Frontier men cross the great divide

Reinforcements strengthen league's northern outpost as an entire club deserts the union for a new life
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There will be a subtle difference when the new season kicks off at what must be Britain's most spectacularly situated rugby ground.

Perched precariously on the cliff-top overlooking Whitehaven, Smith Brothers has been an outpost of rugby union on the west Cumbrian coast, where league is the game. This year, however, that wind-swept pitch with a one-in-three climb to one corner flag, will be used for league. The club has taken the radical step of switching codes.

This is something that was common enough 100 years ago when dozens of small clubs joined the breakaway which established the Northern Union as the forerunner of the Rugby League. Since the early years of the century, though, clubs have generally stayed in one camp or the other.

Smith Brothers began as a works team - the works made the packets for Smith's Crisps - dabbling in both codes in 1964, but they decided, unlike most village teams in west Cumbria, that union was the game for them. Their two most active founder-members wanted it that way.

They had their moments of glory, reaching a few county finals, although they were disqualified from one for fielding a former amateur league player. They settled at their ground at Bransty, just north of Whitehaven, in 1975, using what was originally a fever hospital as their base. Sea breezes must have been part of the cure, but by last season sickness had set in at the rugby club.

"We were only getting about a dozen down here," a committee man, Bill Woosnam, said. "In the end, we had a choice - try to carry on as we were, fold or switch to league." With only a couple of dissenting voices, Smith Brothers decided to leave one clan and join another.

They were welcomed enthusiastically by the Cumberland Amateur Rugby League - new county names count for little here - and no wonder; the code might outgun union in the region, but it still needs some good news on its north- west frontier. "We're a backwater and we're treated as such," the league's secretary, John Pattinson, said. "They didn't even give us a match in Cumbria during the World Cup last year, but something like this shows how strong amateur rugby league is up here."

The Cumbrian coast does produce a disproportionate number of fine players, talents nurtured at clubs like Lowca - the ground you get to by mistake if you take the wrong turning off the Workington road - but the best of those players do not stick around to play for local clubs. Whitehaven's gates have dropped below four figures this season, with their board publicly asking whether it is worth carrying on, whilst Workington are poised to drop out of Super League after their first season.

Smith Brothers therefore represent a minor triumph in the midst of much gloom, and at training on Thursday night, not even the rain sweeping in off the Irish Sea could dampen the optimism with which they are approaching their first season in a new game. They have lost a couple of players - "big, soft buggers," shouts Billy McCracken, who played league for Whitehaven and Oldham and now coaches the side, from the corner of the fever hospital - but have gained a lot more.

A good session now attracts between 40 and 50 players, plus a gaggle of village kids working up an appetite for their lemonade and crisps. The weather has kept a few away on this particular night. "Mind you," said one onlooker, "it's lovely up here on a summer's day" - a damning statement to be making on 8 August.

Pre-season friendly wins over a side from nearby Cockermouth and a pub team from Carlisle suggest that rugby league in Cumbria has acquired a serviceable team. It has certainly aquired an unforgettable setting, high above what was, only 200 years ago, the second-busiest port in the country. "Many's the afternoon I've spent on the wing, waving to the prawn-boats," one player said in wistful mood, "because I never used to get the ball."

That seaward touchline is only a matter of yards from the cliff edge and a cynic might suggest that one motive for changing codes could be the prospect of losing fewer balls from kicks to touch. But then local conditions have always saved Smith Brothers money. "I can only remember losing one ball," one long-serving member said. "The wind always blows 'em back."

There is some regret, from the likes of the club chairman, Graham Jonsson, that the wind of change has blown them from one code to another. "I'm union," he admitted. "But the point is that this way we keep going as a rugby club, and that's the thing that matters."

McCracken, a coach who, it is said, always goes missing one week in September to compete in the World Gurning Championships in Egremont, sees it from the other angle. "I'm rugby league, so I'm chuffed it's gone this way. It's going to be a big change for the players, but they're learning fast," he said.

They will be an unusual rugby league club. Despite their change of codes, they will be allowed to keep the name Smith Brothers Rugby Union and their clubhouse will continune to be dominated, for a few years yet, by mementoes of their more successful XVs. They had also hoped to carry on playing occasional friendlies against some of their old union rivals, but the Cumbria Rugby Union will not wear that.

Still, from a ground where on a clear day - which, this year, was in late July - there are views of the Isle of Man and the Scottish coast, the horizons are broad. On that gale-scoured slope, which never gets waterlogged because it drains straight into the Irish Sea, they are getting to grips with their future. "And you know," one member said surveying the scene, "if Workington and Whitehaven wanted to merge and play somewhere in between, what better place could you have?"