IT wasn’t long ago that Langholm rugby club faced a very uncertain future. Twice during the opening weeks of the 2016-17 season they failed to raise a team for East League Two fixtures and were sanctioned with points deductions. They were warned that one more call-off could trigger expulsion from the league, prompting club chairman Kenneth Pool to publish an open letter appealing for volunteers.
This attracted plenty of messages of sympathy and moral support from all over Scotland, but demographics [population of 2,700] and geography [19 miles north of Carlisle and 22 miles south of Hawick] meant it was hard for outsiders to see where the required boost to the player base would come from.
The seriousness of the situation was summed up when former player Craig Hislop posted an emotional Facebook message ahead of the club’s league game against Lismore –
“It’s hard to sit on a Saturday night and hear that if we don’t fulfil our fixture on Saturday that we will be thrown out of the league. I have walked out of the number five dressing room with some quality players over the years onto Milntown, but this weekend is the most important for our club. Boys dig deep and for the sake of our famous club do all you can to pull on the crimson shirt. I am up for it – please do not let our club die.”
The rugby community, in Langholm and beyond, was galvanised into action. By Thursday evening, 28 players of varying degrees of ability and match fitness had made themselves available. The game went ahead, and Langholm managed to fight-back from 28-17 down with twenty minutes to go to secure a bonus point 31-28 win.
“We’re not out of the woods yet but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Pool afterwards. “It was a great day at the club. We had the youth section training on the pitch before the match, we held a very well attended senior member’s lunch, and to finish it off with a win was just great for everyone involved.”
The club has continued to build from that day, and this season finished second in East League Two. Discussions over league restructuring are ongoing, but with two teams from the east of the country in Haddington and St Boswells dropping down to the regional leagues after relegation from National Three, it seems unlikely that there will be room for Langholm to be promoted – which is frustrating. But the big thing is that the club are not just managing to get a team out every week, they are also winning more than they are losing.
“What we decided to do was concentrate on getting our youth section right, so that we have a constant stream of players coming into the team,” explains Hislop, who now coaches the side. “For a few years we didn’t really have that in place – we weren’t running it very well – but we’ve worked hard at it and are beginning to see the benefit.
“We’ve also cultivated the link with Hawick at Under-18 level – largely thanks to the work of Davie Gordon, who oversees our youth section – and we’ve had eight players come into our 1st XV squad during the last two seasons through that set-up. Previously, we didn’t have enough numbers to field a colts team, which inevitably led to a loss of players to the game after Under-16s.
The ultimate goal is the resurrection of an Under-18 team in Langholm, but that is a longer term project.
“We’re trying to build it through the school now, with Davie Oliver in there as a development officer working hard to get the Under-16s and Under-14s playing on a regular basis,” explains Hislop. “Both those teams have had fixtures in the last few months with full squads, helped out by a few Hawick lads, so we’re moving in the right direction. The ideal scenario is that we can field an Under-18s team in a couple of years, but we’re very lucky – and grateful – that we’ve got that fall-back of the link with Hawick, which has been great for the boys coming through at the moment to get used to playing at a higher level and winning.”
Hislop is speaking on Tuesday night, after finishing a training session attended by around 70 primary school kids at Langholm High School’s recently installed ‘rugby-ready’ 3G pitch. “We’re ticking all the boxes in terms of the SRU’s KPIs,” he says. “The 3G pitch is a big boost. The senior team train there, and that’s where the Under-16s and Under-14s played their games.”
Exhausting every avenue
The focus, however, is not solely on youth development to the exclusion of all else. “In a town our size, it is about exhausting every avenue in terms of finding players,” says Hislop. “At the start of the season, we did cross-training at the club, and that attracted a few lads who had been playing football, and we were able to persuade them to come and try rugby, so that was another useful stream.
“We’ve also moved training from Tuesday and Thursday to Monday and Wednesday, which means we’re a day ahead of everyone else in terms of where we might be short of players that week. That helps because we have a lot of guys in Hawick and up in Edinburgh who are dual registered, and we are able to be proactive in getting them involved.”
Hislop has mixed emotions about the prospect of being deprived of promotion at this late stage in (after) the season. “You play all year with the goal to be promoted and then they restructure it and you are no better off,” he sighs. “As a club you should always want to move onwards and upwards, so promotion is the goal, but if I’m being honest it might not be the best thing for us at this stage because if we end up in the same league as Hawick Quins then we’ll lose that association which has been a helpful fall-back the last couple of years.”
Whatever league they end up in, Langholm will approach next season with a sense of optimism. “When we weren’t winning you found that players were pretty quick to find an excuse not to travel – taking an extra shift at work and things like that – but winning makes a hell of a difference,” says Hislop. “Success breeds success.
“Off the pitch, I would say it is about 50 per cent better than it was a couple of years ago. In a couple of our important games this season, against [top of the table] Hawick Linden in February and Gala at the end of the season when we were going for second place, it wasn’t far off the kind of crowd we’ll get for the Sevens.
“The youth section is buzzing, the club is doing well financially, and we’ve put a new player’s gym in. It seems to have turned around quite quickly to two years ago when there was a serious danger that we would have to close the door, but we know that we can’t afford to take our foot off the accelerator because it can all fall away again pretty quickly.”
- Langholm host their annual Sevens tournament on Saturday. The first tie is between Edinburgh Accies and Hawick at 2pm.