LINLITHGOW is a small town in West Lothian, a tight knit community with a rugby club the beating heart of it. While every good club aspires to create a space for themselves in the area they serve, the ‘Lithgy Reds’ have managed this almost too well as we shall see.
Instead of asking what LRFC does in the community, it would be quicker to detail what they don’t do and at this stage I should point out that I have been a club member since the age of 16 so any bias below is of the conscious variety.
The club plays host for all ages. So two to five year olds are welcomed to fun days where they can get an easy introduction to the oval ball, while octogenarians can join the walking rugby group, alongside their peers at the opposite end of the life cycle.
The club also runs a ‘memories’ group for those who are starting the battle with dementia or simply those who want to reminisce about old times with those of a like mind and age. I have seen the benefits at first hand and the transformation this simple act can have is amazing. People who might struggle to name the current Scotland skipper become genuinely animated when you mention players or matches from 20 or 30 years ago.
In between these two extremes Linlithgow hosts two regular adult male teams and a 3rd XV but only on occasional weekends. They are bucking the nationwide trend of club numbers falling and recent promotion to the National Leagues should help attract more players.
There is no women’s side at present although that didn’t prevent the club’s most capped player Veronica “Ronnie” Fitzpatrick from making 62 appearances in the blue shirt for Scotland’s women in the noughties.
Come the 5th November (or the nearest Saturday to it), the club hosts the town’s fireworks night and the substantial money raised goes to the maintenance of the club. It can be difficult to estimate the numbers but we are talking thousands rather than hundreds.
An ancient burgh, Linlithgow has held the Riding of the Marches since the 16th Century, where the civic high heid yins march through the town, an event that draws huge numbers. And the club’s indoor training facility, completed eight years ago at a cost of £500,000 (£165,000 of which was raised by club members) hosts the various shenanigans connected with the Marches with an indoor marquee erected for the full week. The last event raised a whopping £30,000 for local charities, a handy portion of which came from LRFC members.
The club hosts a male voice choir, again with more charitable money raising ventures, which boasts a cast of anything from 15-50 depending on the time of year, the wind chill factor, the price of beer etc etc.
The club regularly travels abroad to play matches against regular opposition in France, England and Wales, in line with the Six Nations games and, in turn, they host teams from various nations, one a year rather than two or three. French favourites Plaisir are visiting again in two weeks time with a Sunday game scheduled.
The LRFC golf day appears to boast almost as many prizes as participants. Oh, and many of my era and younger still play football (the round ball variety) every Wednesday evening in the indoor facility.
So far, so welcome, but however well run the club is and however close their ties with the local community, forged through a wide range of endeavours, ‘Lithgy’ has arguably underwhelmed just a little where it matters, on the field. That may be changing.
The club’s highest ever league was the fourth tier (National One when Scotland had three Premier Leagues) and it has just secured promotion to National Four after an unbeaten season (with one fixture left to play). So, they need at least one more promotion to National Three to equal their highest league standing, and, while no one is rash enough to make the claim out loud, it seems like the club are quietly confident of doing exactly that.
“We have double XV’s (two teams) at U15s, U16s and U18s so that means we have 30 plus boys for those age groups which makes a massive difference in terms of what you can do in training,” says director of rugby Ian McLean who has just completed his third year in the post.
He puts Linlithgow’s current success down to two things: the board, who found more money for rugby; and the coaching group of Dougie Thomson, Matt Dixon, Graeme McCallum and Euan Mochrie, who do the thankless graft every Tuesday/Thursday. When not coaching Linlithgow, Mochrie can be found helping with the Edinburgh women’s team.
“We have nine players who have experienced first team rugby despite being teenagers and their introduction has raised the bar so some of the older guys have had to raise their standards,” McLean continues.
“We are in National Four next year and our team has an average age of just 23, with very few of the players are married, so we hope that a lot of these guys will commit to travel because we know that can be an issue with the longer distances in the National Leagues.
“We hope to hold onto the players we have got, we have some good players coming up from the U18 team and we have had enquiries from a couple of local players who are thinking of joining the club. I think we will only get stronger because there is a real buzz here. We want to go as high as we can.”
Is the point I made about Linlithgow lacking consistent success on the field a valid one I ask McLean?
“I think Linlithgow is a great rugby club,” he replies with honed diplomacy, “but the level of rugby hasn’t always been great.
“Given where we are geographically, we are always going to lose guys to Edinburgh, Stirling and Glasgow. But we have managed to hold onto those university boys in the last two or three years and that has made a huge difference.”
It’s not just the first XV that is unbeaten thus far. The club’s U15 side, expertly coached by Malcolm Dunn, are also unbeaten, they have already pocketed the Inspiresport Boys U15 East Schools League title but they have a couple of dangerous fixtures still to fulfil so no one is celebrating just yet. They are reaping the benefits of a tour to France last year, with the help of Johnny Beattie (Jnr), while the S2s are visiting Ireland in the coming months. Of the 33 regulars in Linlithgow’s senior squad, 29 came through the youth section.
The club’s neat little ground, Mains Park, is a place where you leave your ego at the entrance. Former President of Scottish Rugby, Gordon Dixon now mans the scoreboard at every home match while his son Matt is assistant/backs coach to the 1st XV.
It’s a family affair.
So, I used to play with Barry McKeown, his son Calum is first team prop and his wife Jean was promoted from treasurer to president last season. Former president Ken Richardson is now the club secretary and still running around like the Duracell Bunny organising, well, almost everything. As president, Jean McKeown is overseeing the next chapter of Linlithgow’s history.
“I am absolutely delighted and very proud of our Senior players winning the East Division 1 League,” she said after last Saturday’s title-clinching 35-5 home win over Langholm. “This success has been a few years in the making and is testament to the whole of the senior squad and the ethos instilled and developed by our coaching team.
“This success not only reflects the strength and depth of senior players at the club but the strength and depth of our youth section, and the successful impact our development team has within the local community.
“There is a real buzz about the club and I am very excited about the future as we have a fantastic opportunity ahead of us to grow and be competitive in the National 4 League.”
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