‘Strength comes from the hills’

Wharfedale RUFC may be a small in size, but they’ve definitely put the county on the map. As they embark on a record breaking 19th season in League Division One, Victoria Benn takes a view from the sidelines.

Wharfedale Rugby Union training session at Threshfield, Grassington. Picture by Bruce Rollinson.

It’s often the little things that stand out in a story, those small details which help crystallise the essence of something.

A current debate within the walls of Wharfedale RUFC is whether or not to air live matches in the

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

clubhouse on match day. Michael Harrison who is the current chairman of rugby, and who has been a leading figure within the club for the past 50 years, is against the proposal, “I want the people who come along to the club to focus on what’s going on here. I don’t want them to talk about another rugby match on the TV – I want them to talk about the Wharfedale game they’ve just watched or are about to watch.”

Wharfedale Rugby Union FC head coach Jon Feeley

Arguably it’s a minor point; however it’s that kind of self-commitment and single-minded ambition which has no doubt attributed to Wharfedale’s ascendancy to third tier English Rugby Union, and which has enabled them – against all odds – to stay there for 19 years.

Wharfedale RUFC started life late by rugby standards in 1923, when a local doctor and the local vicar decided to pull a side together. The vicar donated the first ball and also became the first chairman of the selectors, and the doctor became the first captain. The club’s iconic crest bearing a ram’s head and the White Rose of Yorkshire, and the club motto, “Vis Ex Montibus Venit”, which translates to “Strength Comes from the Hills” were also conceived – an almost visionary start in life for a club who’ve become a thoroughbred sporting establishment, dubbed locally as the ‘Green Machine’.

By the mid 1930s Wharfedale RUFC had started to gain a reputation as a dominant side beating local senior sides such as Bingley, Huddersfield and Hull, reaching the Yorkshire Cup quarter-finals on more than one occasion. Following cessation of play during the war years, the club then steadily built itself back up again to win the Yorkshire Shield in 1957. This achievement was not only a huge milestone for the young club, but sparked their appetite for ambition.

“This was a significant turning point for the club,” explains Michael, “There were a lot of really talented players all growing up together in the club throughout the 60s and 70s. We had some very successful seasons and were hammering a lot of the local sides, so we started to travel to meet more meaningful opposition, which is when our horizons really started to broaden.”

In fact Wharfedale’s ‘broadened horizons’ dovetailed nicely with the introduction of the leagues in 1987, with all their hard work travelling to meet teams further afield paying off as they entered the league board in North East One. With virtually consecutive promotions year by year they reached their current league placing within National League Division 1 in 1995. Elevation to the ranks of semi-professional rugby brought with it many new challenges for this rural Dales team – in particular the issue of attracting, growing and retaining talent.

“We had had the Colts team since 1958, and we were one of the first teams in the area to introduce a mini and junior section in the early 70s, but now it needed to be more serious,” reveals Michael, “So in 1996 we formed The Academy, which had the singular aim of developing our own talent from within the local area.”

Over the intervening years The Academy has more than achieved its stated aims, creating rugby talent such as Ian Peel who is the present England Under-20s Forwards Coach, and most recently Taylor Prell, who having completed his apprenticeship within the mini and junior section has just been signed to the England Under-18s squad.

Not surprisingly however, the foundation of The Academy in 1996 and the financial demands of playing away matches all over the country presented the age old conundrum about pay to the club.

“If we had stayed completely amateur we would have been relegated a long time ago.” reveals Michael with a smile, “So of course we pay our players, but it’s by no means a living wage, and I suspect it’s probably the lowest pay in the league. I have heard it said that a single player at some of the London clubs will probably earn the equivalent of Wharfedale’s entire team budget. City clubs are well placed to find investment from industry and commerce, for example Ealing Trailfinders are backed by one of the biggest travel companies in Britain. We can’t compete with that and we don’t try to. Our stipend from the RFU has diminished greatly over the years, so we are reliant on the support and sponsorship from local businesses and individuals, however a huge part of our success lies in the fact that we are still very much a ‘community club’ at heart.”

To this day, the club has only one full- time paid position, and that belongs to Hedley Verity, former club stalwart and holder of the record number of 1st Academy as Youth Development Rugby Officer – a position considered vital. All other positions within the club from Director of Rugby, to Fixtures Secretary, to press and marketing, to the groundsmen are all carried out by volunteers. Not just any old volunteers of course – these are volunteers with a deep love of the sport and in many cases, generations of involvement within the club. Some volunteers even have five star rugby pedigree, as in the case of Club President since 1978, John Spencer. John is a prime example of home grown talent, starting his rugby career at Wharfedale before going onto play club rugby for Headingley. With 14 England caps to his name, and a current position on the RFU management team, John is certainly an inspirational figurehead for the club.

In keeping with its community roots, Wharfedale run four senior teams, as well as the Colts and a 300 strong junior and minis section. Quite unusually pre-season training sees all four senior teams training together.

“There’s no us and them; it’s as important for the 1st XV to see themselves as part of the club as it is for the club to feel part of their success. Everyone, from the minis upwards has to feel that aspiring to the 1st XV is something within their reach.”

And, Wharfedale’s second team, the Foresters, have won the Yorkshire Premier Merit League three out of the last four years. Undeniably the club has had to expand and embrace players from further afield to maintain its high standard of rugby. Along with home grown talent, key signings such as James Doherty who returns to the club this season from Leeds Carnegie, are also crucial to the success of the 1st though going back to the relatively small budget the club operates on, Michael is keen to emphasise that, “We attract young players with rugby ambition not financial ambition – at the end of the day enjoyment has got to the biggest factor for any player. You have to look back over your rugby days with affection. I for one consider memories of enjoyment as more important than a dollar or two.”

Michael’s philosophy is an intrinsic part of the club’s spirit, history and tradition. “Who we are is intangible really, but it’s to do with having four teams and not just one, it’s to do with having a mini section and not just a front first team. It’s about our local rugby talent not needing to move away to play good rugby, and it’s about providing local people with high quality sport to watch right on their doorstep.”

Finishing last season in 9th position in National League 1, Wharfedale now has the dubious honour of being the only Yorkshire team within the league, albeit with Leeds Carnegie, Rotherham and Doncaster in the Championship League above. As one of three northern teams in their league this season, their achievements as a village team are outstanding.

“Our standard of rugby needs to go up each year just to tread water,” concedes Michael, “We are always striving for excellence and to be the best we can be. We haven’t yet, but we must never lose that sense of ambition; the moment we do – then we’re beggared. We go into a lot of games as the underdog and the challenge is there. It’s almost like an adventure – getting on the bus and going London; but if we win, especially to teams like Coventry and Esher – it’s like gold dust.”

Catch Wharfedale at home on Saturday, September 13. Kick off 3pm.

Wharfedale RUFC, Wharfeside Avenue, Threshfield, BD23 5BS. www.wharfedalerufc.co.uk