Belper Rugby Club - at the heart of the community

Louis Bower (9) takes on the senior players Photo: Helen Bower, Belper Rugby Club

Louis Bower (9) takes on the senior players Photo: Helen Bower, Belper Rugby Club - Credit: Archant

Recently the emphasis has been on the benefits of sport, whatever our age. Geoff Ford visits a local club that offers a welcome to all...

Belper's first XV have enjoyed a successful season

Belper's first XV have enjoyed a successful season - Credit: Archant

Belper Rugby Union Football Club has enjoyed the recent season sitting in its highest position so far in rugby’s hierarchy, second place in the Midlands 3 East (North) division. So I was delighted to be invited to visit the club at their home at Strutt’s Playing Field on Derby Road. Not only is the club located in the centre of the town, it acts as a hub for the whole community throughout the year.

‘This is a community rugby club,’ says club secretary Jackie Dyer. ‘We have fantastic facilities, given the size of the club, and we play in the same league as teams like Chesterfield Panthers who have much bigger amenities. We are never going to have that here. We could extend the club house, but we haven’t the funds to do that, we are what we are. But when we say that we’re the best little club in Derbyshire, we mean it!’

There was a great atmosphere in the club house on the day of my visit. This may have been due in part to the delicious steak and kidney pie lunch being served to a gathering of club veterans, but it was mainly because of the friendships forged over many years of battling together on the field through all kinds of weather. ‘I’ve had a good time with the friends I’ve made,’ agreed veteran Simon Blount. ‘You make life-long friends here.’

Simon was enjoying a pie and a pint with fellow veterans Phil Gratton, who organises the three-times a year get-together, and Nick Wheeler. Simon took a moment to share a little of the club’s history with me. The club was formed in 1975 by four teachers from Belper School: Geoff Thomas, Trev Arnold, Mick Gilbertson and Johnny Hutton, who decided that Belper needed its own club. ‘I played for the club from when it started, second row or prop depending upon my injuries at the time, up until around five years ago. We started playing up at Belper Sports Centre, which was also part of the high school and later we secured a pitch on Sandbed Lane Rec, the council gave us that. The club moved to Derby Road in 2005 using an old Portakabin as a club house.’

Belper's Under 13 team Photo: Helen Bower, Belper Rugby Club

Belper's Under 13 team Photo: Helen Bower, Belper Rugby Club - Credit: Archant

Nick and Phil were involved in setting up the Minis and Juniors section, which brings other family members into the club, strengthening the links with the community. ‘It’s a big thing with the club at the moment,’ said Nick, ‘the Minis side is massive. A lot of the players today have come through the Minis system. We’ve got players who have gone to Derby and a few other clubs. There are players all over the country who used to play for us.

‘When we first started we had around 60 to 70 members, its grown massively since then. It’s a credit to the club and the people at the club. There are players who have come through the Minis who are county standard that we have coached from age five until they were 18. It’s really advantageous to the club. Joe Teague went on to play for England Colleges and Mark Bradley has played for Nottingham. To some extent we are a feeder for the bigger clubs.’

Jackie Dyer, club secretary for four years, began by helping out with the development side of the Minis and Juniors while her son was coming through the ranks. ‘I would say a good few people come into the club that way. I think the population of Belper is changing so much now, we are getting new people coming in from all over and joining at senior level. And of course you’ve met some of the old boys, which is where the club’s history is.

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‘We’re still developing as a club, because we’re all volunteers, but we’re getting there. We have some fantastic summer events here, too, turning the club over to the community, Belper Goes Green, Belper Games and Belper Eco Festival are all hosted here as it is out of season. We are a community resource.’

The Minis get great support from the senior players and coaches Photo: Helen Bower, Belper Rugby Club

The Minis get great support from the senior players and coaches Photo: Helen Bower, Belper Rugby Club - Credit: Archant

The Belper Games began as a fund-raising event when Nick Wheeler’s wife Penny, also Simon Blount’s sister, was found to be suffering with Scleroderma and Pulmonary Fibrosis. ‘She had a terminal illness that she could not get any medication for,’ said Simon, ‘so we formed a charitable trust to provide the medication. Unfortunately she passed away, but we began an annual event called the Belper Games down here, a kind of “It’s A Knock-Out” event, but it has grown into a three-day festival.’

‘We needed to raise the money for the medication, which was £76,000 a year,’ Nick added, ‘and in 2013 we decided to keep the games going. It was something Penny wanted to do. We’ve kept it on and it’s growing and growing. It’s a community event, bringing everyone together and will be on the 14th, 15th and 16th July this year. Last year we donated over £31,000 to Ataxia UK, Pulmonary Fibrosis Trust and the Scleroderma and Raynauds Society.’

Club house, bar and merchandising manager Sandra Matthews and her husband Steve, also came to the club after their son joined the junior section as a 15-year-old. ‘I’ve been involved with the club since 2008 and a Colts trip to Ghent,’ Sandra explained. ‘One of the chaps got me involved and I was made treasurer, made sure everyone was on the bus, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I don’t understand it, but I like watching it!’ she laughs. ‘I know that if the ball’s being thrown backwards and kicked forwards it’s OK, that’s about it! My son now plays for the first XV, although he’s recently been injured.’

The club house is a popular venue for local celebrations and events. There had been a 50th birthday party the previous night and another guest at the veterans’ lunch had come on a reconnaissance trip for his father-in-law’s birthday celebration. It is also the venue for Belper’s Beer Festival which this year will be 2nd–4th June. ‘It’s run in conjunction with the Belper Eco Festival,’ says Steve Matthews. ‘We get CAMRA in to help us, they source all the beer and equipment, get it all delivered and then set up and run the bar for us. We put some substantial shelving in the changing room, enough for around 30 casks. It’s a good weekend and if it’s nice weather you get thousands over the weekend, a real feel-good atmosphere.’

Looking after the catering for the veteran’s lunch was Alan Arthur. ‘I first joined in 1996 after my son came down and then my daughter played in the Minis. I just generally get involved. My daughter began here, we had a girls team for three years, and she still plays for West Bridgford Ladies.’ Alan, originally from Wales, came to Belper because of work commitments. ‘I came and never left, I’ve been in Belper for 30 years. Belper is home now. We do these events three times a year and Belper Goes Green with a barbecue event. There are various other events we do, too, all with locally produced fayre.’

Another veteran, Neil Wayne, came from Birmingham in 1977 and joined the club when he moved to Duffield. Now club ticket officer, Neil was club president for 12 years but says that had little to do with his playing ability. ‘I played for the first team, but I didn’t play very well. When the team got good, they started another one and I became captain of that – captain of the seconds, then the thirds, the fourths and finally, in the 1990s, the fifths. I worked my way down!’

The move from a shabby Portakabin to the present clubhouse was funded with National Lottery support, a project coordinated by Chris Anderson. Having joined the club as a 20-year-old, Chris’s career ended when he broke his leg playing for the veterans before becoming club manager. ‘Through a lot of hard work and support from members of the club at the time we managed to get £200,000 from Sport England and we have this. There was support, too, from Amber Valley Borough Council, Belper Town Council and Derbyshire County Council together with a lot of fund-raising activities.’

That Belper Rugby Club should become a focal point for the community was a key requirement of Sport England’s lottery package. ‘A Minis and Juniors section, a girls team if possible, and a future for the club, rather than just being 30 or 40 players and doing nothing for the community. It needed to have a community spirit and it is used by various organisations – for Zumba and all sorts of things that I know nothing about!’ Chris laughs. ‘It’s brilliant as far as I’m concerned, there is something for everybody to use, and it secures the future of the rugby club. It would be nice to think that in 40 years time this would still be here and things will still be happening. This is paid for by the community for the community to use. They supported us and now we support them.’

Chris’s playing career began on the wing, as the youngest in the team, before moving to the scrum. ‘As you get older and slower, you move towards the pack,’ he laughs, ‘it’s more skilled and it was a bit warmer when it was cold! I broke my leg and at 36 was the youngest person in a vets side, but that was then my career. After that it was management.’ Chris invited me to see his ‘office’, designated by an inscription plate above one of the cubicles in the gents... ‘We all enjoy the social aspect,’ Chris added, ‘each other’s company after the game – and old boys’ events like this. After the game today the two teams, who’ve hammered each other out there, will come in here and have a few beers and sing together... here is the social side.’

Out on the pitch the first XV delivered a 14-7 victory over local rivals Rolls-Royce to consolidate their second place in Midlands 3 East (North), their highest ever league placing. However, veteran Simon Blount does not think that the current squad is the best in the club’s history. ‘They’re not as good as we were,’ he laughs, ‘but there was no league structure then, so it can’t be proved!’

Coach Merv Holmes is pleased with his squad’s progress – they were promoted to this league two years ago, finished eighth at the first attempt and are pushing for promotion in the current campaign. ‘The squad is all local and we have a great Minis and Juniors section here. I coached the Colts for nine years and they are filtering through to the seniors. There are seven regulars in the first team who have come through the ranks into senior rugby.

‘I took this on in June. We already had a good core of players within the club, they just needed a bit of direction. This year was aimed at seeing where we are in development, to see if we were ready for a push at promotion next season. We’d argue that it’s come sooner rather than later, into this season, but we’ll take each game as it comes. We play the best we can and are still developing a new style of rugby, which seems to be working and seems to be effective. Once we complete it, that will be the big change. Two teams go up, so we still stand a chance. Today’s game against Rolls-Royce was tough and there are some tough games still to come.’

Merv has now handed the juniors over to John Hirst. ‘We’ve got mixed groups of reception-aged children (under 6s) all the way to the Colts (under 17),’ John says. ‘The younger ones train for tag-rugby while the under 9s and upwards are introduced to contact rugby. Everyone comes down on a Sunday morning, 10.30am to 12 noon, and we have over a hundred kids playing rugby on a normal day, in their groups with individual coaches.

‘You can’t play in any competitions until after the age of six, but then we have fixtures all over Derbyshire, as far as East Retford and Mansfield as well as local clubs such as Amber Valley and Buxton. They are all friendly fixtures, rugby is different to football at this stage. We are trying to increase their skill set, it’s not about winning or losing, or leagues, at this age. We follow the rugby training strands: under 6s learn to catch and run with ball, under 7s another skill and year-by-year slowly build up their skill-set. We work towards the age-grade rugby standards which the RFU set out. For example, my group up to 10 have just started three-men uncontested scrums. Last year they started tackling and mauling, so slowly, surely, their range of skills increases. It is all very structured with clear guidelines.’

Most of the coaches, who give their time each week, are parents who are encouraged to become involved. ‘That’s how I started,’ John adds. ‘Within three weeks I was looking after “my” group! They follow the age group though, increasing their own coaching skills set.’