EDINBURGH NORTHERN don’t tick too many boxes in terms of what we are led to believe modern rugby clubs are supposed to be all about. They don’t have a minis or youth section, they don’t have a women’s team, and their facilities at what is affectionately called ‘The Bunker’ in Inverleith Park might best be described as basic – but what they do have is a well-earned reputation in the capital rugby community for their sociability and their welcoming attitude to players of all standards, from all walks of life, and from all corners of the globe.
They operate in a corner of the city which is perhaps the most densely populated area in all of Scotland in terms of rugby clubs, with big beasts Heriot’s, Edinburgh Accies and Stewart’s-Melville all within half a mile of their front door, plus fellow East Regional League sides Broughton, Trinity Accies, Inverleith and Leith Accies within a couple mile radius.
That means there is a lot of competition for players, so Northern are clearly doing something right given that they are managing to field two competitive teams most weekends throughout the season, plus a veterans’ side which plays around half a dozen matches per year.
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“Player recruitment is definitely one of our biggest challenges,” says committee member and 2nd XV captain Calum Miller. “We don’t have a feeder school like a lot of the clubs nearby, so we do things slightly differently. It is absolutely about being a good social club, a good community. We work hard to promote ourselves on social media – which is something we have really ramped up this year – but I think a lot of it is through word of mouth.
“We’re quite a transient club,” Millier continues. “There’s a good core of stalwarts in the team and on committee, but a lot of guys here often turn up out of the blue after moving to the city and will do two or three seasons then drift off again when work takes them somewhere else. But, what we also find is that they often re-appear at the club when they return to Edinburgh a few years later, so that says to me that we’re a club which people enjoy being at.”
“It’s a pretty simple formula, the boys get stuck into training on a Tuesday and Thursday night – that’s predominantly the 1st XV with a few 2nd XV boys sprinkled in there – and then we get both teams out on the Saturday afternoon, and we make sure we enjoy ourselves on a Saturday night.”
Amid the doom and gloom we so often hear about 2nd XV rugby dying on its feet, it is particularly heartening to hear that this tier of the game is thriving at Northern.
“The nature of the ‘Twos’ is that it tends to be made up of boys who either can’t or don’t want to commit to training, but do enjoy playing on a Saturday afternoon when they can manage it,” explains Miller. “We’ve got a couple firemen and a couple of policemen, so their shift work means their availability can be erratic, but we just mix and match every week.
“We’ve also got what we call the ‘Gents’ [over-35s team] team. They are prolific in terms of their winning percentage, so when we are short for the ‘Twos’ they are our final port of call. They’ve been at the cub for decades and they’ll not see you go short. They’ve probably got 20 or 25 minutes in them, but it’s a good 20 or 25 minutes.
“We play in Tennent’s East Reserve League Division Two, which does offer that prospect of promotion, but we’re very comfortable where we are,” he adds. “We play Edinburgh Accies 3rd XV, Ferry Road Wanderers [the amalgamation of Heriot’s and Stew-Mel 3rd XVs] and Peebles Reds, who have gone undefeated all season, but apart from that top three you will turn up on a Saturday and not know which way the game is going to go. So, they are really competitive matches.
“This season has changed dramatically. Last season I was so frustrated because we hardly played – I think we missed our first three fixtures due to the opposition not being able to get a side out – at a very rough estimate, something like 75 per cent of the games in our league were either cancelled or postponed due to one team or other being able to raise a side, whereas this season I’d be surprised if that number hit 10%.
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Meanwhile, the 1st XV dropped into East Division Three at the end of last season after a league restructuring and did not quite manage to bounce straight back into East Two at the first time of asking, but morale on and off the pitch has benefitted from winning more games than they have lost.
“It tied in with a change in captaincy, with Dom Harrison taking over; and we’ve also got a new coach this season in Chris McKenzie, who is a former Liberton player,” says Miller. “We were self-coached for a few years before that, and the guys who took that responsibility did a great job, but having Chris there has brought a real focus to our rugby in terms of what we are trying to do at training and in games – he’s also brought a lot of energy and a great ethos, with little details like players sweeping the changing rooms after the game.”
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The big driving forcing during the second half of the season has been the team’s run to a first ever semi-final appearance in a national knock-out competition during the club’s 99-year history. Northern now face Aberdeenshire at ‘The Bunker’ on Saturday with an opportunity to play on the international pitch at Murrayfield in the National Bowl Final on 27th April at stake.
“The boys have really got the bit between their teeth now and there is no reason why we can’t go the next step on Saturday,” says Miller. “The weather is meant to be good, so, hopefully, it can be a really good fun and open game.
“Hopefully, it will be a huge day for the club. The bar will be open from 12 noon. We’re going to be showing the Edinburgh game [against Munster in the Champions Cup at 12.45pm] on both screens and there will be a wee buffet for anyone who wants to chuck a donation in the tin.”
They aren’t a ‘development club’ or a ‘pathway club’, but Northern do get between 35 and 40 adult males playing the game each weekend during the season, some of whom have not picked up a rugby ball before. Others – such as Miller – had not played for several years since school. There is real value in that, because our current players are our future coaches and committee members. Edinburgh Northern are, quite simply, a good old-fashioned rugby club. And more power to their elbow.
If you are at a loose-end in the capital tomorrow afternoon, then there is worse ways of killing a few hours than watching two great grassroots rugby clubs locking horns and playing like there is no tomorrow – so get yourself down to ‘The Bunker’.
Edinburgh Northern v Aberdeenshire at Inverlieth Park, Saturday 3.30pm): D Younger; J McIntyre, J Breslin, R Brown, C Leslie; A Spiller, M Hoani; K Walker, S Shelley, J Kindness, C Harper, P Holland, D Harrison©, C Forlow, R Pounds. Subs: T Horton, D Candlish, A Nasser, J Dobrowsky, J Thompson, M Mawdsley, A Gallacher.
Aberdeenshire: S Stephen©; A Maclugash, A Wright, J Gary, T Watson; P Harrow, M White; S Shrewsbury, J Dooley, S Cook, I Irvine, P Watson, K Penman, K Forman, J Burton. Subs: R Keightley, S Lafferty, L Emslie, J Taylor, B Davie, J John, M Lynch.
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Very heartening piece. Well remember playing Northern and the delights of the Bunker.
Good luck to both teams tomorrow.