by STUART RUTHERFORD
FOR the vast majority of clubs, it’s not unusual to have a player or two call-off during the week building up to a fixture. Is it frustrating for coaches? Undoubtedly, however, at the end of the day, rugby – for the most part – is an amateur game and players do have a life outside of those 80 minutes played on a Saturday afternoon. Clubs learn to deal with these situations in a variety of ways: usually guys play out of position, or others are promoted from the bench or 2nd XV.
But how do you cope if an entire team of players disappears for nine weeks?
Well, that is exactly what happened to Madras Rugby Club in St Andrews not so long ago.
Craig Bones has been president at the club since 2012. Originally from Yorkshire, he found himself in unfamiliar surroundings when his job with the RAF landed him at the nearby Leuchars airbase way back in 1990. But he quickly grew to love the area and took up residence in St Andrews after leaving the military. A stocky hooker, Bones captained the local club from 1996 to 1999 before being forced to retire due to a serious knee injury.
“I had a bit of time out of rugby, decided to come back and it’s been non-stop since I took over as club president four years ago,” he shrugs.
It is the club’s mini rugby tournament – one of the biggest in Scotland, attended by over 500 boys and girls – and Bones is looking relaxed on a bench outside the clubhouse. As kids, parents, and volunteers wander past, they all wave and say ‘hello’, and each receive a friendly smile and a simple greeting of ‘alright’, delivered in a broad Yorkshire accent, in return.
Bones talking passionately about Madras’ youth set-up and the large numbers turning up to Thursday night’s training session is hard to reconcile with the painful backdrop of last season, when almost overnight the club went almost overnight from plodding along unspectacularly in mid-table of BT Caledonia League Division 2 Midlands to being on the brink of collapse.
“We got into a position where we didn’t have many local boys playing. The boys we did have were from the army – I think it was around fifteen in total, so basically our whole team – and then they left on military exercises for nine weeks, which you obviously can’t stop, and it just devastated us. It’s just one of these things where you have to hold yourself accountable and move on,” reflects Bones, who is clearly still pained by the experience.
“A number of Vets players came back to try and fill the gaps, including myself at hooker. I played five games last year. It was frustrating because we knew ourselves that we shouldn’t have been in a position like that, no matter the system put in place.”
“It got to the stage where we were unable to fulfil two fixtures and after the third time we knew we would get thrown out the league and deducted points, so we had to go about relegating ourselves.”
“It was a sad decision to make and we really didn’t want to do it, but we wanted to stay in control of our own destiny and we saw this as the best way of drawing a line in the sand and regrouping. We didn’t want to mess the other teams in the league around by calling off at the last minute, and we didn’t want to carry on like it was because it is demoralising for the players who were still there – and then we run the risk of turning them off forever as well.”
“It was unbelievably frustrating because we were going well in the league at the time, So there was a team meeting at the Tuesday training session and we let the players think about it, and the decision was made by the Thursday night. We looked at every angle and then unfortunately we just had to pull the plug.”
Although the club found itself in a terrible situation, Bones was able to stay positive and found strength in the fact that other clubs reached out to share their own stories of similar misfortunes.
“To have to relegate ourselves obviously isn’t a nice thing, but the support we got from all the teams in the league was amazing. They were basically saying: You’re not the only ones in this situation. We had Kinross telling us that they were in the same boat. Hillfoots said they were almost out of the league as well and knew what we were going through.”
In order to avoid a repeat of last season’s relegation ordeal, the club has put a lot of work into developing a youth system geared towards providing the first team with local talent.
“It’s all about getting a structure in place where you’re going to have guys in high school evolve to the under-18’s team and then eventually the seniors. Obviously a lot of kids head off to university now, so it’s about making the club attractive to the players who do stay in St Andrews and so far we’ve managed to do just that. Ultimately, we would like to have a development team that gets the younger players acclimatised to the speed of senior rugby, but it’s a work in progress. We realise that without a senior team, you don’t have a club and I think that’s really clicked with the players. Everyone has stepped up this year and taken on ownership,” says Bones.
With the club looking to start afresh this year in BT Caledonia League Division 3 Midlands (North), there has been plenty of cause for encouragement so far. After Saturday’s impressive 68-10 victory over Angus Development, the team find themselves top of the table with a game in hand over second place Waid Academy. Dundee University Medics – who have played three fewer games – sit eight points back in third place and are clear favourites to win promotion this year, but nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that Madras’ recovery has been anything short of remarkable.
As we sit on that bench, discussing the clubs’ plans for the future, there is a definite buzz about the place. Players, young and old, help out behind the bar: pouring coffees for parents and preparing sandwiches for the masses of mini rugby kids. There is a real sense of pride in the club.
“We still, obviously, have lots to do, but we’re heading the right way,” says Bones. “We’re now getting good numbers of local lads along to training and on a Saturday. Out of the 16 boys playing last Saturday, fifteen were local and one was from Leuchars – which is really the way we’ve got to try and build it.”
“Four years ago [when Bones first got back involved] the club was tired. We have been through some difficult financial times and there was obviously the horrible relegation last season, but we’ve managed to come out of the other side. We’ve got great sponsors, smaller businesses around town who really help out; we’ve got ex-international and former Madras College pupil Rob Dewey back coaching our under-18s; and we have teams now from P5 right through to the senior set-up, and even a Vets side who play when the weather is nice. It sounds rosy, but it’s still tough.”
Promotion or not, this season has been an overwhelming success for Madras given where they have come from. Not many clubs could bounce back from last year’s relegation the way they have and full credit has to go to the players, coaches, committee and, of course, their irrepressible president.
Although the club now has enough numbers for a full first team squad, they do find themselves a player or two short in the front-row from time to time, meaning that Bones may have to pull on the blue strip once again before the season is out.
“Let’s just say I’ve made myself available for selection,” he grins. “Not bad for a 49-year-old, eh?”