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THE RUGBY LIONS FOOTBALL CLUB

Club History & Records

From the Home of the game

 
       
  Club history
 

 

     
  Past seasons index & match reports    
  Sept 04 Club Records
  Player statistics and information service
  League games - played /won / lost etc
  Played won / lost etc 1873 to present day all games
  Club Captains    
       
  History     
  By Dennis Keen - club historian and keeper of records    
       
 
Beginnings
Early Years
Inter war years
After WW2 Coming of the leagues Professional era
   
           
  Beginnings and Possible Links with Rugby School      
       
 

Like other schools In the early 19th century Rugby School played a form of football.  The famous action of William Webb Ellis, who, in 1823, ran with the ball in hand, stimulated football at Rugby to develop into a game which mixed handling with kicking.  As such It was considered to be unique and it became known as Rugby football when old Rugbeians introduced it to other places and institutions.  

The foundation date from which the Rugby Football Club’s anniversary years have been counted has always been assumed to be 1873. This was the year when the Club affiliated to the Rugby Football Union but the Rugby Crusaders, which became the Rugby Football Club in 1877, was, according to an entry in the Football Annual of that year, officially formed in 1867. This does not mean that the game was not played in the town prior to that date but if it was it would presumably have been on an “ad hoc” basis with no formal formation of a club.  

No known documents exist which prove a connection between the Rugby Football Club and Rugby School but it would be surprising if there was not one in the early days of the game. Most young men have an interest in sport and it is highly likely that some of the locals would have observed the type of football which was being played by the school up to and after 1846, when the book of rules was sanctioned by the Big School Levee and printed in the town.  

There is one piece of evidence, which is very suggestive of a link with the Club and School and that is the rampant red lion emblem. All the Rugby School Houses have their emblems and the red lion is that of Town House, the one to which local boys were allocated. This has always been the emblem of the Rugby Football Club and, like the boys of Town House it was also to be seen on a white football jersey. If Rugby School’s senior boys had anything to do with the origins of a local club Town House boys would seem to be the most likely candidates and they would probably have been wearing their House jerseys; school masters may also have been involved, as was the case in later years. On three occasions in the next 125 years Rugby School masters would notably re-vitalise the local club.  

Early Years  

In the years up to 1877/8 the fixture list was often only partially fulfilled when games were cancelled due to a lack of players on one side or the other. From 1883/4 up to the outbreak of the First World War between 20 and 28 games were played each season by which time only inclement weather would prevent a game taking place. Current well-known local clubs who provided early opposition were Moseley, Coventry, Leicester and Northampton. All but Moseley were beatable in the early days though it was not long before the others became much stronger. Warrington, which defected with the Northern Union in 1895, was the first club played against that was not “local” and several meetings ensued between 1887 and 1895: Rochdale Hornets, another “league” club also played one game against the Lions in Rugby in 1887/8.  

The club’s performance on the field varied from season to season according to the playing strength and the quality of the fixture list. The influence of Rugby School was felt in the mid 1890s when L J Percival, son of the Head Master of the time and already an England International, took over the captaincy of the Lions and attracted some equally good players into the side, including Scottish International H T S Gedge. This revival did not last longer than a couple of seasons and it was not until 1910/11 that the team once again achieved a run of good results, including the first win at Moseley in 40 years, but this was to be frustrated by the 1914/18 war. Two players were killed in the war and three others were unable to play again due to injury or ill health.  

The Inter-War Years
Rugby football, which had been stopped during the war, re-started in 1919 and the Lions opened the season with a match against Rugby School, winning 11-9: annual matches against the School had begun around the time of Percival’s captaincy in 1894. Among Rugby’s new players was J H Bruce-Lockhart, a Scottish International who was a master at Rugby School. From the following season until the Second World War in 1939 the number of games played increased to between 30 and 40 per season. During this period most of the London Hospitals and many of the London `old boys´ clubs joined the fixture list. In 1924 the Midland Counties Union was replaced by separate County Unions. The Lions 1st XV never won the Midland Cup but their 2nd XV won the Midland Junior Cup for a record ten times between 1890 and 1919.  

Another outstanding International player who already had eight caps for England, G S Conway, joined the Rugby School teaching staff in 1922 and had an immediate effect on the team’s performance. Like Percival he attracted good players and the Lions benefited from the services of England Internationals M S Bradby and H J Kittermaster: both of whom were connected with Rugby School. Conway was capped eleven times while playing for the Lions and also played in the England/Wales v Scotland/Ireland Centenary game on Rugby School Close in 1923.  

Conway departed in 1925 but his influence remained and, apart from some occasional lapses, this period was the most successful in the Club’s history up to this time: crowds of between 2000 and 4000 were not unusual. 1930/31 was probably the best season when Northampton were beaten 8-6 at Franklins Gardens, the first win there for 40 years and the last, except for 1939-45 wartime games, up until the present. As with 1914 the prospects for Rugby were looking very good in 1939. Other notable players in this period were, E E Haselmere, H J Davies, J H Treen, N C Marr, J Livingston, H E W Smith, C A Pridmore, E P R Bates and S C Elliott.

After the Second World War  

Rugby clubs continued to play games during World War Two but the absence of key players on active service weakened the teams put out so it was not until 1945/6 that things began to return to normal. The Lions did not start as well as they had finished in 1939 and team performance deteriorated into the mid 1950s when, yet again a Rugby School master came to the rescue. This was T K Vivian who had played for Harlequins and Cornwall. The Lions already had some useful players and Vivian managed to get the team to gel into something quite formidable. The 1955/56 season still remains the best ever in the Club’s history with only five games lost out of 36. Leicester were beaten at Welford Road for the first time since 1892. It was not to last though and in the next season 13 games were lost: Vivian was forced to retire through injury in 1957.  

S J `Stan´ Purdy was the first local boy to win an international cap while playing for the Lions when he lined up against Scotland in 1962. 1964/5 stands out as the next “good” season when only 9 games were lost out of 41 and the Lions beat Bedford at home for the first time since 1912/13. R D `Danny´Hearn, who in 1967 was seriously injured in a West Midlands v New Zealand game, played for Rugby this season before moving on to Bedford. The annual matches played against Rugby School were discontinued after this season, as they were no longer competitive.  

The cycle of performance by the 1st XV continued into the 1970s, sinking early and then improving again to peak one season after the Centenary, which was deemed to be 1972/73. The Centenary season produced a number of special matches including a Sevens Competition, an RFU President’s International XV and a Rugby School Head Master’s XV (played on the Rugby School Close). In 1973/74 the Lions lost only 8 games out of 36. The team had a formidable back row in the form of N Malik, R Piggott and T A Cowell, which was selected en bloc for the Warwickshire side. A home win and an away draw against a very strong Coventry side was the gem of the season. The very next season began a decline in the Lions’ fortunes, which lasted until the latter part of the 1980s.  B Seaton, J R G Slack, F J Webb, K W Taylor, E Gilchrist, R Pointon, R Pebody and S Thomas were also notable players during this period.  

The Coming of Leagues  

League competition in rugby union had been talked about for some time but in 1986 it was apparent that this change to the structure of the season was imminent. Led by new Chairman David Rees the committee saw this, as an opportunity to restore the playing fortunes of the Club and set about attracting players to Rugby who they considered would be able to achieve their aim. The ex England and Coventry hooker, Steve Brain, was the corner stone on which the new team was built. The National Leagues were launched in 1987/88 and Rugby found themselves in Division 4 North, one division lower than expected. By 1990/91 the Club had finished as Division 2 champions to gain promotion to the elite Division 1. Rugby Lions had demonstrated what good players could do with team spirit, commitment and confidence. Eddie Saunders, who joined the Lions from Coventry in 1987, was one of the most consistent contributors to this success, scoring a record 39 tries for a season in 1987/88 and breaking the all time try scoring record with 139 between 1987/88 and 1990/91.  

For the Club to remain in the top flight the Lions needed some outstanding talent to be added to the existing squad but it did not materialise. In spite of this the Club performed creditably, beating Quins at Rugby and obtaining a draw at Welford Road, so avoiding relegation in 1991/92. It could not last, however, and Rugby was relegated at the end of the following season. The following season was no better and 1994/95 saw Rugby back in Division 3. Things had gone wrong off the field as well and the Club found itself in debt. This was due to the inability to service loans on the new clubhouse built to coincide with the Club’s Division 1 status. This was the second time a clubhouse had impoverished the Club as it had to sell the first “new” clubhouse (built in 1974 to replace the original which was burnt down in 1973) in 1984. Notable players were, D Bishop, R Pell, I Heywood, C Howard, M Ellis, M Fleetwood, P Bowman, T Revan, M Mapletoft, M Palmer  

The old Club ceased to exist and a new one, Rugby Lions Football Club, was formed with an entirely new committee. The RFU accepted that the new club could fulfil the Division 3 fixtures of the old club and the end of the season saw the Lions finish in fourth place. Financial stability was achieved and repurchase of the clubhouse, which had been repossessed by the RFU, was set in train. 1995/6 saw Rugby finish in third place and promoted to an enlarged Division 2.  

The Professional Era  

In 1996 the game finally ceased to be solely amateur and the International Board accepted that a player could be directly paid for playing. In many cases this regularised what had been happening covertly for many years. Sponsors had been permitted since the early days of the leagues, Rugby had Blands and then Rugby Cement who was still the main sponsor, but their financial input should not previously have found its way into players’ pockets. In 1996/97 clubs could attract finance by a variety of means and, in effect, buy players. The Lions were badly placed for this and the lack of additional finance and a determination not to get into debt again was the main reason for a poor season’s performance. Some new players were introduced but the team seemed to lack a driving force and relegation was once again their fate.  

For 1997/98 Lions were in the Jewson sponsored National Division 1. In addition to Rugby Cement’s continued sponsorship, Rugby Lions had financial support from Leamington Spa based nationally known catering company Elizabeth The Chef whose Chairman, David Owen became Chairman of the Rugby Lions FC. A number of new players were signed in addition to ex New Zealand All Black International Andy Earl who was player/coach and Geoff Davies, a former Bridgend coach, who became Coaching and Playing Co-ordinator. Rugby finished the season in fourth place and because of a readjustment of division sizes were promoted to The Allied Dunbar sponsored Premier Division 2. Both Lions sponsors remained on board in 1998/99. Andy Earl departed but the Welsh players brought in by Geoff Davies and Samoan international To’o Vaega remained. However, the Lions rarely demonstrated their true potential and the situation was latterly made worse by Geoff Davies’ poor health. Rugby finished in eleventh place. Some of the contracted players took part in an innovative coaching programme for local schoolchildren.  

In 1999/2000 Elisabeth The Chef, no longer associated with David Owen who remained as Lions’ Chairman, discontinued their sponsorship, as also did Rugby Cement. The consequent drop in funding occasioned trimming in all areas. Ex Rugby Lions player, Mal Malik who had replaced Mike Adnitt as Chief Executive and new Coach Richard Kinsey (brought in as a player the previous season) worked hard on building a new team of predominantly younger players but the results did not come. Ultimately Ex Welsh international Paul Turner, who had been a notable success at Sale, was brought in as player/coach to replace Kinsey. Some additional players were signed in the new year but despite a strong finish relegation was not avoided...Paul Turner remained as coach and with a mixture of old and new players managed to blend them into a team that was able to secure second place in National Division 2 at the end of 2000/01 and return the club to National Division One.  Rugby’s hoped for top six place in 2001/02 was not forthcoming, largely due to an early large injury list, and Paul Turner’s departure to Gloucester RFC at the end of September only made things more difficult. At one time the threat of relegation was all too close, but after a row of six lost games, an away win at Otley made things safe and the Lions finished in tenth place.  

During 2001/02 Eddie Saunders collected six tries in just nine appearances to bring his club total to 250 and his league total to 103 to equal Birmingham’s Nick Baxter who was first to get the magic 100 a few weeks earlier. In 2000/01, Eddie overtook Chris Howard’s highest cumulative scoring record of 1029 extending it, by the end of 2001/02 to 1111. This is a remarkable achievement in that all his points have come from tries.  

David Owen continues to support the club financially and together with CE, Mal Malik they have kept the club competitive and financially sound.  

 

   
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