Old Emanuel RFC are based in New Malden, South West London. In 1999, the club opened its doors to non-old boys of the affiliated Emanuel School, and since then it has slowly transitioned into a stalwart of the local community. Like all good clubs its stated aim is to promote “a safe and enjoyable rugby environment.”

However, having spent two decades successfully fostering deep ties with the local schools and families, Old Emanuel now face the disastrous prospect of being turfed out of their home. They turn out three senior sides weekly, a women’s team, a colt’s side, and have a thriving minis and juniors’ section; the club is healthy and vibrant, a relocation would threaten that.

These are achievements that club chairman Justin Latta is justifiably proud about. We chatted to him about his 21 years with the club, initially as club captain and now as chairman, a period in which the club has changed significantly: “we’ve definitely got more local people involved,” he says.

Now, a dispute with the Emanuel School, who lease their pitches to the club, presents Latta with a new challenge. This new hurdle could leave his club homeless. The school wants sole possession of their grounds by 2022, leaving Emanuel RFC in an uncomfortable situation. Regardless, the club stress it remains business as usual, with players and coaches alike stoutly refusing to allow this looming distraction to derail their season.

This is a complicated dispute, in which it is counterproductive to attribute blame. Emanuel RFC are subtenants of the schools’ old boy’s association, and both sides would accept that the lease not been managed well by either party. Latta is now deep into a process of engagement with the RFU and county councils, searching for possible alternatives.

Although optimistic, as chairman, he is under no illusions of the difficulty of the situation his club now find themselves in, “the RFU have been very sympathetic,” he said, “but it’s more ideas, they haven’t got the money to support every proposal.”

The RFU are not the only ones. Like many clubs, Old Emanuel themselves are far from financially secure, and the pitch situation looks set to stretch finances further. As those involved in running a club know, this is the reality of grassroots rugby. Money is tight across all leagues and localities.

“Is paying players in our ethos?” Latta asks wryly, “well, A: we’re not in a position to do so. It’s just not sustainable, you’re always one sponsor away from disaster, and we can’t generate the revenue to justify it,” he says, before returning to the topic in hand, “but B: no, I don’t think it is.”

Sadly then, the case of Old Emanuel illustrates the fragile, perilous nature of community rugby. What must be emphasised, though, is that these complex situations are faced by all clubs, Old Emmanuel remain resilient and committed to securing a positive outcome.

Fifteen years ago, Latta says, a decision was made to “get self-sufficient and generate our own players.” Symbolically, the club celebrate their 110th birthday this year, the first that they will be able to field a full senior colts’ side, having made that their chief target in pursuing sustainability.

For the clubs’ hierarchy, this is the culmination of their positive work developing the minis and juniors over the last decade or so, which has, happily, coincided with a series of promotions in recent years too. These forward steps for the future of the club have been completed in spite of the playing field disputes.

In spite of their tenuous situation, Latta is effervescent about the benefits of developing a pathway from colts to seniors, and evidently proud of Emanuel’s achievements with the colts. However, all the positive aspects of developing a colts team, generating a sense loyalty and affinity for instance (“hopefully the players feel as if it’s their club”), are clearly at risk if Old Emanuel are forced to move.

“Even five miles is far in London you know,” he laughs, “that could take us forty minutes.” In that instance, which is far from the worst possible outcome, the local ties those at the club have worked so hard to develop would be at risk of evaporating. Particularly in the saturated environment of South West London and Surrey, where there are over thirty clubs in a space of around six square miles.

The anxieties surrounding Old Emanuel will no doubt be painfully familiar to many: how to ensure the transition of colts to seniors? how to keep the club competitive without losing its ‘soul’? and, crucially in this instance, where are the club going to play?

Community rugby is by definition an uncertain world, sustained only by the dedication of a few volunteers and the goodwill of various stakeholders, but without it the game would have no moral roots and no interaction with the communities that sustain it.

In an increasingly sterile, competitive and emotionless sporting environment, the continued health of clubs like Old Emanuel is of paramount importance.

Written by Joe Ronan

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