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β€˜Rugby is a dying sport.’

I’ve heard this repeatedly over the last few years and the evidence is there, from Premiership clubs going bust to a noticeable reduction in player numbers, especially among 2nd and 3rdΒ teams across club sides nationally. The ever growing list of alternatives mean that rugby is finding it hard to compete; as a friend once said to me β€˜it’s not the 1980’s anymore.’ I hope therefore, that this story of my time at Wotton RFC (not Wootton Bassett but Wotton Under Edge RFC – halfway between Bristol and Gloucester), will in some small way support the case for the grassroots element of the sport.Β 

Playing rugby for Wotton RFC brings it challenges. As surely, one of the last remaining pub teams in the country we face significant challenges. We have no clubhouse and are technically part of a local sports foundation, who as far as I can see do not see us as a high priority, because we are the smallest (but oldest!) club in the foundation with the fewest player numbers. The result of this is poor facilities, one pitch with poor drainage and freezing cold showers that occasionally have no water at all, both for us and the opposition. Pretty humiliating! One of our players actually brings a hosepipe from home, to connect to the taps so he can have some form of shower post training/game! But I digress, I’m here to tell you why it’s all worth it.

At school I played club, school and county rugby, loved it, and then stopped playing when I went to university. A familiar story I’m sure (and perhaps where the RFU should be focusing their attention) and it wasn’t until years later that I found Wotton RFC. Having played the odd 10 minutes while visiting local friends, I wanted to play for them when I moved to Bristol. This meant driving past about ten rugby clubs on my way to Wotton and I remember that first training session I turned up to, back in 2012, had five players in attendance and no coach. All was ok though, it’s always ok, because we all went back to The Star.

Dating back to 1572, The Star is a friendly pub and the spiritual home of Wotton RFC. Long suffering General Manager Lita Ralston is a constant support to the club and regardless of how training or the game went, it’s always β€˜back to the Star.’ My slightly suspect maths leads me to estimate that the rugby club has drunk a minimum of 30,000 pints in the Star over my 12 years at the club and that pub has been the setting for so many happy (and slightly hazy) memories. Whether it’s Six Nations, Christmas/end of season parties, fundraising BBQ’s, committee meetings, downing pints, attending beer festivals, buying new recruits their first pint, being the only customer for Thursday night pizza or just sat around with my teammates drinking and chatting nonsense, the Star has been the hub, the home, the beacon, with its warm embrace welcoming you in after a cold training session and I sincerely thank all the staff there, past and present.

Volunteering is something you learn to enjoy more with age and the club is heavily involved in the local community. It’s easy to sit back and let someone else do it but personally I’ve gained huge satisfaction from my involvement in local repair work, remembrance Sunday, fundraising, community summer touch rugby, festival stewarding, BBQ’s and the clubs mental health support. N.B. The current mental health group, now led by the senior players and committee members, is providing an unseen, underappreciated, but hugely valuable support network for our members! Most memorable of all, for me personally, has to be the Wotton RFC Life Skills Challenge videos filmed during COVID, in an attempt to keep spirits up. Former player Huw Edward’s video on β€˜How to be a Farmer’ was brilliant, racking up 54,000 views.

Ok…so you’re probably wondering when I’m going to talk about some actual rugby and I’m struggling to know where to start. So many training sessions, with numbers ranging from 3-30 players, freezing cold Thursday nights (don’t forget James, you can only be declared β€˜old’ when you skip training because it’s too cold). Seasons with two coaches and others with 0. There have been huge wins against local rivals, crushing defeats far from home, table topping seasons, winless seasons, games on a boggy pitch in the pouring rain, in the fog with no visibility, in the baking heat on a rock hard pitch and in the snow. There has been individual brilliance, wonderful team tries, terrible injuries…oh and tours. Tours have been legendary, but tour rules do not permit me to elaborate much further, and my trio of attendances to Gent, Prague and Munich were very memorable. Prague was the highlight however and a great place for a rugby tour! A post-match social with an opposition that spoke virtually no English, drinking beer that was so cheap it barely touched the kitty we had put behind their bar, for me is the spirit of a game that stretches beyond the pitch.

So many moments: pre game meet ups in the car park of the Star, lifts, pre match team talks (Pete’s rant about poor customer service levels in Sodbury restaurants will stay with me forever), managing to knock the ball on twice in a match whilst over the line, lineout calls that had stayed the same for 8 years, comedy kicking, scrums, tackles, rucks, mauls, some truly appalling refereeing, the post-match trudge back to the changing rooms, match reports and newspaper articles – you don’t realise it at the time but it has all been great.

There have of course been moments of genuine sadness; notably the passing of Ross Reeves and Peter White, two hugely missed club legends. And I suppose, that’s what it’s all about really:Β  the people, the characters, the nicknames. Players have ranged from teenagers to sexagenarians, from farmers to lawyers, tradesmen to entrepreneurs. Some have only played once and then disappeared, others have played since the dawn of the club. I’ve seen Frenchmen don the jersey, South Africans, Kiwis, Aussies, a Zambian and we are likely one of the few clubs in history to have a Fijian centre pass to a 5 foot Spanish winger, who had never played the game before, and then watch in bewilderment as all the supporters pitch side screamed β€˜put the ball down Carlos’ as he crossed the line…..happy memories.

Change is never easy, but as you get older, you accept it’s just a part of life, and it’s now time for me to move on. At 18 years old, when my hugely successful club side broke up, I never thought I would be as happy in a rugby team again. I was wrong. To all those I’ve played with over the years I thank you and hope to see you in the Star for a beer before I depart. In the 12 years I have lived in the South West, Wotton RFC has been my one constant, has given me some of the happiest memories of my life and introduced me to so many wonderful people. I’ve seen the club change lives for the better through the networks and connections it provides and many young players arrive, develop (personally, professionally and on the pitch) and go on to bigger and better things – you know who you are and I’m so proud of you!

It was an honour to have been Captain for a few years! To the current players: stick at it, get to training, keep fighting for this wonderful club and never forget that you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. I know at times it can be a struggle, a fight, frustrating, exasperating and exhausting but anything that’s worth fighting for is. To anyone thinking of joining, just do it, turn up and make twenty new friends, it offers you exponentially more in return that any computer, tv or mobile phone ever could.

So, if rugby is a dying sport, well then I’m going down with the ship as the band plays out β€˜We are the boys we are Wotton RFC, drink our beers in the Star and we play at KLB.’

If you’re ever in West Yorkshire pop round for a pint!

Gary β€˜The Russian’ Alexanderov
Wotton RFC player from 2012-2024

P.S. A short exert from the match report I wrote following the clubs first match back after COVID:

β€˜So, a Wotton RFC victory, and my first as captain; I’ve been waiting a long time for that. I had always thought, that when it came, I would feel triumphant but looking across the pitch at the euphoric players, subs and supporters (my daughter included) I just felt happy to be playing again and part of the best pub rugby team in the world, Wotton RFC.’