The advent of professional rugby caused many problems, plenty of turmoil and claimed some significant victims. One of the biggest victims was a club with a proud history dating back to 1878; a club which despite being based in London has provided more Scottish internationals than any other; a club which counts among its playing alumni such giants as Gavin Hastings, Paul Burnell, Derek White and Alasdair McHarg. Well after several years in the doldrums, London Scottish are back.
Two seasons ago, just 8 years after bankruptcy sent them from the higher echelons of English league rugby to the very foot of the pile, London Scottish earned promotion back into the National Leagues. After a solid first season back last year, Scottish sit unbeaten in National League 3 South, just one draw spoiling their 100% record. And last Saturday, they defeated Manchester of National League 1 away from home in the National Trophy to truly announce their resurgence.
It has been a long road back. Bankrolled by a wealthy backer in the late 1990s, London Scottish were one of the biggest clubs in the country, albeit one who fluctuated regularly between the top 2 divisions. But when said backer proved to be not quite as reliable as he was wealthy, Scottish found themselves up a well-known and less than desirable creek with no means of paddling back. Richmond, co-tenants at Richmond Athletic Ground, found themselves in a similar boat and, after a short-lived three-way merger with London Irish, both clubs were demoted to the very bottom of the English league structure.
As Scottish look to re-establish themselves at the top end, there is a resolve to not forget the travails of the recent past. The club’s resurgence may one day lead to a return to fixtures at some of the country’s well-known stadia, but it has been built upon afternoons passed at some of the south of England’s more obscure rugby outlets, in rundown training sheds and on grassless mudbath pitches. And all future players will owe a debt to the men who turned out every week to haul the club back up again by its bootlaces.
This reconnection with rugby’s roots has played an important part in the club’s re-emergence. There is a resolve to never again be held at the mercy of any one individual, to ensure that, first and foremost, it is a family club. It is sensibly run, increasingly well-marketed and the atmosphere is one of a club which feels good about itself. Supporters are going to the games in droves and the club has become a rallying point for exiled Scots once again. The team is repaying them with some excellent rugby.
It helps of course that the club is well-backed. A sensible infrastructure has been put in place by the President, Rod Lynch, and his team; illustrious club members have reconnected with the club and are making significant contributions. A new main sponsor has come in this season in the form of Saudex Global. CEO Neil Hollinshead has been a keen supporter of the club since he answered a late call from a friend who told him that there was a spare spot going for the club tour to Canada in 2006. He and his wife Yasmin now play a major role in the club community.
This backing has enabled the club to really strengthen the team. Coaches Brett Taylor and Jim Kelly have recruited several players from Premiership clubs in key positions. Well-known names such as Paul Volley, Simon Amor, Gary Truman, James Brown and Iain Fullarton are now found on the teamsheet. They have made a significant impact alongside longer-serving squad members.
But the key thing is that, with money and new players coming in, London Scottish remains very firmly a rugby club, family orientated with members who have trodden the pitch and braved the touchline for years and decades. They will be there for this make or break month of the season with games against both Ealing and Rosslyn Park coming up, both of whom are in close attendance at the top of the league.
It is against this healthy backdrop that London Scottish are planning their return to the upper end of the game. Following on from Saturday’s landmark win against Manchester, they play co-tenants Richmond this weekend. One of the oldest fixtures in the rugby calendar, it is always a feisty affair with red cards far from unknown in recent seasons. It is likely to be the biggest crowd in the national leagues on Saturday. This is a testimony to Scottish’s performances on and off the pitch and there would certainly be worse places to be this weekend than at the Athletic Ground.