Oakfield News: 'Stand and stare' - an old school view as the game moves into a new era

  Posted: 29.06.20 at 08:21 by Ralph Henderson

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"A SET of good schools civilises a whole community" reported a Royal Commission in 1858.

The next time you travel through Thurrock on the A1013(old A13) stop at the junction of Orsett Heath and Baker St.Walk up to the road bridge to the elevated position and look west.You will marvel at the magnificent sight of the new developments which are effectively forming a "Sports Hub" at the heart of Thurrock.

Thurrock Rugby Club with its clubhouse, grandstand, gym and physiotherapy centre are perfectly aligned with the Orsett Heath Academy. In the background,Thurrock Harriers' stadium and, a little further to the west, Impulse Leisure with its swimming pool and leisure facilities.

To the south you can just catch a glimpse of the magnificent architecture of Palmer's College, one of the pre-eminent schools of south-eastern England. Now Unified Seevic Palmer's (USP) with its new rugby pitch, it is reminiscent of Rugby School itself!

Bathed in sunlight over the past few months and thanks to the outstanding work of the ground staff the playing surface at Oakfield is resplendent. It was the poet, John Keats who opined "First in beauty, first in might!". Not a comment always appropriate in parts of the south-east, but in these troubled times, it is certainly worth - in the words of W.H. Davies - taking the time to "Stand and stare."

Since its formation in 1928, Thurrock Rugby has known several homes including the rear of The Whitmore Arms in Orsett, The RAFA Club in Grays and the Clubhouse in Long Lane. A real landmark was the acquisition of the land at Oakfield and the building of the "new" clubhouse opened in 1979.

An outstanding team

The first match and "Grand Opening" was between Thurrock and an International XV put together by former British and Irish Lions' Manager, Dr Doug Smith. Doug Smith was a Scottish International and Lion himself as well as, arguably, the greatest Lions' manager having predicted the only series win over the "All Blacks" in 1971.

Doug, who resided in Orsett, was the club's President and had put together an outstanding team.

On a wonderful sunlit day a vast crowd was highly entertained by a superb game of free-flowing rugby and some sparkling tries. Commentary was provided by Welsh Lion, Brynmor Williams who, although injured, travelled to Thurrock to begin his career as a rugby pundit which he has continued with the BBC to this day.
Brynmor - yet another product of Cardiff College which has produced a constant supply line of great Thurrock players from Clive Beynon, Graham Morris, John Mahoney, Graham Davies, Mick Marmion through to Martin Eyles - is, of course, the father of Lloyd Williams whose run down the left wing and cross-kick to Gareth Davies brought the infamous try which knocked England out of their own World Cup in 2015!

Incidentally, current coach and England winger, Sally Tuson, is quick to point out that she went to Cardiff University and not Cardiff Met!

One of the stars of that game was the legendary back-row forward Dai Morris. Dai had been a coal-miner from Neath and a key member of the great Welsh team of the late sixties and seventies. He was eveything that epitomised the hard graft of living and playing in industrial Wales.

Mesmeric sidestepping

A couple of years ago, at a Wales-Ireland game in Cardiff, former Chairman and club legend, Lew Hughes, caught up with Dai and he recalled in detail the 1979 game. Dai remembered a cheeky Thurrock fly-half taking a quick 22 drop-out unaware that he was about to be "decimated" by the ever alert flanker.

He eulogised about the mesmeric side-stepping of Welsh centre Dai Richards, but remembered a high scoring, highly entertaining game in which Thurrock had played their part in a photo-finish of a result.

As ever at Thurrock, the post-match entertainment had been second to none before Dai and his party decamped to the Stifford Moat House Hotel where their revelry continued. However, the next morning at 5am Dai was back on the road as he had to get back to his beloved horses in the Rygos Mountains in Wales!

At this time the "Pathways" into rugby were pretty straightforward. In Wales, children played in the playgrounds of their primary schools and in parks or fields in the evenings. All towns and villages had teams and youngsters grew up modelling their skills and aspirations on their heroes who played for their town.

In pre-Comprehensive days, those who went through the Grammar Schools went into the Secondary Schools' system whilst those who left school at 15 (before the raising of the school leaving age) went through the "Youth System".

At Easter in their last season in the Schools System or Youth System, elite players and those showing potential were inducted into the Senior Team.

In England youngsters enjoyed similar opportunities and routes into senior rugby, although in England under 18s were called Colts rather than Youth. This was further enhanced by the Public School system.

Its larger population meant that England always had the largest playing base in the world.

However, before the advent of leagues, the talent throughout the country often went unrecognised. There were International class players who were never seen at Twickenham or any of the country's major venues. Occasionally clubs like Upper Clapton would produce Internationals (They once had three players in the England under 23 squad and Thurrock had two). Steve Callum played for England and George Mackie had five caps for Scotland.

In 1973 Thurrock defeated this star-studded Clapton team 12-3 in the Semi-Final of the Essex Cup. (A match remembered for Clapton star, Charlie Dunsford, being left for the night in the Long Lane Clubhouse.)

At this point in time, Wales were at their zenith, winning multiple Grand Slams! Why? Quite simply they had their pathways completed as there were only 16 first-class teams in Wales all competing in the Welsh Championship. All the top players graduated into these clubs and few "slipped through the net". The Welsh Selectors had an easy job!

In England,there were scores of outstanding players spread throughout the country. In 1975 Thurrock played Shelford in the Final of the Eastern Counties Cup. Shelford had several key players from Cambridge University including future England scrum-half and captain, Richard Harding.

In spite of being reduced to 14 men after John White's dismissal, Thurrock won a convincing victory with Thurrock's scrum-half, John Mahoney,completely outplaying Harding.

With its incredible Cup success in the seventies and eighties, Thurrock regularly appeared in The Rothman's Rugby Year Book as one of the top 32 clubs in the country, yet its players were rarely recognised at representative level, although its half-backs went on to represent Eastern Counties and the Public Schools'Wanderers!

As soon as England set up its League System and major clubs invested in their Academies, then their Pathways were far clearer and ensured future success at the highest level.

From the sixties onwards, Thurrock became a hotbed of rugby as schools became populated by zealous rugby teachers who upskilled talented footballers and spirts enthusiasts. Primary schools, spearheaded by the likes of Sam David, Norman Brown, Graham Morris, Keith Richards and Bob Williams, enjoyed outstanding development.

The secondary schools, with luminaries like Clive Beynon, reaped the benefits and continued the process. With so many of these teachers playing senior rugby this talent was channelled into Thurrock via the Colts' teams and Palmer's College which had become a Sixth Form after comprehensivisation. There was nothing more rewarding than playing alongside your former protegès in the Thurrock first team.

Wealth determined the future

With the advent of Leagues in the Eighties, Thurrock seemed set fair to become a major team in the South-East. Sadly the professionalisation of the game meant that the future would be determined by wealth.

At the same time, changes in education meant there was less time for extra-curricular activities and the clear lines of communication were eroded. There have been some valiant attempts to ressurect these pathways, most recently at William Edwards where Mercedes Foy produced some of the current squad and where currently Georgia Cook, Emily Scott, Matt Bowden and Ben Stanley have been prominent.

Throughout the UK and, indeed, the world, all those rugby supporters who for the past fortnight watched the Super Rugby Aotearoa matches from New Zealand must have viewed with a hint of envy.

The near capacity crowds demonstrate that there is a real opportunity to build a great future for the game. Sadly,at the moment in this country there are massive financial problems. We have already seen the likes of Leeds going the way of London Scottish,London Welsh and Richmond in the past.

All clubs are looking at the way forward and speculating about the way rugby will look in the future. In the past we have seen clubs, even at Level 5 and 6 having playing budgets in excess of £100,000 a year.

Clearly that will no longer be the case, but this, in my opinion, can only be an opportunity for a "level playing field". No longer will teams whose star fly-half is injured be able to compromise another club by "poaching" its up and coming pivot.

Thurrock's Head Coach is excited about the future.

Throughout his illustrious career he has been acutely aware of the vital need for clear and positive "Pathways"to underpin development of players.

With the tremendous development of the Colts' Team last season several players are transitioning to the First Team Squad. The opening of Orsett Heath Academy and the new Rugby Academy at USP Palmer's College will enhance the great work apparent at Mini and Junior level.

The renewed interest at all school levels will provide the impetus needed.

Martin Jones has a clear view of the future: "Perhaps more than at any other time, coaching will come into its own. The focus has to be on the pathways and improving the core skills and morale of the players at your disposal. Developing a culture of improvement and ambition is key to our future. We will need to be innovative and produce game plans which reflect the strengths of our players.

"Traditionally good teams have a solid experienced core,several players at the peak of their game and an annual influx of exciting young players. We are close to achieving that and with the Senior Players and coaches mentoring the younger players,the future looks bright."

All those attending training (Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 with social distancing and copious amounts of sanitisers) have been amazed at the wonderful facilities at Oakfield.

"Aspiration is the sequel to inspiration." Maybe Keats was right: "First in beauty,first in might!"

NB. These are my own personal views, intending to keep rugby in high profile during these times of inertia.

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