07 June 2021
From The Vaults
Writer and historian Keith Gregson uses his experiences in researching Sunderland Rugby Club's past to open a debate on writing rugby club histories.
In 2011, I was fortunate enough to win a competition organised by Rugby World magazine and MX Publishing. The prize was to have my research on the history of Sunderland Rugby Football Club published as a book. The prime aim of writing the book was to raise funds to buy shirts for the club's adult sides. Now this has been achieved, I am keen to pursue a more selfish aim and, in particular, to share with others some thoughts on templates which might make a local rugby club history of more than local interest. I have singled out a series of questions that may be useful to intending rugby club historians and especially to those involved with clubs founded in the rush to rugby football in the mid and late Victorian period. These questions will be dealt with one at a time, using my own findings as exemplar material.
How and why was the club founded? Between Christmas and New Year 1873 a group of young men assembled at the ground of Sunderland Cricket Club near the town centre to play a game of football under the rugby rules. This was reported in the local press as the first game for the recently formed Sunderland Club. The local paper named the two captains as well as the scorer of the only try. There is also a photograph in the club archive of some of the players early in 1874 when the club had started to play regular games against other sides. It is fairly easy to place the formation of Sunderland RFC into context both nationally and regionally. By the 1870s, football had divided into two codes - the association code or 'dribbling' game and the rugby code or 'handling' game. Both had developed from the traditional 'street' football and school football games - the latter forever associated rightly or wrongly with Rugby School. Sunderland RFC was one of the first rugby clubs to be formed in north east England. Some if not all of its players had played at boarding school and had met up to play occasional games with other former pupils from the wider counties of Durham and Yorkshire prior to 1873. Sunderland RFC was thus formed by a group of young men schooled in different places but united by links of class and age and, in most cases, some experience of playing one of the forms of football. They lived in the detached houses and semi-villas newly built in the suburbs or beside the sea and chose to play the game for leisure, entertainment and companionship.
How did the club cope with the breakaway of the rugby league and early professionalism? In the autumn of 1895, the committee of Sunderland RFC received a weighty document from the RFU confirming that 'professionalism' was 'illegal' and setting out in detail the requirements for the amateur game. This document is still in the club's archive today with the words 'agreed to' pencilled in throughout. Clearly the club was not interested in paying players at this time. Sunderland was an industrialised town in a heavily industrialised region yet its rugby club stuck firmly to the amateur game. The vast majority of its players came from a class where the issue of work time and money was not on the agenda and where the game did not attract crowds capable of supporting the professional game. The same appears to have happened at other clubs in north east England although here as in other areas the 'coping with professionalism' question needs to be asked by individual club historians in order to move from speculation to reasonable certainty.
How did the club cope with the rise of association football? This is potentially one of the most interesting areas of club research. Both rugby football and association football had developed from the same roots. By the 1870s they were clearly different sports although as late as the 1880s many newspaper reports remain unclear as to which code was being played. In the case of the town of Sunderland, the development of association football came at a later time than in the rest of what was to become a 'soccer' mad region. The main rugby club was formed in 1873 while Sunderland SAFC traces its roots back to 1879. In the committee minutes there are occasional suggestions that the club might 'adopt the association code'. During the Edwardian period, this suggestion reached a level where a serious meeting was held to discuss the possibility and a county rugby player was among those who thought it might make sense to move in that direction. Ultimately the idea was rejected on two counts - the first being that it would destroy the strong links between rugby and cricket and the second that a majority of the administrators were against professional sport at the club. There remained tenuous links between the rugby club and its famous neighbour during the twentieth century. The rugby club used Sunderland AFC's Roker Park at one point to put on a regional representative match against the visiting All Blacks and as late as the 1950s, there was some talk of allowing the Ashbrooke ground to be used for Sunderland AFC's reserve fixtures. Nothing came of this. The question of whether to play football by the association code or the rugby football code is one that many clubs formed in the Victorian period must have had to face. A number of modern association clubs made the decision to move from the 'handling' game to the 'dribbling' game yet one wonders how many current rugby clubs like Sunderland toyed with the idea of change before continuing to play the same game'. Again only further local club research can satisfy such musing.
How did the club cope with the effect of death and injury in war? The effect of the First World War on rugby sides was massive. Adult rugby sides only had to lose a couple of players in order to be (almost literally) decimated and there must also have been an immeasurable number of those wounded in body and/or spirit who never returned to the game. In post war Sunderland there were perceivable efforts to rebuild rugby within the community. The committee of Sunderland RFC co-operated with the RFU, the Education authority and the ship -owners in order to promote the game among the young. Soon there was a highly active school league and rugby was also built into the shipyard apprenticeship scheme with a number of weekly leagues here too. One significant outcome of this development was the birth of a number of adult junior sides (junior being an official term to describe a lower level of senior rugby rather than anything to do with age). Players who had enjoyed the game at school or in apprenticeship could continue to play afterwards and the better players fed up into senior clubs like Sunderland RFC. After the Second World War, such activity was less marked although as early as September 1944, committee members were linking up with players in their last years at local public schools with a view to their playing at adult level when the time came. Immediately after the war, much of the members' effort went into restoring the ground which had come under enemy attack. When the 'effect of war' question was asked of Sunderland RFC, much of the answer was made possible by the survival of a small notebook registering school league results - meticulously kept by a keen club committee man. Other evidence was gleaned from club minutes and local newspapers. Hopefully similar evidence may have survived for other rugby clubs.
What has been the reaction in recent years to the national growth of colt, junior and mini rugby and to the introduction of leagues and professionalism at senior level? Since the Second World War, rugby union had changed almost beyond recognition. Significantly the RFU gave way firstly to a national club competition then to leagues and ultimately to a form of professionalism designed to work side by side with the amateur game. At the same time, organised coaching, disciplined training and tactics became the order of the day; colt rugby for the late teens, junior rugby for the early to mid-teens and ultimately mini and midi rugby from toddlers to 12 year olds was also introduced. More recently still there has been a growth in women's rugby. The Sunderland club's response to this has been one that has left it as 'one among many' although more research needs to be done before the term 'typical English rugby club' can be applied to it. In respect of coaching and developing successful colts' sides in the 1950s and 60s, the club was ahead of the game. For a variety of reasons, (including a lack of support for the professional game and a local economic downturn leading to emigration in the 1980s), the club was not in a strong position when the leagues were sorted out. It has remained happily tucked into the lower middle of the league system and currently shares a fixture list with many of the old Durham and Northumberland sides that have been rivals for nearly 140 years. Mini rugby was taken up with great enthusiasm and the ground is packed with coaches, players and supporting parents every Sunday morning with teams running at every age group. More significant perhaps is the rising age of the regular adult player. In the 2011/12 season, the 3rd XV won its league with a side composed of a number of players over 50 and one over 60. Initially in the late twentieth century 'veteran' rugby started with a social side playing on an irregular basis. Clearly this was not enough for older players who still want a regular competitive challenge as well as social companionship. Other club studies should show whether this is a national trend or not. Finally, September 2012 saw Sunderland Women's Rugby team enter the arena with a 26-26 draw away to Harrogate - a club where the men's side had been Sunderland's rivals since the very early days.
In Conclusion if this article has successfully achieved its aim then a lengthy conclusion is unnecessary. The hope is that enthusiastic rugby club historians may read it and 'go and do likewise' - especially with the key questions in mind. Hopefully this might lead to a clearer overview of what was happening at grass roots to the game we now know as rugby union as it wended its way slowly and often painfully towards the modern game.
About the Author - Keith Gregson is a Sunderland-based semi-retired freelance writer, historian and musician. He has written numerous books about the history of sport including 'One Among Many', 'Sporting Ancestors' and 'Australia in Sunderland'. Details of his work can be found at keithgregson.com and his books can be purchased from Amazon.
15 February 2021