The family focussed values of Oakmeadians Rugby Club
- Credit: Archant
The Oakmeadians, Dorset’s first nationally accredited family-friendly rugby club, is about as far away from the ‘hooligans’ game’ of the private school playing field and post-match drinking sessions as it is possible to get
Some clever Dick, whose name is lost in the mists of time, once wittily declared that football was a gentleman’s game played by hooligans while rugby was a hooligans’ game played by gentleman. If only it were that simple.
It’s a bleak, blustery Saturday afternoon and I’m standing on the side of a rugger pitch at Bournemouth’s Meyrick Park as the winter sunshine finally wins a battle with the storm clouds that have gathered above.
A lightening-fast winger takes possession of the ball and is off. Storming down the outside of the pitch, weaving, swerving, driving through the mud and rain, the player desperately makes a dive for touchdown.
It’s a close-run thing. A pile of bodies extricate themselves from the supposedly triumphant try because this is only a training exercise. Our player - all blonde hair and engaging smile, despite her bright blue mouth-guard - is punching the air.
Welcome to 21st century rugby where this ‘hooligans’ game’ is now also played by women. The sport is perhaps more complicated than in the 19th century when its rules were codified but there’s no better place to unravel the conundrum of rugby football than at The Oakmeadians.
The club, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, has embraced many changes in rugby over recent decades but has also steadfastly adhered to traditional values. What has emerged is really rather special. One of the fastest rising clubs in the country, Oakmeadians exudes a family-focused sense of social responsibility while fielding highly competitive teams that range from the deadly serious men’s squads to a pair of increasingly impressive ladies’ teams.
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Meanwhile there’s a hugely popular youth squad, a self-styled “old gits” team and even a team for the under fives. The emphasis is on enjoying sport and having fun without ever sacrificing that very important business of winning. Not surprising then that Oakmeadians have become Dorset’s first RFU accredited family-friendly rugby club.
“Our club has always been about the family,” explains the club’s head of marketing, Nic Walton. “We offer the game of rugby in all its forms. We cater for everyone from three and four-year-olds to the over 60s but the main core of what we do remains focused on the first, second and third teams. That’s how you build a club, that’s how the RFU perceive that your club is growing.”
Nic, whose husband Andy is the current Oakmeadians’ president, points out that behind the very real commitment to first-team success lies an ethos of inclusiveness, reaching out to the community and sharing the joy of rugby.
The Oakmeadians particularly encourage older players, those who might have been sidelined by injury and youngsters who have temporarily lost interest in the game. There’s touch rugby, tag rugby and beach rugby and of course there are the women’s teams playing at an ever higher level.
“It was great when we started a mini and youth section being able to have our children here learning from our experience.” says Nic. The Meyrick Park clubhouse also operates as a thriving social centre for members. Its homely bar - scene of many a triumph and the occasional commiseration - is a solid base for the players and their families.
It’s a far cry from the early days in Bournemouth, in the 1960s and 1970s, which saw The Oakmeadians enduring a nomadic existence, moving from pub to pub as Andy recalls.
A member since 1978 when his parents moved to Bournemouth, Andy joined as soon as he realised he had a rugby club at the bottom of the garden. He’s witnessed many changes in the ensuing years.
“It was so different back then. We would literally move from one watering hole to another: The White Hart, The Talbot, The Blue Boar Social Club, the Ensbury Park Hotel.
“Then on 3rd September 1990 we came here. Meyrick Park gave Oakmeadians another bar but also a new permanent playing base - a foundation on which to develop a successful club.”
Andy, now 57, is a veteran of the days when booze and bawdy songs were an integral part of the rugby playing experience. He seems quite wistful thinking about the old days.
“Sadly things have quietened down a lot,” he tells me. “First of all it went professional, which completely changed the culture of the game. For a lot of people it stopped being something you did for fun. We always took our rugby seriously but the level of competition that was introduced raised standards enormously.”
Other key moments he says included the 2003 World Cup.
“Suddenly there were a huge number of people bringing their youngsters down here. Every one of them wanted to be Jonny Wilkinson. The World Cup raised the public profile of rugby.”
Today the sport is taken more seriously than ever, though Andy is quick to point out that there’s still a lot of fun to be had. “It’s not quite like it used to be but we certainly have our moments.”
Club press officer Jennie Langridge, who has played for the ladies team for the past year, doesn’t bat an eyelid when I ask her jokingly if it’s ten pints and a singsong after a match.
Post-match camaraderie in the bar may be part of the fun of the game but Jennie believes the discipline and technical challenges of rugby are one of its main attractions. “You have to use your brain, it’s really exciting.”
The pleasure and complexity of rugby has been an eye-opener for the 29-year-old who initially joined the club encouraged by her partner Sarah who was already a member of the ladies team. “They were short of players so I agreed to go along to training. I’d never played before but it was amazing. I really enjoyed it.”
She admits that selling the idea of ladies’ rugby to young women can be hard work..
“They think its going to hurt, but actually you don’t hit people. We’re not fighting. It’s a very disciplined sport. We’d love more recruits. They don’t have to be experienced either. One of our players, Camille, turned up for the first time clutching a copy of the book Rugby Union For Dummies which explains everything. So now I recommend novice players to go out and buy it.”
There are, of course, minor injuries but not a lot. Although Jennie does admit that the day after a match players tend to feel as though they’ve been hit by a bus.
“It’s the only downside,” she chuckles.
Find out more about The Oakmeadians at oakmeadians-rfc.com