Orrell Rugby Union Football Club was founded in 1927 by a group of friends from Orrell
and neighbouring Pemberton who travelled daily by train to Liverpool. One of the
stops on that journey was at Rainford where some young men from that village
joined the train. The talk and banter was often about rugby and eventually a
challenge was issued by the men from Rainford, and of course duly taken up. In
such circumstances was Orrell Rugby Union Football Club born.
In those early days they led a very nomadic existence with grounds in Kitt
Green, Orrell Mount, Abbey Lakes, Alma Hill and Up Holland, and men could be
seen most Saturdays carrying rugby posts and sawdust to mark out the pitch in
one locality or another before they eventually settled at the YMCA cricket
ground in Winstanley Road.
The Second World War forced the suspension of the club, but as soon as hostilities ceased Orrell RUFC was re-constituted. With rapid growth in playing membership, new premises were sought and a site at Edge Hall Road was purchased, an ex-army hut being used as changing accommodation. Orrell soon developed a reputation on the field that was as much respected as it was feared, but improvements in the fixture list were not easily come by as they were told by side after side that they would play, but only if others played them also.
On the field, Orrell began to do very well indeed. Between 1961 and 1966 they played 139 games with only 14 defeats. In September 1968, Orrell became the first club in Lancashire to erect floodlights, enabling the club to play in mid-week. The 1970's saw Orrell's success continue: In the 1970/71 season they played 42 games and only lost 4 of those. In 1971/72 they won the resurrected Lancashire Cup without conceding a point, which also qualified them to take part in the following season's National Knockout Competition. In the second round they defeated the famous Harlequins and received wide press coverage, prompting the famous quote 'beaten by a lay-by off the M6!' With eight teams representing Orrell at various levels in 1973, re-building began to add extra changing rooms, a gym and a kitchen. This work was finished in 1974 being officially opened on April 4th that year by the RFU President Micky Steele-Bodger.
In the 1980's Orrell had some memorable moments, winning the Lancashire cup for the 6th time in 8 years in the 1981/82 season. They finished 2nd in the Northern merit table in 1982/83 and were quarter finalists in the National Knockout Cup in successive seasons. In 1984/85 season they entered the record books setting a new record for the number of points scored in a season by an English club - 1295! Their consistency in the merit tables was recognised and Orrell joined the new National Leagues Division One set up in 1986/87 finishing 6th in 1987/88 and 4th in 1988/89. The club continued to go from strength to strength, reaching the National Cup semi and quarter finals on a number of occasions. They were an ever present in the English First Division until 1997, and finished runners up to Bath in 1991/92. The club built its strength on its commitment to junior rugby and bringing players up 'through the ranks', many of whom played for the first team and achieved representative honours.
Orrell always supported the Lancashire cause and was the backbone of the county side for many years, with the club itself becoming synonymous with the Red Rose success supplying many players including great county captains in Des Seabrook and Sammy Southern. On the international stage Frank Anderson, Peter Williams, Fran Clough, Dave Cusani, Nigel Heslop, and Phil Jones have represented England, whilst playing for the Amber and Blacks. John Carleton and Dewi Morris have also played for the British Lions. Simon Mason represented Ireland, Steve So'ioalo and Opeta Palepoi, Samoa with Andy Craig capped for Scotland.
Yet to rise from obscurity to, in the words of David Irvine of the Guardian, 'dance with the giants of the game' could not have been achieved without the neccessary talent on the field nor the essential dedication to the advancement of the club by those off it.
John Carleton first came to Orrell as a raw schoolboy talent and progressed via the Lancashire County side into the full England side, making his international debut against Scotland in 1979. The following year he toured South Africa with the British Lions and was part of Bill Beaumont's record breaking 'Five Nations' England squad. A one club man throughout his playing career, Carelton continued to play for the junior teams in the club, passing on his vast experience and skill to a whole raft of youngsters.
One of the greatest driving forces on the playing side of the club has been Des Seabrook. As a player and club captain, Seabrook, more than anyone, forged the side that took the club into senior status through the resurrected Lancashire Cup and into the National Cup where his side inflicted famous defeats on the likes of Northampton and Harlequins. His leadership on the field was legendary and later as club coach and Director of Rugby it was Seabrook who worked with the side that remained an ever present in Division One until more recent times. He coached England, The North, The North West Counties and Lancashire.
One of the greatest strengths of the Orrell club has always been in the quality and calibre of its administration working away from the pitch to ensure that the club became one of the elite of the game. Alf Swift who was Club President from 1975/77 was an early driving force behind the Orrell advance. Long before he became President, Swift was one of a group of committee men who recognised the potential of the club to compete with the best the game had to offer. He began the search for top quality fixtures, mainly in the Northwest and Yorkshire. With an improving fixture list, Orrell began to rise up the ranks but Swift was not satisfied and insisted that the club should seek out fixtures on a national scale and used success in the Lancashire Cup to further his aims.
Following on from Swift, the one man who must be credited with Orrell's overall success is Eric Smith. Smith, a former club captain who served as club Chairman from 1969/78 and President from 1982/87, more than anyone was responsible for Orrell emerging on the national stage as a senior club. He transformed the administration and ensured that Orrell acted in a 'professional' way both on and off the field long before money was placed into players pockets. He was a well respected figure at RFU, sitting on many committees, especially the contentious Competitions Committee when league rugby was first introduced, ensuring of course, that Orrell always had a voice at the 'top table'. Although he had little 'truck' for anyone who would hold the club back nor for the faint hearts who hesitated at the thought of progress, he was an Orrell man through and through, the appellation 'Mr Orrell' given to him by a section of the press, being not that wide of the mark.
The advent of the professional game, however, hit the club hard, and having made the conscious decision at the beginning of the 1996-97 season that they were not going to spend money they had not got, and by steadfastly refusing to chase the big-spending monied outfits, the club was faced with the mass exodus of sixteen of their first team squad. They were inevitably relegated. Unable to return to the elite at the first time of asking, Orrell suffered a severe reduction in income and, as the financial screws began to tighten, a drastic re-appraisal of the financial and rugby structure of the club was carried out. Still refusing to mortgage their assets in an attempt to keep up with more wealthy competitors they decided to cut their cloth accordingly. The whole squad moved to part time, Director of Coaching Ged Glynn departed to be replaced by 'Sammy' Southern, who returned as Chairman of Rugby, and a coaching panel came in under former club captain Bill Lyon, assisted by Phil Moss and former British Lions and England wing Mike Slemen. The situation was explained to the players and this resulted in a further exodus with Ben Cronin and Brian Walsh returning to Ireland, Zimbabwean international Doug Trivella moving to Rotherham, Charlie Harrison signing for Bedford and Nigel Heslop choosing junior rugby with local side West Park. However, Ian Wynn and Paul Manley returned from the 'White Rose' county and other players were recruited, including David Slemen son of the former British Lion together with a number of others out of the local junior ranks.
It was around this time that some club members, concerned
about the diminishing level of senior rugby being played at Orrell, got together
to re-form the Orrell third XV. The following year, the side was formally
registered with the RFU as Orrell Anvils, a purely amateur side with good
relations with the professional set-up, and entered the RFU league structure as
a new side in the South Lancashire and Cheshire league. In the first league
season 1998-99, with a very young side, the Anvils missed out on promotion by a
single point, and part way through the season Colin Nicholson having been asked
to coach the professional 2nd XV, passed on the coaching responsibility to a
current coaching team headed by Tony Pegg. Recruitment of additional players
took place during the summer of 1999, adding a number of experienced players to
the existing squad of promising younger players.
This blend of youth and experience saw the Anvils go through the 1999-2000 season unbeaten, winning the league and scoring over 500 points in 10 games by playing an expansive and attractive game.
The 'ethos' of the Anvils was one of enjoyment of rugby, both on and off the field. Competition for places in the side was strong, with a squad of over 30 players, yet team spirit remained high. Players with extensive first team experience such as Jeff Huxley, Nigel Heslop, Steve Taberner, Micky Glynn and Dick Fisher played alongside promising young players like Paul Engwell, Andy Carroll, David Honor, Mike Caldwell and Ricky Rimmer. The Anvils became the perfect vehicle for senior players, who had perhaps had enough of the pressures and demands of 1st XV rugby but who still wanted to enjoy playing the game, to pass on their experience to younger lads hoping to progress to play at a more senior level. From that point of view the Anvils became an intergral part of the Orrell set up and saw players go on to play 2nd and 1st team rugby. Whilst the emphasis remained firmly on enjoyment, they still played a fiercely competitive game on the park, and put as much effort into enjoying themselves off the field as well!
The influence of the 1st XV's new coaching regime of Bill Lyon, Phil Moss, Mike Slemen and 'Sammy' Southern in particular cannot be underestimated. There was a restored vibrancy about the rugby at Edge Hall Road in the late nineties, and a new found confidence amongst the players, capable of playing good quality rugby, remaining never less than competitive. Unfortunately with financial screws tightening and unable to satisfy creditors, the club were forced to go into administration, leading to the departure of Manley and Stuart Turner to Worcester. The club managed to hang on at the second level until, despite a last-day home victory over London Welsh, a convenient draw between Otley and Bedford saved the status of both teams, seeing Orrell relegated to National Division Two at the end of the 2000/01 season.
With the real possibility of not having enough players to start the 2001/02 season the Orrell directors decided that something had to be done. Wigan Warriors Rugby League Club Chairman Maurice Lindsay and business tycoon David Whelan, the then owner of the JJB Sports empire, had already been making noises about forming a rugby union side. Contact was made and an exciting night saw the members promised £10,000,000 investment over 5 years, with Mr Whelan expressing the dream to be drinking red wine away to Toulouse in the European Cup in the not-too-distant future. Wide-eyed, and with these promises of future success, the members reluctantly sold their precious shares in the club for £1,000 each, to the new owners, with Lindsay becoming the club's new Chairman.
Immediate changes were seen, not all of them universally
popular with the former members, but Orrell began to prosper again. Most of the
players who had been looking elsewhere were persuaded to stay, and Phil Jones,
who completed his first season in the game by playing for the full England side
against the Barbarians at Twickenham, was recruited from the Rugby League Club. Andy
Craig who had been playing rugby league for Widnes Vikings returned, and was
capped for Scotland on their summer tour of North America and played for
Scotland throughout the autumn series of internationals and the Six Nations.
Also that season, Wade Kelly an outstanding centre from Australia, Nick Easter a back-row forward from Rosslyn Park and Wes Davies,
a Wales Rugby League International swelled the ranks.
Under the management of Sammy Southern as director of rugby, assisted by Bill Lyon and Mike Gregory, the team beat main rivals Plymouth Albion both home and away and took the league title at Nottingham, beating the home side 66-15, and were immediately promoted back to National One. Unfortunately after giving a lifetime service to the club Southern was now thought to be superfluous to requirements as Director of Rugby, and left the club, a decision that did little to further an already tenuous relationship between the loyal supporters and Maurice Lindsay.
During the close season former Australian International flank-forward Ross Reynolds was appointed as head coach, most of the previous season's squad re-signed and further re-enforcements were drafted-in with the signing of Samoan scrum half Stephen So'oialo, hooker Mike Howe from Newcastle, Steve Barretto a prop from Leinster, Drew Hickey a super 12 player from Australia, Simon Haughton, another rugby league international out of the Warriors stable, and Steve Moore a Welsh international lock. They went full time at the end of the season and set their sights on Premiership rugby. With a new side coming together they had a disasterous opening month but then things improved, with them only losing one more league game throughout the campaign to finish a creditable 4th. Their season highlight was a 20-13 win over Exeter in the Powergen Shield final at Twickenham.
Off the field, Orrell's clubhouse was destroyed by arson in the early hours of Monday the 12th of August 2002, before the season had even begun but ominously as it proved, there was no rush by the new owners to rebuild. Irreplaceable items were lost, including representative and international shirts that had been donated to the club by former players, and the trophy cabinet containing much of the club's silverware. Reynolds strengthened the side with the signing of Simon Emms from Bath, England hooker Neil McCarthy from Bristol, Alfie Too'ala from Rotherham, Rodd Penney who played for England in the World Sevens, Gavin Cattle and Leigh Hinton from Birmingham, together with Jim McKay who was brought in as backs coach. Another successful season followed, losing only four games and finishing second to Worcester. Hopes were high that one more season would see them in the Premiership. With expectations high it came as a cruel blow that backer David Whelan decided to withdraw his investment after promising supporters that he was in for the 'long haul.'
News following a meeting seeking clarification of Whelan's exact intentions, revealed that he was giving ownership of the clubhouse and the first team pitch over to Wigan Warriors Rugby League Club, but offered a 25-year lease to Orrell at a prohibitively expensive rent. He also announced that his £30,000 per annum sponsorship of the club through his JJB Sports Store empire would cease at the end of the 2004 / 2005 season.
The decision had immediate effect as nearly the whole squad and coaching staff left for pastures new and with little interest being shown by the management, there was a real danger that this once proud club could fold. In the end, Sale Sharks Assistant Coach Mark Nelson took over coaching duties and assembled a squad with Richard Wilks had appointed as Club Captain. Unfortunately it was late in the day and the side began the season both underpowered and under-prepared. The frailties were immediately exposed and although they managed a draw away at Bedford with the help of players on loan from Sale Sharks, the arrangement with the Premiership club was less than successful with Orrell not knowing from one week to the next who was going to be available. Despite some close encounters the side did not record a league win until they beat Henley Hawks at Edge Hall Road in November. They were not to win again until the final game of the season when they beat Nottingham at Edge Hall Road to enthusiastic acclaim from their faithful fans. But by then relegation back to National Two had long been decided. In difficult circumstances Nelson must be credited with doing a solid enough job to ensure that the club would survive through the season and the players who had been drawn in from all over the North showed remarkable passion, spirit and resilience throughout the whole season.
Although relegation was inevitable, it was to the club's great relief that towards the end of the season, the rebuilt clubhouse was opened, following almost three seasons without one. With the club reverting to a members committee, whose intention was to return Orrell to a 'proper' rugby club, former Irish international Simon Mason was appointed as full time Director of Rugby with the brief of 'kick starting' the revival, the hope initially being one of consolidation in National Division Two. Although a sizable number of the previous season's squad had promised to stay, they subsequently left, leaving Mason and assistant Mike Howe to start, yet again, from square one. They began the season with a very young and inexperienced squad, and while they matured significantly it was a case of too little, too late and another relegation for the club.
Coach Mason was lured away by better financial prospects at Caldy, and the club appointed Chris Chudleigh as their new coach, joining the club from the British Army where he held the rank of Captain. He worked as the Army Officer responsible for introducing and developing the military's sporting strategic initiatives in schools and youth organisations, nationwide, as part of the policy to introduce young people to a potential career in the Army. However, a lack of cash meant that few players remained from the previous season's National Two campaign, and while Fijians and Army players were been brought in together with some talented young South Africans and New Zealanders, the team struggled to excel. As the club no longer owned the Edge Hall Road Ground, they had to train at a local college and to compound difficulties, they were deducted six league points by the RFU for playing two unregistered players at the beginning of the season. Off the field circumstances became similarly bleak, the once famous club are having to use the local Station Hotel as their headquarters, with the memorabilia that was left after the fire, transferred from the brand new clubhouse which, for some bizarre reason, Wigan Warriors were no longer allowing them to use.
By the half-way point of the season, Orrell still hadn't won a game, and with this back-drop, the side started to break up, with players, including the club captain, moving to other clubs or off to Rugby League. Coach Chris Chudleigh had no option but to play youngsters and others who had very little experience of national league rugby. A members meeting confirmed the overwhelming feeling that the club should at least look into the possibility of moving elsewhere at the end of the season, providing a suitable location could be found. The story was becoming one of heartbreak for all those former players and stalwarts who had made Orrell one of the top clubs in the country before the professional era. A difficult, and at times heated process, off the field ensued, with the local newspaper reporting a group of members' intention to set up a breakaway club, before agreement from the existing committee that amateur rugby was the only way forward for rugby in Orrell, and a new start would allow the name and heritage of Orrell Rugby Union Football Club to move forward based on the values that were established by predecessors of this great club.
The season finished with a misery-compounding 18-try 124-0 defeat away to Blaydon, having struggled to find just seventeen players able to travel to the fixture. Without a win and just two draws to their name, Orrell had to rely on the good-nature of Darlington RUFC when unable to raise a side for the penultimate match of the season, before a sad farewell to Edge Hall Road on 21st April saw defeat to Morley 17-24 with a spirited performance from the Orrell youngsters. The rearranged game, away to Darlington was played the following week with credit going to coach Chris Chudleigh who did a magnificent job keeping the Orrell team together in very difficult circumstances. He sadly left the club at the end of another relegation season to join the coaching staff at Halifax RUFC, a job he will combine with the role of Community Marketing Manager for Sale Sharks.