By Paul Dantanus
MARTIN Johnson will be hoping to lead England to its third consecutive World Cup final in a country separated by over 10,000 miles and 12 time zones. But for a local rugby club such as Hove RFC, even international events such as this have a way of capturing the imagination of the sporting community regardless of when and where they take place.
Hove RFC are currently in the sixth tier of the Rugby Union pyramid, London 1 South, and play their home games at the Hove Recreation Ground in Shirley Drive. In a city that boasts Football League One Champions Brighton & Hove Albion and Sussex County Cricket, Hove are trying to build a rugby side worthy of recognition on a local and national level.
Remarkably, the club is run entirely by volunteers. Hove chairman Jamie Angus is one of those in charge of the setup, which now consists of six men’s teams, one women’s team and a host of youth sides ranging from under-18s to under-6s. Jamie jokes, “Everyone works for free here, apart from the bar staff”. Hove claim to have more teams than any other club in Sussex, and more teams than most clubs in the whole country. Each carries a military name, such as The Bombardiers (Hove Sixth XV), owing to officers from the Sussex Yeomanry who founded the club in 1933. Council and lottery funding helped to pay for their training ground, and fans keep the club running through a membership scheme. The chairman was quick to stress the importance of the leisure facility as a social hub for the community, with rugby being made available to everyone. Without this kind of team effort, sports clubs like Hove wouldn’t be able to survive.
Perhaps their most famous product is Alex ‘Beetle’ King, capped by England and the Barbarians. After nine years at Wasps, King left for ASM Clermont Auvergne in 2007, one of many English stars to join the French Top 14 at a time when no wage cap was imposed. When asked of any standout players or upcoming talent, the chairman says reservedly, “I wouldn’t like to name them and put others down”. Such a humble reply suggests that he is hiding something, so keep your eyes on the England under-20s squad in the coming seasons.
Jamie Angus is aware of the impact the Rugby World Cup has on a local level. When asked about Hove’s popularity during the tournament, he is unsure. “It’s early days yet. We’re expecting an extra 15% interest in the club during the competition, but with the games being played so early it’s hard to tell. Unlike France [the 2007 World Cup] where the Club House was busy every night.” Although another successful tournament from England will certainly help increase the club’s membership base of around 700 members.
All the work done by Hove’s seven committee members makes the job of running an amateur rugby club look easy. On the pitch, however, it’s another story. The first team’s away trip to Beckenham on Saturday ended in defeat after leading early on, the second consecutive loss from a winning position that was once again unfortunate, according to the chairman. Having played only four games of 26 this season, London 1 South will certainly throw up a few surprises and Angus is remaining confident about his team. “We’re suffering with a few injuries at the moment but we’re hoping to finish in the top end of mid-table”. Ultimately, Hove face the problem of building a club that is both successful and sustainable.
Recent developments suggest the club is moving in the right direction. The seldom-seen Veterans side of over-35s are setting off on a tour this October to Rouen, proving that Hove isn’t trying to be exclusive to one age group or ability. Discussions in the past between Hove and Brighton Rugby FC about a possible merger were dismissed by supporters and councillors alike. Therefore, alongside the likes of Worthing and Haywards Heath, Hove are one of few local clubs hoping to reach the professional leagues and finally put Sussex on the rugby map.
In terms of infrastructure the signs are positive, but every member of the team is just happy to help. In regards to the Hove philosophy, the club secretary Andy Ward tells me, “The emphasis is on fun, inclusion, enjoyment and participation” which is an ethos that many other teams don’t share. They know winning is important, but not at all costs. The club’s priority is to keep its players and members happy. The Brighton sporting community stands to benefit, and Hove seem all the better for it.