by STUART RUTHERFORD
RECENT statistics have revealed that 34 percent of married couples divorce before reaching their 20th wedding anniversary. It appears Scottish rugby clubs are in a similar boat. After 14 years of matrimony between Royal High School FP and Corstorphine RFC – who merged in 2003 to become RHC Cougars – there has been an unceremonious parting of ways, however, with the dust now finally settled, what can we truly decipher from the well-publicised break-up? The rebranded Corstorphine Cougars aren’t hanging around to find out.
It may have only been two months since the SRU gave the green light for the formation of a breakaway club – under the name Barnton RFC – but Corstorphine Cougars and it’s persevering members have wasted no time in making the most of their newly found singularity. With a revamped clubhouse at Union Park; an overhauled playing side; a burgeoning membership; and a stylish new logo and kit to match, there are plenty of reasons for supporters to be cheerful – but, who exactly is behind this post-Barnton betterment?
Meet Steve Wright – Corstorphine’s catalyst and answer to Sun Tzu and The Art of War. A programme director and chartered accountant by trade, Wright has spent the last decade helping turn around the fortunes of Haddington RFC. Upon hearing the news surrounding RHC Cougars’ misfortune, the decision to join Corstorphine’s committee was a no brainer – especially given the fact he spent the entirety of his playing career with the Union Park outfit.
“My background is troubleshooting in banks,” explains Wright. “The way I approach it is: I just want to make things better tomorrow than they are today. That’s what gives me a kick. So if I can help in any way, I’ll help – especially when I believe in it, and I really do believe in Corstorphine. The club gave me 15 of the best years of my life and I wouldn’t change a single day, even through all the injuries!”
Wright’s simple, but earnest, mantra appears to be working. Using his commercial background, he has managed to attract a number of lucrative sponsors to the club, whilst other passionate committee members have been driving improvements to Union Park and its facilities. However, whilst benefaction is key to any club’s survival hopes, players are the name of the game and with 23 of last season’s first-team squad throwing their lot in with Barnton, Corstorphine were down to bare bones – that was before a rigorous off-season recruitment drive.
“We’ve had guys rocking up from places like Langholm,” reveals Wright. “We’ve had sons of ex-players from the likes of London and Newcastle getting in touch, saying: ‘We’re going to be in Edinburgh, can we come along to training?’ But we would also ideally like a solid core of about four or five coming from the universities. We’re quite lucky, in my day Corstorphine was a couple of buses away from town, but now it’s a two-minute walk from the tram, so our location really is fantastic. We’re currently working with the SRU and Napier University to provide guys with rugby who maybe aren’t necessarily getting a game on a Saturday, and with our player sponsorship now in place we’re able to offer a top of the range kit bundle at a really reasonable price – it’s brilliant if you’re a student.”
“What we’ve talked about a lot is values,” adds Wright. “We really want to get the culture right within the club. Corstorphine should be a fun, but challenging, place to play rugby and the players have bought into those values unbelievably. We realise that we are basically reintroducing ourselves back into the community, so what the players set about doing is cleaning up Union Park. Working with the council, they managed to completely clear up the area, as well as paint the exterior of the clubhouse. It was really brilliant to see.”
Wright understands that it will take more than a lick of paint to galvanise Corstorphine’s freshly assembled side, hence the decision was made to drop the club down a level into the BT East League Division One. As a notoriously competitive league, the Union Park side will need to rely heavily on experienced players if they are to taste success come the end of the season, and they don’t come much more battle-hardened than 58-year-old Derek Ulke. The 2nd XV front-row, who insists that he is determined to play until he’s 60, has just been voted in as the club’s new president and despite a plethora of seasons under his belt, he admits that the ‘break-up’ still came as a complete shock.
“We knew things weren’t happy, but the decision caught me completely unaware,” reveals Ulke. “It wasn’t the whole club membership who felt this way, but a small minority group of players who had a vision. There is nothing wrong with having a vision, but if you want to progress, you shouldn’t be destroying a stable rugby club to get your own way.”
The ‘vision’ Ulke describes is that of the majority of last season’s 1st XV wanted to play at Barnton (the traditional base of Royal High School), and Barnton alone. When RHC Cougars were originally formed in 2003, it’s blueprint was that of a bilateral club based out of both Union Park and Barnton, however, as time has progressed, fewer and fewer games were being played in Corstorphine – and so an impasse was reached. Luke pokes fun at the fact Stade Francais – who trained twice at Union Park in the build up to their Challenge Cup Final at Murrayfield – played more games in Corstorphine than last season’s 1st XV, but the reality is no laughing matter. Over £50,000 was spent on both grassroots rugby and facilities in the Barnton area, all of which Corstorphine have had to walk away from.
“It was a few players and a coach who were the main protagonists in dragging the move forward,” admits Ulke. “But, the move has been made and we can’t change that. I just think it would have been nicer if there had been a bit more communication between the current committee at club level, because we’ve always been – since the beginning 14 years ago – a multi-centred rugby club, with facilities at both Union Park and Barnton. Whilst Union Park had been making a loss for a period of time, we managed to turn it around and we were actually making money, which in turn was being invested into the rugby side of things. It would have been nice to have another 12 or 18 months with that model in place, but the decision to move was made by other people.”
“The disappointing thing for Scottish rugby is that it doesn’t just affect us, but other Edinburgh-based sides. Trinity, Inverleith and South Queensferry could all lose players and it has a huge knock-on effect at a grassroots level. However, they’ve left us and we wish them all the best. I’ve still got a lot of friends who are there and I played alongside a lot of them. Once the dust has settled, we’ll all get back to being able to speak about it. We’re really taking the positives out of the situation – the ladies section voted unanimously to join us so that has been a huge highlight for all of us at the club. But, like I said, we’ve moved on already and there is always two sides to any story.”
The other side of the coin will undoubtedly be revealed in the coming months, but in the mean time, actions speak louder than words and Corstorphine are determined to make all the right moves.