THE RUGBY TOUR AT SIDMOUTH
As we approach what would normally be the last Saturday of the season, it seems an appropriate time to indulge in a bit of nostalgia. To a time when rugby was not run by directors of rugby and accountants. The coach was what you travelled on to away matches. Many forwards didn’t know or care if there was a ball involved. Anyone on the floor in a ruck would be ejected by several sets of studs from either side, if he had not already been penalised. Wingers chased the ball because it was their only opportunity to get hold of it. An exit strategy was a means of leaving a game of buzz for a pee without having to down a pint in one. And before social distancing was practiced between opposing teams in the bar.
Once upon a time, the highlight of the Spring was a tour. As the West Country was a favourite touring destination for rugby clubs, at Blackmore it was almost as much fun hosting them as taking part in one. In the days between the C of E relaxing its strictures on Good Friday and the advent of league rugby, that meant playing three games in four days with the associated social obligations. By the Monday you would hope for a late kick off if injury had not already spared you.
The first touring team hosted by Sidmouth was Streatham on Easter Monday 1895. The Surrey County Champions had beaten Exeter 6-3 on the Saturday so Sidmouth were delighted with their 11-0 victory. The Chiefs would go on to win the Devon Junior Cup later in April.
Boxing Day was also a favourite with touring teams in the days before Christmas started after Whitsun and ended on Maundy Thursday. The hosting of Boxing day tourists continued until 1950, when Salisbury became the last Christmas tourists.
Easter tours continued with the last full weekend of matches occurring in 1983. From then there was a steady drop off as more clubs chose to go overseas. As league rugby became increasingly prioritised, the Easter Tour followed the path of the dodo.
Welsh clubs predominated among visiting clubs and one club must be mentioned with distinction. In 1904, Cardiff Mackintosh spent Christmas in Sidmouth. On Christmas Eve they were beaten 3-0 and on Boxing Day the result was a 3-3 draw. They returned on Easter Monday to win 3-0. They surely merit a “who loved Sidmouth” bench on the Esplanade.
Other tourists have been lured by a “guarantee”, a share of the gate to cover their expenses. Some of the best teams in England and Wales have appeared on the Blackmore Field in this way, starting after the First World War. Among the clubs played are Gloucester, Moseley, Swansea, Aberavon, Maesteg and Saracens.
Sidmouth RFC was celebrating its 50th Anniversary before it ventured on a first tour. On Friday 1st March 1935, 21 players and officials set of for Chingford in Essex. They stayed at the Bedford Head Hotel in Tottenham Court Road. On the Saturday morning they visited the Houses of Parliament, something MPs would be pleased to be able to do at present. They beat Chingford 11-9 and were guests at the club’s Annual Dinner in the evening.
In 1949, the first of many weekends in Cornwall took place, when they travelled to Falmouth, losing 0-3. And in 1951, they were in London again. They beat Old Elthamians 19-3 on the Saturday morning before going to Twickenham to watch England v France.
The first overseas tours took place in the 1970s. More about that later.
The first tour undertaken by the junior section took place in 1974 when the Under 11s travelled to Wheatley in Oxfordshire. Yes, I introduced Russell Bess to rugby and touring.
Our host was Wheatley Primary School and the players were accommodated in the homes of their opposite numbers. Neither Colin Nice nor I had a DBS check. I can imagine our Welfare Officer’s blood pressure rising as I am sure this breaks any number of current safeguarding regulations. Suffice to say that everyone returned home in good order.
This was a rare event and touring did not become a regular occurrence in the junior calendar until about 20 years ago. Now it is a much-anticipated part of the fixture list, with Cornwall and North Devon being regular, but not exclusive, destinations. Sidmouth is also a popular destination for junior teams touring the Westcountry.
The first junior overseas tour was organised by Malcolm and Sally Barratt to Paris circa 2000. Subsequent tours have gone to Italy, Ireland and Portugal. An incoming tour from Seguran in France was hosted in 2018.