Professionalism has brought great riches to English rugby, but also wrought deep and irretrievable change. The involvement of CVC Capital Partners in English club rugby would have been unthinkable just twenty years ago. The transformation has been rapid, and one club, the once mighty Orrell RUFC, have suffered more dramatically than any other.
The 1986/1987 season was a landmark year for English rugby, the first with an organised competitive league system. The top tier featured twelve sides, and the new ‘Courage league’ was won, in what would become familiar fashion, by Leicester.
Behind them came fellow titans of English rugby: Wasps, Harlequins, Bath and Gloucester, followed by, in sixth, Orrell, who that year beat the eventual champions 30-6 at home.
In the same year Orrell also reached the semi-final of the John Player Cup, losing to eventual winners Bath, having beaten Gloucester, Harlequins and Sale in their cup run. Orrell, based in Wigan, Greater Manchester, beat Northampton 60-0 in 1990/1991, and in ‘91/’92 went undefeated at home, narrowly finishing second in the league to Bath by just a point.
Speak to English rugby fans of a certain era and they will reminisce nostalgically about the sounds and smells of Edge Hall, a community run ground that attracted raucous crowds of up to 6,000. As rose tinted and quaintly idealised as images of mushy pees, enthusiastic locals and towering second rows in distinctive black and gold kits may be, they do paint a picture of a thriving club built on a passionate base of support.
Fundamentally though, this support was underpinned by an excellent rugby team. According to Stephen Jones, a former Sunday Times columnist, “Orrell were one of the best teams of the era. They had superb facilities and were run on love and passion, not money. When they were at their peak just before professionalism, they were a frighteningly good side.”
Soon enough though, it was money, not love and passion, that ruled the roost. Professionalism was the beginning of a long and tortuous decay for this once proud club. Unable to match the spending of other clubs, and with mounting debts, the club made the conscious decision not to pay more than they could afford.
As a result, in 1996, Austin Healey, one of two British and Irish Lions to represent Orrell, became one of sixteen high-quality players to leave the club for greater financial rewards elsewhere.
“Austin has signed for Leicester to better his chances of playing for England and I have no qualms about his motives at all,” said Peter Williams, Orrell’s Rugby Director at the time, “It looks as though we are always going to lose good players but that’s the way of things.”
They were relegated that season, and by the end of 2000/01 were playing in National Division Two. An arson attack on the clubhouse, destroying many international jerseys donated by players, came to symbolise a club whose status as one of the country’s elite had evaporated in just a few years.
Briefly, there seemed to be hope, in the form of Dave Whelan, then owner of rugby league’s Wigan Warriors and sports brand JJB, who promised £10,000,000 of investment. Yet, having failed narrowly to return to the topflight, Whelan pulled out of his £30,000 annual JJB sponsorship deal, casting the club adrift financially.
It later emerged publicly that Whelan had given ownership of the clubhouse and first team pitch to Wigan Warriors, returning it to Orrell on a 25 year lease at a prohibitively expensive rate. He was accused of ruthlessly exploiting the club by fans. By 2007 Orrell found themselves 29 points adrift at the foot of the national league system. They now play in South Lancs and Cheshire Division Two, the eighth tier of English rugby.
As a result, “the club has withered as the heart of the community,” says Simon Mason, a former Orrell player and Ireland international, “it’s difficult to see a way a back.”
Declines this rapid are rare, only a small number of clubs, such as West Hartlepool and Liverpool St. Helens, can trace a similarly dramatic pattern of boom and bust.
The case of Orrell sheds light on the rat race that is modern rugby, revealing that in and amongst the glitz and glamour of television deals and multi million pound takeovers, there are the forgotten losers, cast adrift by those whose sole objective is to avoid the same fate.
Written by Joe Ronan
(Image: Orrell RUFC)