- Rugby Lions
The Rugby Football Club, nicknamed the Lions are a
rugby unionclub based in Rugby, Warwickshirein England. Rugby currently compete in National Division Three South.
In the early days of the club they had no fixed ground on which to play their home games. Some were played on the Market Field between Clifton and Hillmorton Roads where Lawrence Sheriff School now stands, and others on various fields on the outskirts of the town. The nearest they came to having a regular ground in those days was during the late 1870s when they played in a field at Eastlands Farm off Lower Hillmorton Road. In 1882 the Rugby Cricket Club agreed to the allow the use of their ground in Bilton Road as the Rugby Football Club’s official home for which a reasonable rent was paid. In 1922/23 the club obtained the lease of the field adjoining the cricket field which became the New St pitch, used by the 2 nd XV.
The club did not have a clubhouse of its own until 1958 and in the latter part of the nineteenth century the club’s headquarters were usually located at inns or hotels in town. The Queens Head in Chapel Street, the George Hotel in Market Place, the Star Inn in Warwick Street and the Bull Hotel in Sheep Street were all used in the early days, but it was the Bull that ultimately remained the choice until the first clubhouse was built. During the 1920s and 1930s and in the post Second World War years the new cricket pavilion was used to provide food for the visiting teams
During the 1880s and 1890s the players also changed into their football gear at one or other of the Inns or hotels and then walked to the ground, but in 1900 they started to use the old cricket pavilion as a changing room. In 1894 a grandstand, originally the gallery of a temporary theatre was erected on the ground and by 1910 the players were changing in a room built underneath it. No rugby was played during the period of the Great War and the stand fell into decay. In 1921 a new stand, complete with improved dressing rooms was built to replace the old one. This was moved to the opposite side of the ground in 1949 and a new dressing room was provided behind the stand, with the old one being converted into a makeshift bar. The new wooden clubhouse put up in 1958 was burned down in December 1973. A new, much larger brick-built clubhouse was erected at one end of the New St pitch for 1975, and this became the main pitch. Due to a financial crisis this building had to be sold in 1984 but the club were permitted to continue using the building. A third, larger clubhouse was eventually built in 1991, around one corner of the New St. pitch at the same end as the earlier one.
Like other schools In the early 19 th century Rugby School played a form of football. The famous action of William Webb Ellis, who, in 1823, ran with the ball in hand, stimulated football at Rugby to develop into a game which mixed handling with kicking. As such it was considered to be unique and it became known as Rugby football when old Rugbeians introduced it to other places and institutions.
The foundation date from which the Rugby Football Club’s anniversary years have been counted has always been assumed to be 1873. This was the year when the Club affiliated to the Rugby Football Union but the Rugby Crusaders, which became the Rugby Football Club in 1877, was, according to an entry in the Football Annual of that year, officially formed in 1867. This does not mean that the game was not played in the town prior to that date but if it was it would presumably have been on an “ad hoc” basis with no formal formation of a club.
No known documents exist which prove a connection between the Rugby Football Club and Rugby School but it would be surprising if there was not one in the early days of the game. Most young men have an interest in sport and it is highly likely that some of the locals would have observed the type of football which was being played by the school up to and after 1846, when the book of rules was sanctioned by the Big School Levee and printed in the town.
There is one piece of evidence, which is very suggestive of a link with the Club and School and that is the rampant red lion emblem. All the Rugby School Houses have their emblems and the red lion is that of Town House, the one to which local boys were allocated. This has always been the emblem of the Rugby Football Club and, like the boys of Town House it was also to be seen on a white football jersey. If Rugby School’s senior boys had anything to do with the origins of a local club Town House boys would seem to be the most likely candidates and they would probably have been wearing their House jerseys; school masters may also have been involved, as was the case in later years. On three occasions in the next 125 years Rugby School masters would notably re-vitalise the local club.
In the years up to 1877/8 the fixture list was often only partially fulfilled when games were cancelled due to a lack of players on one side or the other. From 1883/4 up to the outbreak of the First World War between 20 and 28 games were played each season by which time only inclement weather would prevent a game taking place. Current well-known local clubs who provided early opposition were Moseley, Coventry, Leicester and Northampton. All but Moseley were beatable in the early days though it was not long before the others became much stronger. Warrington, which defected with the Northern Union in 1895, was the first club played against that was not “local” and several meetings ensued between 1887 and 1895: Rochdale Hornets, another “league” club also played one game against the Lions in Rugby in 1887/8.
The club’s performance on the field varied from season to season according to the playing strength and the quality of the fixture list. The influence of Rugby School was felt in the mid 1890s when L J Percival, son of the Head Master of the time and already an England International, took over the captaincy of the Lions and attracted some equally good players into the side, including Scottish International H T S Gedge. This revival did not last longer than a couple of seasons and it was not until 1910/11 that the team once again achieved a run of good results, including the first win at Moseley in 40 years, but this was to be frustrated by the 1914/18 war. Two players were killed in the war and three others were unable to play again due to injury or ill health.
Rugby football, which had been stopped during the war, re-started in 1919 and the Lions opened the season with a match against Rugby School, winning 11-9: annual matches against the School had begun around the time of Percival’s captaincy in 1894. Among Rugby’s new players was J H Bruce-Lockhart, a Scottish International who was a master at Rugby School. From the following season until the Second World War in 1939 the number of games played increased to between 30 and 40 per season. During this period most of the London Hospitals and many of the London `old boys´ clubs joined the fixture list. In 1924 the Midland Counties Union was replaced by separate County Unions. The Lions 1 st XV never won the Midland Cup but their 2 nd XV won the Midland Junior Cup for a record ten times between 1890 and 1919.
Another outstanding International player who already had eight caps for England, G S Conway, joined the Rugby School teaching staff in 1922 and had an immediate effect on the team’s performance. Like Percival he attracted good players and the Lions benefited from the services of England Internationals M S Bradby and H J Kittermaster: both of whom were connected with Rugby School. Conway was capped eleven times while playing for the Lions and also played in the England/Wales v Scotland/Ireland Centenary game on Rugby School Close in 1923.
Conway departed in 1925 but his influence remained and, apart from some occasional lapses, this period was the most successful in the Club’s history up to this time: crowds of between 2000 and 4000 were not unusual. 1930/31 was probably the best season when Northampton were beaten 8-6 at Franklins Gardens, the first win there for 40 years and the last, except for 1939-45 wartime games, up until the present. As with 1914 the prospects for Rugby were looking very good in 1939. Other notable players in this period were, E E Haselmere, H J Davies, J H Treen, N C Marr, J Livingston, H E W Smith, C A Pridmore, E P R Bates and S C Elliott.
Rugby clubs continued to play games during World War Two but the absence of key players on active service weakened the teams put out so it was not until 1945/6 that things began to return to normal. The Lions did not start as well as they had finished in 1939 and team performance deteriorated into the mid 1950s when, yet again a Rugby School master came to the rescue. This was T K Vivian who had played for Harlequins and Cornwall. The Lions already had some useful players and Vivian managed to get the team to gel into something quite formidable. The 1955/56 season still remains the best ever in the Club’s history with only five games lost out of 36. Leicester were beaten at Welford Road for the first time since 1892. It was not to last though and in the next season 13 games were lost: Vivian was forced to retire through injury in 1957.
S J `Stan´ Purdy was the first local boy to win an international cap while playing for the Lions when he lined up against Scotland in 1962. 1964/5 stands out as the next “good” season when only 9 games were lost out of 41 and the Lions beat Bedford at home for the first time since 1912/13. R D `Danny´Hearn, who in 1967 was seriously injured in a West Midlands v New Zealand game, played for Rugby this season before moving on to Bedford. The annual matches played against Rugby School were discontinued after this season, as they were no longer competitive.
The cycle of performance by the 1 st XV continued into the 1970s, sinking early and then improving again to peak one season after the Centenary, which was deemed to be 1972/73. The Centenary season produced a number of special matches including a Sevens Competition, an RFU President’s International XV and a Rugby School Head Master’s XV (played on the Rugby School Close). In 1973/74 the Lions lost only 8 games out of 36. The team had a formidable back row in the form of N Malik, R Piggott and T A Cowell, which was selected en bloc for the Warwickshire side. A home win and an away draw against a very strong Coventry side was the gem of the season. The very next season began a decline in the Lions’ fortunes, which lasted until the latter part of the 1980s. B Seaton, J R G Slack, F J Webb, K W Taylor, E Gilchrist, R Pointon, R Pebody and S Thomas were also notable players during this period.
League competition in rugby union had been talked about for some time but in 1986 it was apparent that this change to the structure of the season was imminent. Led by new Chairman David Rees the committee saw this, as an opportunity to restore the playing fortunes of the Club and set about attracting players to Rugby who they considered would be able to achieve their aim. The ex England and Coventry hooker, Steve Brain, was the corner stone on which the new team was built. The National Leagues were launched in 1987/88 and Rugby found themselves in Division 4 North, one division lower than expected. By 1990/91 the Club had finished as Division 2 champions to gain promotion to the elite Division 1. Rugby Lions had demonstrated what good players could do with team spirit, commitment and confidence. Eddie Saunders, who joined the Lions from Coventry in 1987, was one of the most consistent contributors to this success, scoring a record 39 tries for a season in 1987/88 and breaking the all time try scoring record with 139 between 1987/88 and 1990/91.
For the Club to remain in the top flight the Lions needed some outstanding talent to be added to the existing squad but it did not materialise. In spite of this the Club performed creditably, beating Quins at Rugby and obtaining a draw at Welford Road, so avoiding relegation in 1991/92. It could not last, however, and Rugby was relegated at the end of the following season. The following season was no better and 1994/95 saw Rugby back in Division 3. Things had gone wrong off the field as well and the Club found itself in debt. This was due to the inability to service loans on the new clubhouse built to coincide with the Club’s Division 1 status. Notable players were, D Bishop, R Pell, I Heywood, C Howard, M Ellis, M Fleetwood, P Bowman, T Revan, M Mapletoft, M Palmer
The old Club ceased to exist and a new one, Rugby Lions Football Club, was formed with an entirely new committee. The RFU accepted that the new club could fulfil the Division 3 fixtures of the old club and the end of the season saw the Lions finish in fourth place. Financial stability was achieved and repurchase of the clubhouse, which had been repossessed by the RFU, was set in train. 1995/6 saw Rugby finish in third place and promoted to an enlarged Division 2.
In 1996 the game finally ceased to be solely amateur and the International Board accepted that a player could be directly paid for playing. In many cases this regularised what had been happening covertly for many years. Sponsors had been permitted since the early days of the leagues, Rugby had Blands and then Rugby Cement who was still the main sponsor, but their financial input should not previously have found its way into players’ pockets. In 1996/97 clubs could attract finance by a variety of means and, in effect, buy players. The Lions were badly placed for this and the lack of additional finance and a determination not to get into debt again was the main reason for a poor season’s performance. Some new players were introduced but the team seemed to lack a driving force and relegation was once again their fate.
For 1997/98 Lions were in the Jewson sponsored National Division 1. In addition to Rugby Cement’s continued sponsorship, Rugby Lions had financial support from Leamington Spa based nationally known catering company Elizabeth The Chef whose Chairman, David Owen became Chairman of the Rugby Lions FC. A number of new players were signed in addition to ex New Zealand All Black International Andy Earl who was player/coach and Geoff Davies, a former Bridgend coach, who became Coaching and Playing Co-ordinator. Rugby finished the season in fourth place and because of a readjustment of division sizes were promoted to The Allied Dunbar sponsored Premier Division 2. Both Lions sponsors remained on board in 1998/99. Andy Earl departed but the Welsh players brought in by Geoff Davies and Samoan international To’o Vaega remained. However, the Lions rarely demonstrated their true potential and the situation was latterly made worse by Geoff Davies’ poor health. Rugby finished in eleventh place. Some of the contracted players took part in an innovative coaching programme for local schoolchildren.
In 1999/2000 Elisabeth The Chef, no longer associated with David Owen who remained as Lions’ Chairman, discontinued their sponsorship, as also did Rugby Cement. The consequent drop in funding occasioned trimming in all areas. Ex Rugby Lions player, Mal Malik who had replaced Mike Adnitt as Chief Executive and new Coach Richard Kinsey (brought in as a player the previous season) worked hard on building a new team of predominantly younger players but the results did not come. Ultimately Ex Welsh international Paul Turner, who had been a notable success at Sale, was brought in as player/coach to replace Kinsey. Some additional players were signed in the new year but despite a strong finish relegation was not avoided...Paul Turner remained as coach and with a mixture of old and new players managed to blend them into a team that was able to secure second place in National Division 2 at the end of 2000/01 and return the club to National Division One. Rugby’s hoped for top six place in 2001/02 was not forthcoming, largely due to an early large injury list, and Paul Turner’s departure to Gloucester RFC at the end of September only made things more difficult. At one time the threat of relegation was all too close, but after a row of six lost games, an away win at Otley made things safe and the Lions finished in tenth place.
The 2002/03 season was nothing short of a disaster for Rugby. In addition to losing all 26 league games they also lost their only Powergen Cup game and three friendlies as well. Though former Bracknell coach Paul Rendall moved in at the end of October, in spite of improving the team’s performance, he was unable to conjure any wins and relegation to National Division 2 was inevitable some time before the season’s end.
Paul “Judge” Rendall continued as Rugby’s coach until the end of 2003 and at that point, with six games won against seven lost, the possibility of a second relegation seemed to be only an outside chance. Early on in the season the Lions pack had suffered at the hands of Harrogate, Nuneaton and Nottingham but in time, with the return of Tim Stannard and the arrival of Dave Campton, Alex Nash and Lee Crofts, it had improved and the backs had lifted the team’s latter performances. Following Rendall’s Christmas time resignation former All Black legend Wayne Shelford took over, but toward the end of January two of Rugby’s exciting backs, Spencer Brown and Lloyd Warner, departed and, despite “Buck’s” efforts, assisted by Brett Taylor, close wins became narrow defeats; the home game lost to Rosslyn Park, through a last second interception, was the final straw.
In comparison with the previous season, that of 2003/04 was an improvement, but unfortunately it was not good enough to preserve Rugby’s place in National Division 2 and, with a second successive relegation, the Lions find themselves back where their league life began in far-off 1988, when National Division 3 North was known as Area League North.
Rugby legend Eddie Saunders made his last appearance for the Lions in a midweek fixture as a replacement against the RAF in November 2003 and signed off with yet another try. This brought his club total to 253, his league total being 105. In 2000/01, Eddie overtook ace goal kicker Chris Howard’s record (1029 points) for the highest cumulative score, finally extending it to 1126. This is a remarkable achievement in that all Eddie’s points came from tries.
Webb Ellis Road.
* [http://www.rugbylions.net/ Rugby Lions]
* [http://www.therugbylions.com/ The Rugby Lions]
* [http://www.rugbylions.net/2006-07/history.htm History and records]
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