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Orrell phoenixes prepare to end nomadic existence

By Jon Newcombe 

One of the many northern victims of mismanagement during the professional era, Orrell RUFC are now looking forward to a bright future again.

The Lancashire club that famously beat Harlequins not once but six times, and came within a whisker of being crowned English champions in 1991/92, have led a nomadic existence since playing their last game at Edge Hall Road in National Two North in 2007.

Since leaving their iconic ground and returning to amateur status, at level eight, Orrell’s playing and training activities have been split across four different sites, with the first XV playing out of St John Rigby College and the 2nd XV and burgeoning mini and junior section located elsewhere.

While it’s a renowned north-west sporting establishment and counts Wigan and GB RL greats such as Shaun Edwards, Joe Lydon and Phil Clarke among its alumni, the Sixth Form College was only ever seen as a temporary solution to Orrell’s plight.

But now, Orrell have been granted planning permission to start afresh on a 13-acre site less than half-a-mile away, adjacent to Winstanley College, that will include a clubhouse and two rugby pitches in a sporting complex shared by joint venture partners, Winstanley Park Cricket Club.

No longer will they be mockingly referred to as a layby off the M6, as a snooty Harlequins committeeman once famously said.

With a 99-year lease in place, Orrell appear to be on a more secure footing than they have been for a long time, just reward for the hard work of people like Tony Havlin, a former second XV captain, who has been chairman for the entirety of the ‘phoenix’ club’s 12-year existence, and other prominent figures in driving the club forward such as secretary John Huyton and treasurer Karl Lee.

“We’ve grown steadily and been quite diligent in that our fund-raising matches our costs which has enabled us to get to this point,” acknowledges the former back row forward. “But to stabilise and move on and further improve, we really do need our own facilities and offer something more to the parents of all our minis and juniors than standing on a touchline of a local college.”

Havlin was part of the group that helped pull the club back from the abyss, after the withdrawal of Dave Whelan’s financial support in 2004 sent the club into a downward spiral.

It looked certain to be terminal until the RFU agreed to Orrell effectively taking the place of Orrell Anvils (the amateur arm of the professional club) in South Lancs & Cheshire 2, instead of starting again at the very bottom of the league pyramid.

Following one promotion and one relegation in the intervening years, and a league restructure, they are currently challenging at the top end of Lancashire/Cheshire Division Two, the same level where they began their resurrection.

“The main reason that myself and the other members, Colin Nicholson and Jimmy Williams, wanted to keep the name going, was to pass on the values and enjoyment we had got out of the club to others,” says Havlin. “We know that members who have passed away wouldn’t have liked to see the name disappear and that’s what drove me on and still drives me on. Orrell means a lot to me and many, many others.”

Havlin was there the day the curtain was pulled down on their time at Edge Hall Road, a venue feared by visitors for its hostility. The brilliant Bath side of the 80s and 90s were beaten there, and would have been beaten to the Courage League title, too, had Huw Davies’ last-gasp drop-goal for Wasps not broken Orrell hearts.

Havlin says: “Everyone has their own personal highlights but winning the Lancashire Cup in 1971, the first year of it being reincarnated, without losing a match, helped put us on the map and strengthened our fixture list which eventually led to the run in the John Player Cup in 1974 when we beat Harlequins.”

Orrell lost to London Scottish in the semi-final but did reach Twickenham when the good times returned, albeit briefly, in the second year of Whelan’s ownership. A well-funded side beat Exeter in the Powergen Shield final, augmented by a second-place finish in the Championship.

But once Whelan had said enough is enough and the money ran dry, there was only one direction the club was heading in – down.

While looking to re-establishing the club on an even keel, Havlin and his cohorts will never countenance chasing the Premiership dream again. The only grand designs are those with the new-build’s architect.

“We want to play the best rugby we can under amateur status. But more importantly, we want to see the club thriving at all levels across the junior section and running as many open-age sides as we can and being at the centre of the community, as the club used to be back in the 60s and 70s.

“We have to be self-sufficient. The professional game is big business now and not an easy one to enter into. We want to be involved in competitive games in a competitive league with a strong connection with the community.”

In addition to monies already raised, an additional £200,000 needs to be found by the time the rugby and cricket clubs take possession of the land in October/November this year, with construction beginning the following summer.

To help raise awareness and drive interest in a scheme that will ultimately provide all-year round sporting facilities for the local community, former Orrell player Austin Healey and co-star Lawrence Dallaglio will present BT Sport’s Rugby Tonight show live from the area on February 11

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