Well, what have leagues ever done for us?

Old Albaninas press officer Nick Hallett takes a look at the evolution of the leagues in rugby union

OLD Albanians took a welcome week’s rest before their next home fixture against Newbury Blues this Saturday and as it seems unlikely now that, despite four losses in a row, the spectre of relegation will haunt Woollams, some readers may ask what leagues are all about.

It will therefore be of benefit to look back at the days pre-1987, when leagues were first introduced, and examine how Rugby Union was organised. The game was made up of three strata. On top stood the ‘first class clubs’ – for example, Saracens – beneath them the ‘gate-taking clubs’ – such as Old Merchant Tailors (OMT) – and beneath these the ‘junior clubs’ made up of clubs such as OAs, OVs EAC (later known as St Albans), Harpenden, Tabard, et al.

The first class clubs are mostly still playing in the Premiership and Championship today, although there have been some falls from grace - Coventry and Rugby Lions spring to mind - and some new faces such as Worcester and Rotherham.

Clearly these clubs took a ‘gate’, so how did the term ‘gate-taking clubs’ arise? They, too, took a gate but generally acted as ‘feeder’ clubs of players to the first class set-up but had a constitution which only allowed the first teams of each club to play their counterparts in another gate-taking club. Thus, OAs’ first team only ever played OMT seconds. Also, they were characterised by playing each other at home and away each season to balance up the gate money.

Junior clubs, however, were at liberty to structure their seasons how they liked; OAs chose, wherever possible, to play another club on the basis of once per season, but to play the opposition from first right down to the fifth team. Not every club offered a full five sides and this is where smaller clubs would get a game against an OAs’ team. Steve Burgess, currently president of the OAs club, but at that time OAs rugby fixture secretary, recalls an enquiry from a new club in the north west of England who were desperate for a game anywhere at any level and would travel. That club was Orrell, who shot to prominence in the 1980s, played in the Premiership but have since disappeared from view.

This structure even fell off the edge of the season into Easter tour. In 1979, for example, OAs visited Torbay and the big Saturday afternoon game was at Torquay. They, however, were a Gate-taking Club and their first team played Old Milhillians, whilst OAs had to be content with playing Torquay’s second team. So where are they now? OAs are currently in National League 2 South, known to the technical side of the RFU as Level 4 (the Premiership being Level 1). Torquay are in Western Counties West, Level 7, whilst Old Milhillians are currently in Herts/Middlesex League 2, Level 10, coincidentally locked in a grim promotional tussle with OMT.

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None of the local clubs have gone above Level 4. Tabard and Hertford have reached this level and dropped back, albeit Hertford are making a determined bid to return, resting currently on top of their Level 5 league.

What leagues have done is establish a structure to the rugby season, certainly at Level 4 where OAs have almost more games than they can handle, and for the clubs at lower levels there are fewer participants in each league and consequently fewer games.

Any regrets? There are some regrets and they are twofold. Firstly many strong friendships were struck over the seasons with clubs that OAs played regularly and, if the Level is not the same, they do not reappear. Secondly, OAs had sufficient opponents of good quality within a forty mile radius of the club to be able to avoid the travelling that is now required. Taunton at 175 miles is just ‘do-able’. Launceston, who seem likely to drop to Level 4 from Level 3 at 280 miles is an overnight stay.

But there again, the club knew what promotion meant.