The white-washed walls of the dressing room at Oldfield’s Sports & Social Club don’t lend themselves particularly well to a vibrant atmosphere. Floors now freshly decorated with post-training mud and scuffs from studded-boots, the atmosphere belongs solely to the squad of players who call this place home.
Uttoxeter RFC train on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the social club-turned sports facility. Top of the Division 4 West (North) league and now duly crowned champions, the senior XV squad have just completed their first training session since their convincing 49-5 victory away at Aston Old Edwardians.
Reciting this score-line raises a wry smile from a few of the players, who quickly tell me that their previous home match was a mighty 89-0 win over Aldridge. Certainly it is easy to see how victories of this magnitude result in championship success before the final game of the season has even been played.
Praise is more controlled in the eyes of coach Graham Macdonald, however.
“We started out, not necessarily badly, but with a squad that was raw with talent which had yet to be brought out of them”. Graham and myself are sat amongst the madness of the dressing room post-training, but this seemingly does not distract his train of thought. “We have worked hard, we’ve developed and to win a championship this year is colossal”.
Uttoxeter RFC Snr XV’s achievements in the league have also been matched by performances in the Staffordshire All-England cup competition, as the team prepare for the final against Rugeley on the 1st May. Graham is aware of the significance of the final but also its place in the team’s achievements this season.
“It’s a trophy to win, of course. But it’s the league that is the big one. To go up out of this league, I don’t think anyone expected it this year.”
Promotion is following quickly from last year’s relegation disappointment from the same division they are now going back up to, the Division 3 West (North). The 2014/15 season saw the team sit at the bottom of the league and relegation became an almost inevitability.
Having experienced the league before, I was keen to know how Graham saw the squad’s chances among much tougher opposition.
“It will be a tough season but I think they can cope. It’s how they react to it; the ambition will be there for them for sure. We’ll step up the training which will be a culture shock to them, but they’ll react and work hard”.
Away from the confines of the dressing room, the players had let their hair down before running through drills under Graham’s tight authority. The ceasing of the junior team’s training allowed the Snr XV to utilise the whole pitch for their practice and soon they were feeling the effects of the pace.
Phases of passing, the mimicking of hold ups from tackles and rucks, swift progressions across the width of the pitch before returning to the opposite corner to start all over again. Graham’s whistle marks the start of a new phase and gradually the exertion takes its toll. The once fresh squad were one-by-one beginning to spend the moments between phases with their hands on their heads, breathing deeply and with a sharp intensity.
This was a pretty tough session for the lads who do work hard, but are still coming down from a celebratory weekend in which they sealed the league as their own. As such, the post-training de-brief and team-talk in the dressing room 35 minutes later is strict and heated. There is a real sense that the team want to maintain their unbeaten home record and the final game of the season the following week will be the toughest yet.
“OK, first thing is that I’ve been nice to you all season – there’s no messing around now boys. We’ve won this league but my sense of humour goes now. I’ve helped you through it, but now we work. To win this title again we’re going to have to work like hell”.
There is a brutal honesty in Graham’s voice. He’s standing in the centre of the dressing room, with player’s adorning the benches all around him. No-one dares interrupt as he gains full-flow in his address to the squad.
“This is no easy league, the one above. I think we have a fair old chance if we get our pre-season right. I will expect a session like that for 50 minutes at least without a single ball being dropped. That is the reality if we want to win another title”.
The forthcoming match is the last league match of the season, and it just so happens to be local rivals Barton-under-Needwood. Tensions run high amongst the boys as they recall their previous meetings with the team, in which two matches were won and one was lost. It is the one that was lost that is troubling their minds.
Team captain James Gill is the first to speak on behave of his colleagues when Graham asks for their thoughts.
“I just want to smash the hell out of them”. A short but sweet response is met only by deep breaths as the players recover from their workout ten minutes previous. Graham is reassuring and assertive in his reply.
“It has got to be done, we went over there with a poor side but we took them apart when we played them again here. It has to be done again, no ifs and no buts”.
But for all his assertiveness, there is a deep sense of praise and admiration as he winds down with the players.
“I won’t be soft next year but I came here and wanted success for you. We’ve got it now, and the success you’ve put in is colossal. Boys, sometimes you don’t know how good you are. I get hard at you, but I look out and see things that are just excellent and want to take it to that stage further”.
“There’s good talent in this club, there really is”.
Only the nervous tapping of boots on the concrete floor is breaking the silence of Graham’s pauses between sentences. It isn’t apprehension but more trepidation, the team know that they are going places again now and the championship seems only the start of it. Once the team talk and de-brief formalities are complete, the boys head off for showers and prepare to head home.
As they make headway from the dressing room, I reflect on a sense of belonging from the players and the strength and unity within the team. They know what they need to work on. They seem to know not just their own but also each other’s place within the squad and that clarity shows from their league success this season. The pain that the previous loss to Barton-under-Needwood is having still, 8 months later, is a testament to the practice and commitment that the lads put on themselves.
Saturday, however, is another day and yet another match, whether it is the final match of the season or not. But for all of Graham’s words of wisdom and fighting talk, his final thoughts still seem to linger and echo around the cramped dressing room. It seems only right that their final league match is at home, in front of home crowds.
“That’s sacred turf out there boys, look after it. That’s our turf”.