Wharfedale Diary


On January 28th Jersey played Wharfedale, who are in their 16th straight season at National One. This 'Dale Diary' column of the weekend was first published in the Centre' supplement of the Jersey Evening Post on February 11th. Pictures of the trip, and the match, can be found in the 'Galleries' section, while a full match report is included under the appropriate heading.

Wharfedale is a different breed when it comes to rugby clubs, and you can tell this by the reaction of the Jersey players as their coach makes its way into the ground, writes Tom Innes. Gently sloping, with sheep grazing in neighbouring fields, snow-capped hills in the distance and a flint wall behind the dead-ball line, the ground is a picture, especially on a cold, sunny afternoon. And fortunately the frost covers have done their job, so it's game on.

The prospects for play look less rosy when the advance party arrives on Thursday night. The journey from Skipton - the nearest railway station - up to Grassington, the village that sits on the opposite side of the River Wharfe from the ground, is mainly uphill, and it's snowing. About half-way we pass Rylstone - the village where the charity clothes-shedding of the local Womens' Institute ended up as the film 'Calendar Girls'.

Come Saturday afternoon, the clubhouse is busy with supporters enjoying pints of Black Sheep bitter and local pork pies. Approaching kick-off the small grandstand is packed and most other vantage points are taken by a crowd 40% up on average. Most are locals hoping to see the league leaders toppled, but there's also a decent cluster of around 70 Jersey fans who receive a welcome that is second-to-none. Former player for both clubs, Talite Vaioleti, or "Vee" is present with his wife and daughter the day before making his comeback after injury for Rotherham Titans.

It's soon clear why everyone makes sure they're in place 10 minutes before the off, as Dale's famous announcer takes to the microphone. He doesn't announce substitutions or scorers, or trouble himself with tedious "would the owner of a blue Mondeo..." type material, but for five minutes the audience are hushed, but for laughter, as he sets the scene. Good-natured fun is poked at the aristocratic visitors, who he says will be tackling a team of horny-handed men of toil. The Islanders against the Highlanders, he describes it, in the best league in the country. The welcome is unique - only the legendary football commentator and 'It's a Knockout' presenter Stuart Hall comes close. He hopes Jersey supporters will appreciate the clear Northern air, in contrast to "the whiff of garlic when the wind is blowing across from Brest" and with that signs off and the players take to the field to a thunderous welcome.

As Wharfedale attack in the first half, a popular call of "In the River!" announces the home fans' wish to see the opposition shunted downhill towards the Wharfe. Dale's 4th XV take this cry literally for their home games - getting to their pitch half a mile away involves both teams and officials clambering into a wagon on the back of a tractor and fording the river to reach the field-of-play.

Winning always helps, and it's fair to say this is Ben Harvey's favourite trip to Wharfedale. When Jersey's Director of Rugby came with Stourbridge as a player, he experienced his coldest-ever day in rugby, not helped by a lengthy delay to play while an air ambulance attempted to land in the next-door field, in howling wind and rain, to treat a seriously-injured player. You know it's cold when Ben suggests a cuddle to share bodily warmth...

Soon after the final whistle, the frost covers are back on to protect the pitch ahead of a Colts game on the Sunday. Supervising operations is Colts' Coach Charlie Vyvyan, a former Dale player who now lives next-door. As well as playing professionally with Sale, during which time he used the Jersey RFC gym to keep in shape on family holidays, Charlie's claim to fame is twice winning the Penryn Sevens in his native Cornwall with his six brothers, of whom Hugh still plays at the top level for Saracens.

Another resident adjoining the ground is the Wharfedale President John Spencer, a 14-times England cap who played for the club well into his 40s. John missed the trip to Jersey due to important business in New Zealand. This included the Rugby World Cup in his capacity as a leading light with the International Rugby Board and Rugby Football Union, and also getting married, for the fourth time. Dale officials sent flowers, albeit accompanied by a note from the Treasurer stressing "this is the last time..."

Unusually for a three-quarter, John Spencer seems to have half an idea about the complexities of the front row. And during post-match festivities at a hostelry in Grassington he seeks out Jersey's Myles Landick and congratulates the loose-head prop on a great display. 'Mylo' was one of the main reasons why Jersey weren't even close to ending up in the river.

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