I have a short series of articles for you themed around f-words. The full collection (which will be published over the coming days) covers: Fixtures, Fags (cigarettes) and Fuddling About. We begin with the freedom of fixtures.
In the 1976/77 season the Rugby Football Union launched proper club merit tables, but it wasn’t until after the inaugural World cup in 1987, that a single league structure for all the clubs in England was introduced. Outside the professional Premier league, the amateur clubs were included in newly formed leagues ranging from National Division one – downwards. With over 1,000 clubs it is the world’s largest integrated sports pyramid. Whilst this organised system allows club progression, it all seems quite dull and predictable.
Previously matches were arranged in an ad hoc and informal way and through ‘fixture exchanges’. One such gathering was convened about twice a year at the Phoenix a (still thriving) central London pub, near Oxford Circus at the corner of Cavendish Square. This would allow secretaries to discuss playing strengths, and plan future games for their respective clubs – like a forerunner of speed dating.
It was organised by a Metropolitan Police sergeant with an encyclopaedic knowledge of clubs in the south east, who could always suggest likely contacts and fixtures. This arrangement seemed to work.
A typical ‘house’ rugby club fixture list from the 1960s would find a range of well-established clubs like London Scottish, Rosslyn Park and Saracens (albeit their Ex. C XV’s). It could include many Old-Boys sides from Home Counties schools such as Beccehamians, Caterhamians and Askeans. Inevitably polytechnic colleges, London medical schools like Royal Free, Kings and University Colleges would feature, as would other business houses, such as British Petroleum, Decca and Ford. Insurance companies like Commercial Union, Sun Alliance and Prudential.
The list would inevitably include Government and state institutions, such as the Metropolitan Police, London Fire Brigade, Customs & Excise, Civil Service, and Port of London Authority. Overseas banks like Chartered and Standard, and others like Midland, Westminster and National Provincial and airlines such as Aer Lingus and BEA (now British Airways). Railway companies such Great Western Railways (with their seemingly endless supply of Welsh talent, fresh off the train at Paddington). As well as military teams like HMS President (London Div. RNR), HAC (the Honourable Artillery Company) and the U.S. Marines – taking time off from guarding the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
It is quite amazing contrasting the diverse range of opponents clubs played in the 1950s and 1960s with the fixture lists of today.
This freedom is impossible now, with the RFU league system.