Modern day rugby is big business, at least at the international level. Whether it’s Six Nations, World Cup or the Autumn Challenge games against the Southern Hemisphere powers, there are at least a few weeks in the year when the oval ball game can challenge football’s hegemony over the sporting agenda in this country.
But the transformation in the game has been breathtaking. If it’s popular for football fans of a certain vintage to lament the devil-take-the-hindmost attitude infecting the game since the advent of the Premier League, the Champions League and ever-inflated TV contracts, the transformation of the rugby world over a similar time frame is even greater.
And it’s clubs like Durham City where that is most visible. In 1987, when the first Rugby World Cup took place, Durham supplied one of the players. Richard Cramb, then a 23-year-old fly half, was called into Scotland’s squad and made his international debut against Romania. At that time, Durham’s Hollow Drift ground formed part of the cross-country route that opened my PE lessons at the nearby school on Whinney Hill. The school is long gone, as are international players with City.
Earlier, the club made an even greater contribution to the international game. The club house boasts display cabinets well-stocked with international jerseys and caps, plus even more evidence of representative honours at county level. In the 1960s, Mike Weston captained England while playing for Durham. More recently, the likes of Will Carling and Phil de Glanville turned out for the club while studying at Durham University. The link-up between town and gown continues on a more formal footing, with Hollow Drift serving as the home for Durham Palatinates rugby, but it’s hard to imagine future international stars emerging from this muddy corner of the city in the current cut-throat era of pro rugby.
Instead, there’s a club rooted in its community. In many respects, amateur rugby is a direct equivalent of non-league football: small crowds, a reliance on a volunteer committee to keep the show on the road and a spirit of collective mucking in for the cause. At Durham, there’s even a grandstand (seated capacity supposedly 500) that would not look out of place in the Northern League; this modest brick structure was built as a memorial for Durham players lost in the war; in better weather, the grass bank opposite is a more popular place to watch the game and enjoy the woodland scenery beyond.
If there’s a difference between the two sports, it’s in the level of participation. Few Northern League football teams run such an extensive network of schoolboy, junior, colts and veterans’ teams. It’s easy to imagine that most of the spectators on any given Saturday used to toss a ball around themselves, and have switched to the sidelines due to age or other commitments. Late in the first half, a troop of players stomps muddily round the touchline following their veterans game against their Cleckheaton counterparts. Playing, rather than just watching, lies at the heart of the club in a way that isn’t always the case on the terraces at a similar level of football.
In the amateur days, City was a strong outfit. The second oldest team in the county, formed in 1872 (Darlington, founded in 1863, is the oldest), it has a proud record of winning county cups. In the 1988 Pilkington Cup, rugby union’s first major national club cup competition, City defeated Sale (now Sale Sharks of the Premiership) before losing to Wasps. But since the advent of professionalism, the club has been distinctly minor league, competing with other famous but faded names like Hartlepool Rovers in the Durham and Northumberland league, and yo-yoing into North 1 East.
That’s where the 2019/20 team is playing, and the visit of Cleckheaton pitted two teams from opposite ends of the table against one another. The Yorkshire team, fresh from a win against the league leader, was well placed in second; Durham was just above the relegation zone after a narrow loss at Bradford the previous week. The programme noted Cleckheaton’s loss at fellow strugglers West Hartlepool, but the claim that any team could beat any other in this league felt a touch optimistic.
However, that belief was vindicated. Cleckheaton dominated the early stages – the opening 15 minutes or so was played entirely in the Durham 22 – but struggled to break down a rugged home defence. Squally, wet conditions made kicking a lottery; a quick handling game through the backs was also fraught with risk. Durham soaked up the pressure for the loss of one converted try, then grabbed a tying score late in the first half.
Tales up, the hosts moved in front early in the second. The decisive breakthrough came midway through, when captain Paul Armstrong burst through a tackle and ran the ball in from deep to open a 19-7 lead. There was still pressure to absorb – a fantastic try-saving tackle Garry Izomor sticks in the mind – but a late penalty proved enough to get Durham over the line with a 22-19 scoreline, just before storm Dennis arrived to scour the town with rain. By then, though, everyone was safely back in the clubhouse, digesting the game with the help of a video on the TV screens..
Hollow Drift, Durham, England
North 1 East. Feb. 15, 2020
Durham City 22 Cleckheaton 19