Fifty years of burgh rugby

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foundersAN RBS West League One side with a splendid clubhouse and a stand opened by royalty . . . Helensburgh Rugby Club has come a long way in fifty years.

That was celebrated right royally over the weekend of August 23-25 2013 with a full programme of golden jubilee events and matches.

Many former players — some having travelled long distances — joined the players of today for a three day party. The main event was a Dinner and Ball in the nearby Lomond School Sports Hall, attended by 417 people which is thought to be a record for a dinner in Helensburgh.

Those founder members able to attend were each presented with a Founder's Medal by the president of the Scottish Rugby Union, Dr Donald Macleod, who was the principal speaker.

It is all a long way from a 1963-64 meeting in Dino’s Café on the seafront of a Saturday morning and inviting young men who had never played the game before to join the team to play in a match that afternoon.

That is the way it was in those early days, and the team was not even called Helensburgh.

It all began with a group of senior pupils at Hermitage, led by captain Campbell Smith and Fergus Howat, setting up a team at the school. After they left they wanted to carry on playing rugby, but the town did not have a team.

The former Hermitage pupils decided to set up a town team, but fixtures were hard to find for a new team, apart from playing the Faslane navy side.

Fergus and Donald Fullarton played a few games for Shawlands Academy FP 3rd XV, and when Shawlands were having difficulty fielding a side they offered to take over the fixtures, while retaining the name and strip and using their Nether Pollok pitch.

The burgh men played the 1963-64 Shawlands fixture list, but their first ever victory came when playing as Helensburgh against the Scottish College of Commerce at Coatbridge in February 1964, winning 14-3.

It was an unusual but ultimately successful way of setting up a burgh club, which in due course moved to Ardencaple, gained its own fixture list, adopted a green jersey, and became known as ‘the Greens’.

Those days were very different from today’s professional approach to training, facilities and play. It was several months before the original team even had a training session as they were quite happy just to turn up on a Saturday for the trip to Glasgow.

That is where the Dino’s Café meeting came in, and on several occasions lads who had never played the game were coerced into putting on the then blue jersey with yellow horizontal stripe. Travel was in whoever’s cars were available. Most loved it, and stayed.

Nether Pollok on Saturdays was a hive of sporting activity, with rugby and hockey teams in action and often not enough dressing rooms to go round. The pitches always seemed to be muddy.

But that was a great deal better than the visit to one club which was building a new pavilion. The visiting side had to change in a nearby garage and had a bucket of cold water between 15 to wash with afterwards.

Then there was an away game in Ayrshire where the two sides fell out to such an extent that after match hospitality was refused and the visitors had to seek sanctuary — and pies — in a local pub.

That level of rugby often provoked many expletives. The opposition players were not to know that the burgh stand-off was the minister of Helensburgh Baptist Church, the Rev Russell Davidson, and he never batted an eyelid.

Yet, from a physical perspective, the matches against Strathclyde Police were by far the toughest, but afterwards the hospitality as being warm and friendly.

1st-rugby-XV-wAt least a dozen of those who represented the burgh in the team’s infancy still live in the area and will be taking part in what promises to be a thoroughly memorable weekend, which has been organised by a committee of the current membership.

This picture (right) is thought to have been the first ever of the burgh side, and was taken at an away match at Irvine.

Back row: Douglas Dow, Douglas Sammon, M.Maley, R.Thorn, Mike Morris, Buchanan; middle row: Alcorn, Graeme Heron, Tom Taggart, Rod Hacking, A.N.Other; front row: Alan Howat, the Rev Russell Davidson, Robert Cousin Wood, Davis.

To mark the Golden Jubilee, Helensburgh man Calum McNicol, whose family hails from Rhu and who is now a Ministry of Defence PRO at Faslane, researched and found photographs for a splendid 140-page book entitled ‘The First Fifty: celebrating 50 years of rugby in Helensburgh’.

He wrote: “In an area blessed with a plethora of historic sporting clubs, senior rugby did not feature in Helensburgh until 1963.

“The journey towards becoming what is now arguably the town’s most recognized and successful club — indeed, one well-known around the country — began modestly, inspired by a small band of former schoolboys keen to establish the game locally.

“That they succeeded, in spite of many setbacks, was ably demonstrated by the club winning an unprecedented treble of League title, Regional Bowl and National Bowl in 2012.”

The book describes in vivid and entertaining detail the five decades from humble beginnings to the club’s date with destiny at Murrayfield in 2012, bringing those fifty years to life and providing some fascinating local information.

It is one of the area’s newer clubs, the Royal Northern Yacht Club having been founded in 1824, Helensburgh Curling Club in 1847, Helensburgh Bowling Club in 1861, Helensburgh Cricket Club in 1882, Helensburgh Tennis Club in 1884, Helensburgh Football Club in 1886, Helensburgh Golf Club in 1893, Rhu Amateurs Football Club in 1896, and Helensburgh Sailing Club in 1951.

Before the club was formed, rugby in Helensburgh was left to the schools, the then Larchfield Academy (later Larchfield School) and later still Hermitage.

Calum discovered that a book about the first 100 years of Greenock Wanderers stated that on November 7 1874 Wanderers played a team from Helensburgh Rugby Club, but this is likely to have been Larchfield Academy Former Pupils.

The club’s formation was an event greeted in the Helensburgh Advertiser by the extraordinary headline ‘We’ve Seen Them About, But There Are Four Too Many. And The Ball . . . All The Wrong Shape. There’s Only One Explanation   . . . It Must Be . . . It Is . . . Rugger Has Come To The Burgh!’

It is thought that its Ardencaple home was first used as a sports ground by Larchfield from the mid 1850s, with Helensburgh Cricket Club moving there from East King Street Park in 1886 and Helensburgh Football Club being formed later that year.

Rugby-book-wHermitage Secondary Former Pupils are reputed to have played Glasgow Rangers — which had local men amongst its founders — at the West Ardencaple Park in front of a crowd of thousands.

Nowadays the club attracts good crowds to home matches, and they can sit in a stand opened on April 20 2011 by ardent Scottish rugby supporter the Princess Royal — yet another mark of the club’s fantastic progress.

In a foreword, local dentist and former player Alec Dunlop, who made a superb and humorous speech about the club’s past at the dinner, commends the wide variety of the book’s content. It even includes some of the funny bits from Calum’s Column about the club in the Advertiser.

Alec writes: “The First Fifty will appeal to all members past and present, to those interested in local heritage, and to rugby enthusiasts everywhere.”

Copies are still available for purchase from Calum and at the club, and it is a really good read. The cover picture shows skipper Chris Black hoisting the RBS National Bowl at Murrayfield in 2012.