Bygones: Celebrating rich past drives on Otley to create fresh memories

IT IS arguably unique in rugby that a club as rich in history as Otley is best known for a game they didn’t actually play in.

RICH PAST: Action from Otley's Cross Green ground back in November 1979, when New Zealand were brought to their knees by the Northern Division, who won 21-9, the All Blacks only defeat on that tour.

The West Yorkshire club celebrated its 150th anniversary on Saturday when past and current players congregated at Cross Green after their National Two North match versus Leicester Lions to mark the notable occasion.

However, Otley, who have produced some greats of the sport since its inception in 1865, not least former and current England scrum-halves Nigel Melville and Danny Care, will forever be associated with a certain representative match on November 17, 1979.

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That was the date, of course, when the mighty All Blacks visited the little market town nestled between Leeds and Bradford. And, on a wet, miserable afternoon, they were duly brought to their knees in a shock 21-9 defeat by the Northern Division.

Melville, who started his career with Otley before eventually starring with Wasps and captaining England on debut, told The Yorkshire Post: “Out of all my memories there, the All Blacks’ visit to Otley has to be the special one for me.

“It was my club, my town and I was on the bench that day.

“I got to be involved in the build-up, the team talk, the passion that that team had and their drive to beat New Zealand.

“It was one of those special moments in time.”

It was the All Blacks’ only defeat on the 11-game tour, when they edged past England at Twickenham a week later having already beaten Scotland, and it has certainly gone down in rugby folklore after 8,000 people crammed in to witness events unfold.

Cross Green, which the club built in 1921, definitely has a habit of staging classic games, including being the smallest stadium ever to host a World Cup game.

Melville, 54, added: “I remember that, too, in the 1991 World Cup when Italy played USA and Ivan Francescato, the Italian scrum-half, scored an unbelievable try as they won 
30-9. I was commentating for ITV that day. Who thought then that I would be CEO of the USA now!

“The big events were always special at Otley and the stories the locals told of famous people passing through were great.

“There were lots of them like the one about the gate man not letting (broadcaster and former England player) Nigel Starmer-Smith in because he didn’t have a ticket.

“Otley always felt very special and excited when a big game came to town.”

Although it has never reached the top level of the game, Otley spent long spells in the sport’s second tier and has a reputation in the sport for being a “proper” club with traditional values.

Melville explained: “It is remembered for its big occasions, warm welcome and passionate rugby community.

“It always welcomed its visiting teams, fed them, bought them a beer and sent them on their way. It had the best pitch in the county, great facilities, and was always pushing forward.”

Melville, who would have won more than 13 caps if not for injury, returned to Otley later in his career before retiring in 1995.

He was director of rugby for a while before enjoying similar roles – and success – with Wasps leading them to their first professional league title in 1996 and two National Cup successes.

He then guided Gloucester to a league and cup double in 2002 before moving to the States to take his current role four years later. Melville fondly remembers the characters of the Otley club which has won the Yorkshire Cup nine times in its long history.

“There were plenty,” he said.

“They would come and go, but looking back Jack Harker was one of the people I remember vividly. He was a sort of country gent, ran the cricket club ... big, loud, noisy guy. He used to give us half a crown for doing the scoreboard on a match day or being ball boys. He would also get me international programmes when he went to Twickenham – I still have them today.”

In the modern day, more than 100 adults play with Otley which runs three senior sides but also has a thriving junior section of over 250 children.

Melville admits that celebrating 150 years of rugby is heartening.

“I hope the club can continue to be an important part of the community, provide support for so many in that community and keep giving so many a game of rugby every week,” he added.

“It has to move with the times and stay current, not wallow in the past, but celebrate its evolution. It is dangerous if it doesn’t do this…

“I will be in Leeds for the World Cup and hope to call in to see them all.”

Peter Clegg is Otley’s most successful coach having guided them in the second-tier of English rugby during his long tenure and remarkably – especially giving their limited resources – reaching as high as fifth in the then National League One for two successive seasons in 2004-05 and 2005-06.

Essentially, the unheralded outfit was almost knocking on the door of the likes of Leicester Tigers, Gloucester and Bath.

With names such as England Counties scrum-half Andy Brown, former Wakefield captain Glen Wilson and the long-serving clubman Ian Shuttleworth, they had some classy operators.

Add in a smattering of experienced former Leeds Tykes players, such as Justin Wring and current coach Mark Luffman, plus the brilliantly named Fijian Waisale Sovatabua, who famously shocked mighty Wigan with Sheffield Eagles in the 1998 Challenge Cup final, and Clegg did assemble some fine teams.

After a long absence, he is fittingly back there now, overseeing the modern-day coaching set-up.

The 65-year-old, who hails from York and also captained and coached Harrogate to Yorkshire Cup glory, still lives in Otley.

“It is a club that has got great people,” he said. “I’ve some terrific memories from Otley over the years and I was delighted when they asked me to come back this season as director of rugby.

“I’m working as hard as I possibly can with the coaches we have there – Mark Luffman, Charlie Maunder and Freddie Burdon – to make sure the team is worthy of playing for that Otley name and jersey.

“It is just a wonderful place to be. Its people have big hearts and big smiles and they are 100 per cent behind the team.

“Yes, they want them to do well and they can be vociferous if they are not happy with what they see.

“But they always support and are a great set of fans.

“To get to fifth those two seasons running was an absolutely outstanding feat.

“I’ll never forget that and they are great memories. There’s been plenty for the club over 150 years.

“But memories are just that – memories. You have to go out and create your own and that’s what we aim to do now.”