various county leagues.

And the Channel Islands location of Jersey Reds has had implications for promotion and relegation in Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Surrey and our bit of south London, including Sanderstead and Woodmansterne…

Old Walcountians finished last season seventh in Counties 1 Surrey/Sussex, hardly headline-grabbing material, but good enough to be above Trinity and Warlingham, the local area’s long-time “top dogs” who suffered relegation from the regional division for the first time in more than a decade.

The “Counts”, as they like to be known, duly started this 2023-2024 season by getting beaten at home by Trinity in their opening fixture.

At the start of the season in October, the maximum number of relegations from Counties 1 Surrey/Sussex was supposed to be two, yet as both Walcs and Trinity’s seasons unravelled and they gravitated towards the drop zone, they both needed the bottom feeders to keep losing, or not turning up, for them to stay secure for another year.

This appears to have come to pass and they can look forward to the opportunity on Saturday to redeem themselves from otherwise dreadful seasons. Local bragging rights to be the least worst club in the area are still up for grabs, and the summer months to regroup and recruit more players for their depleted ranks.

One division below them, in what used to be the top Surrey county league, now titled Counties 2 Surrey, and the self-proclaimed “Mighty Warl” look doomed to a second relegation in two years, and this time it is no one’s fault other than their own.

After a committee change over the summer, Warlingham started with a spring in their step and renewed confidence for the season ahead which included plenty of games against local rivals on the fixture list – Old Whitgiftians, PJF and Chipstead, who are the visitors to Hamsey Green this Saturday.

Not even the most impressive matchday performance of the year could save Warlingham from relegation now.

Only one of their five league wins has come since November, as they went into a midwinter tailspin that saw heavy defeats (62-12 at home against table-topping Old Ruts, followed by 63-0 at Old Haileyburians and later 62-0 v Wimbledonians), and were forced to resort to calling up 40somethings to fill key positions to complete their matchday XV and fulfil their fixtures, a recurring theme with several teams.

Going into the final day of the season, the only team below Warlingham in Counties 2 Surrey is Old Freemans, who have failed to turn up for 11 of their fixtures.

Warlingham’s relegation in 2022-2023 was for administrative, rather than playing, reasons, with the RFU preferring to save the woeful Old Cranleighans, despite their four no-shows (compared to Warlingham’s two) over the year. Surrey RFU has its headquarters at Cranleighans. Having been given that “special” dispensation 12 months ago, Old Cranleighians duly managed to turn up for just 13 of their scheduled 21 games this season.

The Jersey reshuffle has seen the RFU suggest that as many as four clubs from Counties 2 Surrey could face the dreaded drop. As of today, that means Old Amplefordians, Law Society, 11th-placed Warlingham and 12th-placed Old Freemans.

Usually, two would be relegated anyway, yet there remained a theoretical possibility that an unlikely bonus point win over Chipstead and a disciplinary brainstorm by Law Society (like conceding a home walkover to table toppers Old Rutlishians, resulting in a league points deduction), could have saved the not-so-Mighty Warl. Now, even that remote hope has been taken from the Hamsey Green club.

It’s been a long, wet and tough winter for most local sides.

Old Whitgiftians spent a period dangerously close to the drop zone, yet a recent win over Warlingham (a match played under lights on a Friday, so that the players could scoot off to France to see England play at the weekend) and bonus point-losing efforts against Chipstead and Old Caterhamians has added the respectability, and safety, of seventh place.

Old Whits’ league position has also been assisted by their escaping a points deduction punishment in respect of their failing to turn up at Old Caterhamians last November. League officials, despite repeated requests from iC, have yet to explain why Whits have not been docked the usual five league points, or what other sanction may have been applied instead.

Purley John Fisher have fared slightly better in the same division – with 11 wins to OWs 10, and the benefit of a superior bonus points tally – and have held on resolutely to fifth place throughout most of the season.

Despite having the best of the innumerable local derbies in the run-up to Christmas, PJF then fell off badly, with the only real highlight being a comprehensive, but bad-tempered, win over Warlingham at the end February in which the referee showed almost as many cards awarded (red and yellow, to both teams) as there were points.

You have to delve deep down the rugby ladder, to Counties 4 Surrey, to locate even a sniff of some success this term, where promoted Streatham and Croydon face a nail-biting end to 2023-2024 with the Frant Road club having the genuine prospect of seeing out the year as division champions.

Already guaranteed the runners-up place – and thus promotion – behind Old Hamptonians, Strets are only one point behind the league leaders with the final game to play. Of the two matches, Strets have the easier task, facing fifth-placed Harlequin Amateurs, while Hamptonians are up against Southwark Lancers, lying third.

While promotion to Counties 3 Surrey hardly sees a return to Strets pomp of yore (in the pre-professional era, they were one of the “top clubs” that got their results read out on Saturday afternoons on BBC Grandstand), a season which only saw them lose two games (to date) is not to be sniffed at and there’ll no doubt be much celebrating with the club’s new local brewery partner Signal come the final whistle.

It also means that Streatham and Croydon seem very likely to be hosting Warlingham at their Thornton Heath ground sometime soon for the first time in a very long while (club historians: your statistical comments are welcomed in the comments area below…).

In the lowest reaches of English rugby union, in Counties 5 Surrey, Croydon RFC has had an indifferent time, lying sixth and with one last fixture against England’s worst team to look forward to. If they show up…

With five wins in 15 outings, Croydon has suffered some real shellackings – 12-63 against Reigate and 79-17 against Woking – yet enjoyed some better, albeit occasional, days with a 59-pointer at Merton and 49-0 thumping of Wandsworthians. Wandsworthians are this Saturday’s opponents.

Last word in this column is usually reserved for Old Suttonians, and this will be the last time.

Playing in the lowest division in English rugby, Old Suttonians were proven to be the worst side in English rugby. It’s just that there was no lower division for them ever to be relegated to.

That particular form of masochistic torture for a club nominally formed by the old boys of a soccer-playing school, though, appears to be at an end. Having endured successive miserable seasons of heavy beatings and repeated failures to fulfil fixtures, the last few weeks have seen Old Sutts disappear altogether from the Counties 5 Surrey rankings.

Whether the club has folded or merely withdrawn from the league is hard to tell: their social media hasn’t been updated since December and their website is down.

When a club withdraws from a league – usually under pressure from the RFU after repeated fixture infractions – all its results are expunged from the records and the team standings revised as if the club had never existed.

With the league down to nine teams, and with one game to play, Sutts have passed the mantle of being the lowest-ranked club in English rugby to Old Wandsworthians.

RIP PJF RFC’s Andy Cole: September 12 1968 – March 12 2024

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Old Walcountians

Old Whitgiftians

Purley John Fisher




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