There was a time when rugby in Hartlepool attracted five-figure crowds. Saturday’s derby clash between Rovers and West didn’t get close to that. Such is the damage that the professional era has done to the grassroots of the game.
There was still a decent crowd, even here in the seventh tier of English rugby. Cars were double-parked along West View Road outside the Friarage, Rovers’ home. However, as one of the West coaches commented, there didn’t seem to be all that many people in the ground, given the number of cars outside. And this Durham & Northumberland 1 clash saw both of these venerable clubs some way below their historical highs.
In the north-east, renowned as a hotbed of football, Hartlepool is an oddity. Here, rugby was the first sport to really take root. In the late 19th century, alongside Rovers and West, about half a dozen teams took up the ball and ran with it. In the modern, professional era, all about playing in football stadiums with plenty of razzmatazz for the TV cameras, that’s easily forgotten. Yet it’s clubs like these, with an emphasis on participation that endures to this day, that helped create the game we know today.
It was here that the famous Barbarians played their first ever game, taking on Hartlepool Rovers way back in 1890. That fixture, won by the Baa-Baas to the tune of three goals versus one try and one goal, was perhaps recognition for the pioneering tactical work of the years immediately prior: William Yiend brought some method to the madness of the forwards while Fred Alderson’s role in developing the ‘four’ three-quarters system saw him captain England, but never Rovers.
The club even snatched a world record from the mighty All Blacks when it racked up 860 points and 209 tries in the 1911-12 season, beating the Kiwis’ mark by 30 points. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the record fell to the rather lower profile St. Luke’s College, Exeter. Locally dominant – 45 victories in 70 Durham County Cup finals – and producing a steady stream of internationals for all four home nations, Rovers was a big deal in the amateur world.
Across town, West Hartlepool was a bitter rival. In those sepia-tinted pre-WWI days, it too produced players and performances to treasure. Five-figure crowds watched as Jack Taylor’s team defeated the game’s big names, including a memorable win over the Barbarians in 1902. West and Rovers fielded a joint team to face the All Blacks, England looked to Hartlepool as a source of talent for the national team. Admittedly, West suffered an abrupt hiatus in 1908 when the club committee switched to football and formed Hartlepool United. Later, amid some controversy between Rovers and West, the latter was placed in National League 3 at the start of the league era. That offered a springboard that took West to the pinnacle of the professional game – and to the brink of collapse. Homeless, and almost without a team, West groundshared for a season at The New Friarage – much wailing and gnashing of teeth among die-hard fans of both clubs – before settling down at Brinkburn in partnership with the town’s Sixth Form College.
Rovers never soared so high in the professional era. Initially placed somewhat below their ‘historic’ level – a story that reverberates around rugby from leafy Richmond to sea-blasted Hartlepool – the team slumped to the depths of North-East 3 before stabilizing in Durham & Northumberland 1. Which is where they met West in January’s derby.
The clash is still a big draw in Hartlepool, even if the teams had met in a friendly on Boxing Day barely 10 days earlier. The crowd saw West seize control of the game in the first half, turning around 27-3 in front. Then they saw Rovers fight back and make a game of it; poor finishing from West early in the second half cost them the chance to turn the screw, a brave rally late on reduced the deficit to 17-30 in the gathering gloom of a January evening. West still have hopes of catching Northern, another proud old club, and earning promotion back to North 1 East – the two meet in Gosforth next Saturday in a top-of-the-table battle. Rovers remain in mid-table, safe from relegation but far from the title race. Both clubs are light years away from the high-profile games on the TV in the clubhouse. Instead, with a raft of teams to accommodate almost all levels – and crowds that welcome proud parents, excitable kids and pampered pets – they offer an encouraging example of how a sports club can operate for a community, not for commercial interests.
The Friarage, Hartlepool, England
Jan. 5, 2019. Durham & Northumberland 1
Hartlepool Rovers 17 West Hartlepool 30