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Stratford-upon-Avon RFC clubs together to cope through Covid-19 pandemic

STRATFORD RFC should have been enjoying their return to Midlands One West in what was their 144th year of playing rugby this season – but Covid-19 has hit the club, like others on the Herald patch, very hard.

Stratford Rugby Club president Max Holloway, left, and Richard Pepperell, director of rugby, in Pearcecroft's historic wooden stand which has remained empty of spectators for nearly a year. Photo: Mark Williamson R5/1/21/0396
Stratford Rugby Club president Max Holloway, left, and Richard Pepperell, director of rugby, in Pearcecroft's historic wooden stand which has remained empty of spectators for nearly a year. Photo: Mark Williamson R5/1/21/0396

Despite this, club president Max Holloway is looking positively to the future: “I sincerely hope that following the third lockdown we can resume the staged return to play and that we can see some on-field action in some form before the end of May, and that preparation for the 2021-22 season can start in July when a full season of competitive games can be played once more at Pearcecroft, so that it can be enjoyed by our many supporters.”

The last first XV home fixture played at Pearcecroft was an emphatic 62-15 win against close rivals Leamington on 22nd February last year while the Loxley Road club’s final game before the lockdown was a 12-3 victory away at Southam in the wettest of conditions a week later.

The Black and Whites had been due to play their final three fixtures at home to the other three teams that made up the top four of Midlands Two West (South) – Nuneaton Old Edwardians, Malvern and Barkers Butts.

Those fixtures would have been well-supported affairs by the loyal ‘Stratty’ faithful and resulted in substantial gate revenue and bar sales, however, all that was lost due to the pandemic. Since then there has been no competitive action for the first XV.

Instead, director of rugby Richard Pepperell, first XV skipper Matt Cook and vice-captain Nathan Geekie have kept the senior players in close contact with their regular chat groups and entertaining Zoom calls with an emphasis on player welfare.

With the ever-changing tier system and RFU guidance, the club saw a return to training in pairs before moving on to time-restricted groups and then finally to some form of contact.

A return to playing fixtures in local clusters was looking promising after the end of the second lockdown, but the third shutdown in December ceased all activity immediately.

Holloway told the Herald: “Following the end of the second lockdown and the re-introduction of the stages of return to play from the RFU, Richard started the touch rugby sessions on a Saturday which was well attended and was beginning to gain momentum until it unfortunately come to a grinding halt with lockdown three.

“This has now returned to weekly fitness sessions for the senior men’s teams taken over Zoom yet again.

"As a result of Richard and his team’s adaptability in an ever-changing environment, it is a pleasing to see good numbers in attendance to the sessions and the arrival of new players to the club in these challenging times.”

Also affected on the senior side of operations was the highly-anticipated annual contest for the Rose Cup against French counterparts SCUF.

The popular event was cancelled in May, which had only been the case previously due to the First and Second World Wars.

Despite the frustration of not enjoying the competitive but friendly nature of rugby on the pitch, players from both sets of clubs instead enjoyed an evening Zoom meeting long into the early hours sharing stories and photographs from the Rose Cup’s long and illustrious history.

The largest section of the club is the minis and juniors, headed by chairman Tom Stowe, who had been working tirelessly to ensure their return to play at the earliest opportunity was in line with the RFU’s guidance following each lockdown.

Scores of children, in their allocated bubbles, trained every week at their permitted times with numbers strong in all age groups.

The club hopes that this continues to grow with new players and, with Stowe’s efforts in getting more coaches qualified, see further success for the section once they resume again.

Holloway said: “The rugby club is a key facility for the local children to come and participate in the game at all levels. Tom and his fellow coaches encourage all levels and abilities to participate in the early stages of the game.

“Inclusion within a team game is extremely important, the emphasis always on having fun whilst learning basic skills and maintaining the important principles of the RFU of teamwork, respect, discipline, sportsmanship and most of all enjoyment.

“Whilst we would have wished to continue the training within all levels of the club, as we know there are many benefits to the wellbeing of everyone involved, coronavirus does not discriminate, and we must adhere to the advice given to keep everyone safe.”

As for the club’s ladies’ section, they were only able to complete a part of their season because of the pandemic and there will more than likely be a delay for the 2021 season which was due to commence next month.

Captain Rebecca Pritchard-Charles and her team have been very busy in the closed season with various social events, also via Zoom sessions, including quizzes and bingo.

These have all inspired and supported each member of the ladies’ group which has seen an increase in player numbers despite the impact of Covid-19.

Pritchard-Charles said: “Last season was honestly amazing and saw the largest and most consistent number of players to date which saw us finish the 2020 season with a strong team full of positivity and enthusiasm, of which I am very proud.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on all teams at Stratford RFC, the club’s finances have also taken a huge hit.

During the first lockdown, the Minis and Juniors Festival fell victim to cancellation while later in the year the hugely popular annual bonfire night in November was missed by all.

On top of this, club sponsorship has been paused due to the halt of on-field action.

Holloway told the Herald: “We were able to accommodate a socially distanced summer activities club for children during the summer holidays and autumn half term, albeit with vastly reduced numbers which provided some funds to the club, but still this falls along way short of what is required.

“The loss of income runs into the tens of thousands for the club and has put it under pressure to remain fluid to be able to support the players of all ages and groups to participate in the sport.

“This money is crucial to the running of the club to ensure the facilities remain both accessible and functional so that there is a continued safe environment for our players of all ages.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic key members of the club’s committee have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure there is a rugby club to eventually return to and that it remains financially stable during these unprecedented times.

Stratford RFC, like many businesses, have had to make the difficult decisions of cutbacks in staffing and now solely rely on the time their volunteers give.

The pitches and grounds have been maintained by Simon Savidge and Richard Charles ensuring that, when permitted, the club has the grass cut and pitches marked out for rugby activities to go ahead.

Long-serving treasurer Andrew Urquhart has also explored every avenue available for support from the RFU and government together with the regular running of the club’s finances.

John Martin, chairman of vice-presidents, has also played an instrumental part in keeping all non-playing supporters informed of the on- and off-field developments whilst raising key funds from subscriptions.

Holloway added: “The close contact with our VPs and supporters from the previous generations of players to our local followers of the club and to those who now live as far away as Borneo, is equally important during these challenging times.

“The game of rugby forms special friendships and the support given to one another is greatly missed when unable to attend the games, so the importance of these communications is invaluable in their wellbeing.”

Mental wellbeing has been in the national picture during the lockdowns and Stratford RFC has been doing all it can to support its players of all ages and groups.

Following the tragic loss of the club’s very own Zak McMorran in November, the rugby community came together to support each other and participate in and raise money for Movember, with more than £54,000 pledged to the cause.

The mammoth challenges of a 24-hour cycle by Richard Pepperell also raised £3,000 for Cyclists Fighting Cancer, and 12 half marathons in almost 24 hours by John Bruns and friends raised a further £6,500 for Sporting Minds.

“The camaraderie shown to support one another in the training and participation in these events, in the toughest of circumstances, is testament to the heart of the club and its importance within the community,” said Holloway.

“Without any activity on the pitch, we are doing all we can to support the players of all ages and groups as well as those that follow us to assist with any mental health issues that may arise.

"We always recommend on checking in on a mate for whatever reason, if only just to listen.”

New players/supporters are always welcome at Stratford RFC.

For more information visit www.stratforduponavonrugbyclub.co.uk.

Sponsorship opportunities are available for those wishing to support the club financially.

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