Oakfield News: Crossing the Rubicon and returning 'home' again

  Posted: 09.07.20 at 12:49 by Ralph Henderson

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"And Caesar crossed the Rubicon and burned his boats! "

TODAY this phrase "crossing the Rubicon" refers to reaching a point of no return. In reality the Rubicon river in northern Italy was of little consequence except for the fact that it marked the official border between Italy and Gaul (now largely in France). In 49 B.C. Julius Caesar was the Governor of Gaul and coming to the end of his governorship he was aware that he was about to lose his power.

According to Roman folklore taking your army over that river was an act of treason punishable by death! When Caesar took that decision, he was well aware of the consequences and knew that he would plunge Rome into a Civil War in which the Roman nobility would be led by the outstanding military commander of the time, Pompey the Great.

If he crossed the Rubicon there could be no turning back and with his mind made up, he allegedly uttered the famous words "Alea lacta est" - the die is cast and the decision cannot be changed. In Caesar's case it was a bold but successful choice as history shows that he won the Civil War and became the Emperor!

In England politicians often refer to a North-South Divide which describes the social, cultural and economic differences between the North and South of the country.

In Rugby terms we often refer to the differences in the style and success of rugby between the Northern and Southern hemispheres as being a North-South Divide. At the highest level there can be no doubt as to who is currently winning that debate.

Friends and old foes: Karl Napieralla and Charlie Dunsford

New Zealand won the first World Cup in 1987 and completed a double in 2011 and 2015. South Africa's demolition of England in last year's Final meant they too had been three-time winners. With Australia winning the crown in1991 and 1999, the Southern Hemisphere remains head and shoulders above the North with England's solitary victory immortalised by Jonny Wilkinson's drop goal in 2003.

Historically, in England there has been a significant division in rugby styles between the North and South. In the days when the County Championship provided the pathway to International honours the Northern Counties such as Yorkshire and Lancashire were known for their rugged, uncompromising and forward dominated style while in the south Eastern Counties and Surrey for example were noted for their free-flowing back play.

Eastern Counties were a major force in the seventies and eighties producing a large number of internationals. Most of these came from the first-class clubs and a strong connection with Cambridge University, but Thurrock produced several players such as John Mahoney and Chris Fuller who gained their county caps.

Today, county rugby still provides development for ambitious players with Thurrock continuing to provide Essex with numerous options including captain, Charlie Russo and vice-captain, Alex Jones.

In South Eastern Rugby there has been a parochial view of the contrasts between the styles of play north and south of the Thames. Throughout its history Thurrock long enjoyed travelling south and crossing its own Rubicon.

Indeed, one of its first games the newly formed club played in 1928 was against Gravesend; an annual fixture which continued until the introduction of the current League structure. Until the building of the Dartford Tunnels in 1963 and the QE2 Bridge in 1991, Thurrock players and fans travelled via the Tilbury Ferry to enjoy their away games.

Not only were the games hard-fought, but the camaraderie and post-match celebrations led to many a player and supporter sprinting down the jetty to get the last ferry home. Many of the other fixtures to places like Esher or Streatham/Croydon often involved a more circuitous journey over one of the London Bridges.

In England, club rugby was played through so called "Friendly Fixtures" system before the RFU. sanctioned a knock-out cup competition in the early seventies. Annual matches continued to be played on Saturdays with cup games being played on Sundays.

Thurrock's route into the National Cup was via winning the Essex Championship and they deservedly became known as "The Cup Kings of the seventies" often playing as many as 40 matches a year, but with the majority in the Essex region.

This pattern remained until 1987 when the Courage Leagues were formed into a pyramid with more than a thousand clubs playing in 108 leagues, all trying to gain promotion and avoid relegation.

Leagues came a little too late for Thurrock. After their outstanding cup successes in the previous 17 years many of the leading players had retired and the club went through a relatively fallow period, losing ground on its rivals. When regularly featured until that point in the "Rothman's Rugby Year Book" as one of the top 32 English Clubs, Thurrock would have expected to feature either in the current Championship or at least Division One of the National Leagues. Instead, with a decline in its fortunes, it was placed the equivalent of Division 3 (South).

Following re-organisation, promotion and relegation, Thurrock ended up in the London North Division which, with an Essex base, proved to be a more familiar home and there they stayed for the next stage of their existence. However, four years ago, fate intervened once again. With an imbalance of promoted teams Thurrock were asked to move to the South. This was, in part, owing to its proximity to the Dartford Crossing, but also to sample what was perceived to be a less attritional style of play.

Subsequently, the past three years have been spent travelling to new venues new and experiencing a diversity of rugby cultures. There is no doubt that during this period the team experienced mixed fortunes. Frequently ‘defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory’. On the credit side there were some outstanding victories over the teams who went on to gain promotion such as Sevenoaks, Brighton, Westcombe Park and Havant, but these campaigns were marred by inconsistency and promotion was proving an elusive expense.

It seemed as if Thurrock would remain having "crossed the Rubicon"! Then, a stroke of luck provided an opening to return to happier hunting grounds. London Welsh, whom Thurrock had defeated in last season's opening match at Oakfield, had been promoted and looked set to move to London One (North).

This seemed incongruous as clearly their home is in the South. Subsequently an audit was made of the pros and cons of staying in the South and at the "eleventh hour" Thurrock took the decision to return home.

The judgment was never going to be straightforward and required careful analysis. In terms of mileage there is not a massive difference in travel. Norwich is still a long journey! The major concern was the fact that the journey south entailed crossing the Bridge, not always easy in winter, complicated by Lakeside and Bluewater and often plagued by M25 congestion, thus travelling away always involved an early start in order to allow for potential delays.

When arriving late for games there was insufficient preparation time often leading to a slow start and inevitable loss. Most of the players (Chris Shorter being the one exception) lived in Essex and faced a journey before departing on the coach.

Furthermore, with increasing numbers of people having to work on Saturday mornings, unavailability was increasing on a fortnightly basis!

On top of all this, there was always the prospect of long delays at the Tunnel on the return journey and the misery of the M25 meeting returning football traffic. The major issue was that there was only one way to travel in that League and that involved crossing the Thames!

Travelling North, there are many different routes and familiar "short-cuts". For many players this means more family time or more work opportunities. Transport costs are reduced with more players travelling directly to venues nearer to home. Winning away from home is never easy as the team faced a difficult journey every other week, whereas the other teams only had to make the journey once a year when they crossed to Essex!

Playing in the South certainly meant it was possible to develop players in a different environment where there was often a greater fluency and emphasis on skills.

A bunch of dockers

There was also an opportunity to sample different refereeing interpretations; always a psychological issue when playing away. There was also a significant psychological advantage though, in the widely believed perception that Thurrock has always produced "tough" durable players who are a force to be reckoned with! This has long been the case.

I can recall a story told by former Thurrock stalwart and Life-Member, Karl Napieralla OBE., when he took the field against Esher in Surrey. Upon taking the field against John Inverdale's old team, the Esher players were overheard saying in fairly derogatory terms "Here they come, a bunch of Tilbury dockers!" Thurrock’s captain said, "Don't respond to that comment boys, we've already won this one. They're afraid of us, let them believe we are all Tilbury dockers!".

In reality there were only two of those esteemed Tilbury stalwarts, Derek Warrington and George Smith. Both very hard man, but real gentlemen and a pleasure to play alongside. Incidentally Karl was one of those luminaries who taught in Thurrock in the seventies and played such an important role in the club's development (almost every school had one or more outstanding rugby teachers, far too many to name or remember them all, but each and every one would have inspired future exponents of the game).

At the time Karl taught at Hassenbrook in Stanford with Phil James. There he discovered Ivan Whittall who was selected for the England schools Squad before becoming a great Thurrock recruit. Karl was a selector and coach at County level before taking up an appointment as a Headteacher in Wales, where one of his greatest pleasures came in coaching a young Adam Jones!

Reflecting on the past, the seventies were characterized by the enormity of Thurrock's spectator base.

All of Thurrock' Cup successes were achieved away from home with a couple of notable exceptions in London Irish and arch rivals, Southend. There is no secret in the fact that there were always more Thurrock supporters watching than for the Home team. Thurrock became the first Rugby Team to hire a train for a match when it seemed that half the population of the town travelled to Exeter for The John Player Cup.

The famous victory over London Irish a decade later was witnessed by two and a half thousand fans, most of whom travelled on a fleet of coaches to Rosslyn Park for the next round! As football is finding behind closed doors, without fans, home advantage is negated.

Over the last three seasons, even though home gates have remained strong, fewer supporters have been prepared to make the arduous journey south and the team was occasionally overwhelmed in hostile environments. The fact that there will be more local derbies should redress the balance. It is far easier to get to Brentwood than Southampton or Brighton for example.

On the matter of local derbies, it will be exciting to get back to those old rivalries. The fixture list will once again rekindle memories of those monumental Cup and League games against the likes of Southend, Brentwood, Chingford and Eton Manor. With no quarter asked or given these will be keenly anticipated and as competitive as ever. Perversely, the experiences of playing in the South, with a large proportion of wealthy teams with tremendous facilities will stand Thurrock in good stead and lead to a revival of fortunes for Martin Jones's young squad.

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp is that in most dynamic team sports, longevity is very rare. There isn't a coaching or academic qualification for getting through a pandemic. You do appreciate how important life is and why the camaraderie enjoyed in a playing career is so precious.

Sometimes sport can appear too serious and hopefully this crisis has left us with a sense of perspective. We should be kinder to each other and more compassionate. Also, and as we reflect when playing days are over, let's ensure that our memories are the fondest.

For me, I always woke up on Saturday hugely excited knowing that I would be spending a day full of fun and ambition with a host of friends. Many of these friends were playing for the opposition, but remain friends to this very day. Just this week I was talking to that brilliant scrum-half for Upper Clapton and Rosslyn Park, Charlie Dunsford.

The Thurrock family

He recalled what joy it had been coming down to play against Thurrock and how some of the players used to run on to the pitch wearing extra-long cook's shorts just to entertain the crowd, as well as irritate the opposition. Fifty years on Charlie still has great affection for many of his old adversaries.

Another great friend and team-mate Jon Langley also recalls the uniqueness of the "Thurrock family".

Having just left school, Jon played his first game for the Extra A XV against Rochford and a month later he was due to play for the Denes (Thurrock's Second Team) away at Barking. However, a few days before the game he received a second postcard to confirm he would make his first team debut against Barking at home. Though living in Gloucestershire these days, Jon has continued to be a wonderful friend and supporter of the club that he joined from school. His No.4 Second Row shirt and ‘100 First team appearances’ cap hold pride of place in his home!

Thurrock had elected to play in the South to sample a different type of rugby and there are some who say that, perhaps the experiment could have lasted longer.

"Ambition should be made of sterner stuff!"- Julius Caesar

There are former players who remember some eventful days over the ‘other side’ such as happy memories of trips to Havant and there are at least 15 people who played at Wimbledon on No.1 Court as it used to be the home ground of London New Zealand at Aorangi Park before being bought by the Lawn Tennis Association and converted into Wimbledon's splendid second show court!

Indeed, there are some great memories from the past few seasons such as the double over Westcombe Park and last season's "showstopping" performance against high-flying Horsham. My personal favourite was the brave defensive rear-guard action at Sevenoaks a couple of years ago where our outstanding supporters carried the team to victory through an onslaught of siege-like proportions.

Let's hope, with rugby’s return to action, as in New Zealand, rugby supporters will rekindle their passion and support live sport. We crossed our "Rubicon". We have learned much. "Ambition's debt is paid." - Julius Caesar

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