Promotion has been on the cards for a while at Stroud Rugby – but nobody, not even their own personnel, expected them to achieve it in such a remarkable manner this year, writes Andrew Clayton.
In an all-conquering Western Counties North campaign, the Gloucestershire side went undefeated for all 21 of their 2019-20 league games before the outbreak of Covid-19 stopped play.
Racking up an eye-watering 815 points, and only shipping 316, Stroud more than bettered their fourth-place finish from last season and now prepare for a step up into South West One West.
Despite their small stature, the Fromehall Park outfit can boast a grand role in the history of West Country rugby. Before the implementation of a league structure, midway through the last century, the club had an annual fixture list which included the likes of Gloucester, Bath and Bristol..
Former Stroud player JV Smith became President of the Rugby Football Union in 1982, and current club social member Nigel Gillingham is set to follow in his footsteps as RFU President next August. The club can also say they were the first in Gloucestershire to launch a colts side.
Indeed, Stroud have rewritten their own history again this year with an invincible run, while a win against Spartans for their cancelled March 21 fixture would have almost certainly sealed the title early. However, what they had done was more than enough, with the RFU’s points calculation system awarding them a total of 126.73, the third highest in the country, behind Midlands One East’s Syston (127.64) and National Two North’s Caldy (142.79).
Club captain, Dan Smith, told The Independent that nobody was expecting them to dominate quite like they did – although a tinge of disappointment lingers from not being able to properly see out the season.
“It went a bit better than we thought it was going to!” said Smith. “We brought in two new coaches at the start of the season, Richard Rudge and Stuart Cale, and they wanted us to play the way they wanted.
“I don’t think anybody expected us to have the kind of season we did; it just gathered momentum, if I’m being honest.
“Everybody seemed to be enjoying it, on and off the field. There wasn’t really any pressure from the coaches or the club itself – I think we, the players, started putting more pressure on ourselves the further we got into the season.
“First it was ten games, then 15, and we’re thinking, ‘Hey up, we might be able to do something the club has never seen.’ To even go away from home and have a good winning streak on the road was good, because in our last couple of seasons, I wouldn’t say we had travelled particularly well.
“From my point of view and definitely from the players’, it’s almost an unfinished season, because we would have liked to had those remaining games unbeaten.
“It’s what we set ourselves when we got to 20. But, it wasn’t as if we hadn’t done ourselves proud, it was just frustrating because we felt we could have gone the rest of those games unbeaten.
“We were due to go up, we’ve been in this league for five or six seasons so it was time to go up and have a little look at the league above.”
Now, Stroud prepare for a climb up to step six, taking them as far south as Devonport Services and Sidmouth as part of their new challenge.
Whilst club chairman, Roger Hughes, admits that weathering the financial storm of Covid-19 will not be easy, coupled with the added costs which come with promotion, he feels Stroud can count on support from the community and perhaps garner a little more when rugby returns.
He said: “We were promoted to Western Counties North a few years back and we nearly got into the top three a couple of times, but this time it was beyond doubt.
“We have a really good set of players in terms of attitude. It’s a great atmosphere at the club and they all want to help, because they know financially, next year, we’ll need to be generating more revenue.
“A lot of them want to help us do that, however they can.
“Yes, it will be hard this summer, but we’ll just have to get through it. We will have lost lots of revenue from the bar and we need to find ways of replacing that.
“It’ll be a struggle, but we’re not as financially bad as some club and I think we’ll get through it.
“Everyone is very much wanting the club to do well, supporters and players. We have a lot of loyal supporters who travel away every week, but we’re hoping that the momentum that we’re gaining will encourage more people to come and watch, as well as more players who want to be a part of our success.”