Wharfedale has reached the third highest tier in rugby union without giving up its local roots. But how long can it keep it up?by David Goodhart / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
There aren’t many places in England where you can go to watch your local village team and see some of the highest level of play in the whole country. But the market town of Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales is one.
It is home to Wharfedale rugby club, founded in 1923, which has achieved what so many sports clubs only dream of doing. It is as local and rooted as a village team can be. In the clubhouse hang team photographs stretching back to the 1930s, with the same names cropping up decade after decade: Harrison, Hartley, Rymer, Baker and more. Men from two of those families are still closely involved in running the club.
Yet Wharfedale also had an extraordinary burst of success from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, masterminded by local sheep farmer and then coach Mike Harrison, along with the late Peter Hartley. It sailed up the local and regional leagues to reach the semi-professional third tier of English rugby union, now called National League 1, just below the two top professional rugby leagues (the Premiership and the Championship). Here in “national one,” alongside teams like London Scottish, Coventry, Blackheath and Rosslyn Park, is where it has remained for the past 15 seasons. With a bit of luck, it should hang on for a 16th.
And Wharfedale has achieved this without losing its soul. In early April I went to the club’s ground near Grassington, surely the most picturesque in the country, to watch a bottom-of-the-table scrap between Wharfedale and Launceston (the Cornish All Blacks). Before the game, the former England and Lions player John Spencer, president of the club and a solicitor, talked me through the Wharfedale team sheet. He calculated that about two thirds of the team were homegrown players who had risen through the junior teams or played for one of the three other senior teams that the club puts out every Saturday. “For most of the other teams in national one that proportion of homegrown talent would be much lower. Quite a few of them don’t even have a second team let alone the junior rugby system that we have,” says Spencer.
If you visit the ground on a Sunday morning you’ll see at least 100 boys and a few girls, aged from seven to 17, chasing after rugby balls. The man in charge of the club’s academy is 38-year-old Hedley Verity, Wharfedale’s…