On the day of Saracens biggest game of the season so far I found myself in an area that can at times be my second home – The North West, and more specifically Orrell. A place I’d certainly never been before, although I’d been very near on my rugby league travels.
I had been to watch some rugby league in the form of Widnes v Warrington, seeing a big win for the Wolves/Wire. But my main purpose wasn’t the 13 man code for this weekend, it was to find more out about a club with a very famous name – Orrell RFC.
How had I come to miss such a big Saracens match? Well, I’d made a commitment, having built up a Twitter ‘relationship’ with the club I commented on a tweet advertising a ‘Gentlemen’s Dinner’ with Mark Cueto. A Gentlemen’s Dinner? I asked – I’d like to come to that, and so after much negotiating I believe I was invited along! And so several weeks later I found myself in Orrell.
What had become plain in the build up to the day was the goodwill there is in the rugby world towards this club. Having been sent a very stylish Orrell shirt I wore it to several matches, and once people realised this wasn’t a Wasps shirt, but an Orrell one, they came out with many memories of good times watching their team play the club.
I’m going to borrow from Orrell’s plans for the future a potted history of their past, bearing in mind this is a rugby union club in the heart of the land of rugby league.
The club was founded in 1927, holding a place in the top divisions of English rugby union from 1986 to 1997. Rapid growth in playing membership after the Second World War saw move to permanent base at Edge Hall Road in 1950. Orrell became one of Lancashire’s top sides in the late 60’s and 70’s winning the Lancashire Cup in 1971-72 without conceding a single point! That’s an amazing feat!
Orrell joined the new Courage League set up in 1986-87, and became a part of the furniture in top flight rugby until 1997, finishing runner up to Bath in 1991-92.
Several of the players I’ve met and interviewed had time at Orrell, including David Strettle, Nick Easter and Austin Healey – they have had some ‘famous sons’.
I don’t plan to linger on the ‘professional era’ and the disaster it became for this proud club, but it’s fair to say that for a variety of reasons it just didn’t work for Orrell. They did survive as a professional club until the end of the 2007 season when the club had to leave Edge Hall Road.
However that wasn’t to be the end of this famous club, a breakaway group of dedicated members took off and formed an amateur club. Orrell is now a Community Amateur Sports Club with 320 members as at 2015. They train and play at St John Rigby College and High School in Orrell.
This was where I spent my Saturday afternoon watching Orrell v Garstang – something of a local derby. I really enjoy watching grassroots rugby and this was no exception, the game was a hard fought one played with a good attitude by both teams. We had no prolonged scrums, seeking a penalty as is so often the case with top flight rugby. I was thoroughly entertained! The match saw a win for Orrell with them scoring 29 to Garstang’s 22.
Next season will see Orrell’s first XV play in the Lancashire North League after a re-structuring of the league structure. The club has a thriving junior section and have been seeking a new home for the last 7 years.
In order to find a way to achieve this Orrell are joining forces with the Winstanley Park Cricket Club. A cricket club originally established in 1878, they have 150 adult and 60 junior members.
The 2 clubs have sourced a site adjacent to Winstanley Collegiate Billinge near Wigan. The 13 acre agricultural site is suitable for 2 adult rugby pitches, a cricket pitch and has space for changing facilities, a clubhouse and parking. Representatives from both the Rugby Football Union and the England & Wales Cricket Board have visited the site and are supportive of the plans. As is Yvonne Fovargue MP for the Makerfield Constituency along with local councillors from both Orrell and Winstanley.
A feasibility study with in depth plans has been carried out and it presents a very strong case for the project to forge ahead. Fundraising will be key over the next few years in order for this great new project to be fulfilled. Times are very exciting in this corner of the North West!
As for the ‘Sportsperson’s Dinner’? It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening! I was one of 5 ladies and had the honour of sitting next to Mark Cueto. The company as a whole was a delight – I do often think I’m a closet Northerner! Peter Emmett was MC for the evening – a very funny man, as well as being a Comedian he also acts as Matchday host at Everton, St Helens and Halifax RLFC. Mark made his after dinner speech and was very honest and candid about his Sale Sharks, England and Lions careers.
It was great to spend the day/evening with ‘rugby fanatics’ people who very clearly will drive this great club into the future.