Rugby League: Cumbria's Rangers put on a brave face

Dave Hadfield tracks down Ellenborough and Egremont, two amateur clubs making history in rugby league's Challenge Cup
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The Independent Online
TWO quiet towns in Cumbria will be quieter still this Sunday afternoon, with part of their populations and much of their attention over the hills and far away.

The Rangers of Ellenborough and the Rangers of Egremont will be doing what no two amateur sides have ever done simultaneously - competing against the big boys in the last 16 of the Silk Cut Challenge Cup.

The two very different clubs have few illusions about what lies ahead at Hull and Sheffield respectively. There are no extravagant promises, just a determination to make sure that a glorious adventure does not end in humiliation.

For a club that has dominated what is still called the Cumberland League, Ellenborough prove surprisingly difficult to find, partly because they are not based in Ellenborough, a village tagged on to the old coal harbour of Maryport, at all.

The first two people consulted in Ellenborough - or Elbra, as it is always pronounced and often written - deny all knowledge of the club. A third reveals that it is over the other side of the railway tracks, opposite Maryport's Spa supermarket and BP garage, "with a big wa' round it".

That is just about what Ellenborough Rangers have to their name: a pitch with a wa' round it - not theirs but rented - and a working men's club half a mile away where they get changed. That and a team that has knocked two professional clubs, Bramley and Hunslet, out of the Challenge Cup.

Their player-coach, Gary Murdock, makes his way to the Milltofts ground to meet us and flags down a couple of other players on the way, for a bit of moral support.

He has seen professional rugby league, if not at the very top, then about as elevated as it gets in Cumbria, having played for Whitehaven, Carlisle and Workington before returning to his home-town amateur club.

"In a lot of ways, Ellenborough is more professionally run. This might look pretty basic, but the players want for nothing," he says.

"Being realistic about it, we aren't going to win at Hull. It's about getting some more money in the bank and maybe getting a ground of our own. But, having said that, we don't want to go there and let anyone down, least of all ourselves."

Sunday is all about not showing up themselves or their area. Maryport, with 11,000 people, supports three rugby league clubs and more on its outskirts.

"We've had over 3,000 on this field," says Murdock. "Six or seven deep all round the touchline and loads too tight to pay their quid watching over the wa'."

Many of Ellenborough's players are in the building trade, kept busy by the restoration of a harbour that used to ship coal and iron rails all over the world. Theirs is still the traditional rhythm of rugby league life: finish work, go to training. But Ellenborough have nowhere of their own to train on winter nights, relying on a dimly floodlit rectangle of shale at the nearby Maryport club.

After seeing the unpromising circumstances from which one set of Rangers have fashioned their success, Egremont, down the coast, look like the Brisbane Broncos by comparison.

Egremont might be home to the World Gurning Championships, but - like Maryport, to be fair - it hardly presents an ugly face to the world. What is more, you can hardly miss its rugby ground as you arrive, sandwiched between fell and by-pass, with its lighting pylons and tiny grandstand.

Egremont have been here since 1900 and, for much of that time, there has been a Reid involved. Jackie Reid MBE played his first game for them in 1949, before spending 10 years with Whitehaven and going on to manage Great Britain at amateur level.

His son, Paul, is now secretary and his grandson, Mark, plays for the under-eights, one of nine teams Egremont run. They are an organisation with deeper roots than Ellenborough - "They do a lot of poaching," says Jackie darkly - with their own ground and a clubhouse which belies its history as a Methodist chapel by being just about the most luxurious place to drink in the town.

Unlike Ellenborough, whose set-up prevents them applying, Egremont are pillars of the National Conference, the top level of the amateur game, whose credentials they enhanced by beating Workington 18-0 in the last round.

"It wasn't really considered a surprise round here," says Jackie. "We expected to win, although not by so many."

At one time, a club like Egremont could expect to lose all its best young players to its professional neighbours. "But now they've got no money," says Paul. "They're offering them pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000 over three or four years and they think `Why bother?'."

The result is that Egremont have a side studded with ex-professionals and players who, in different circumstances, would have moved across by now.

Their attitude to that trip is similar to Ellenborough's. "They've got a very strong side and you've got to be realistic," says Paul. He and his dad have their eyes on a stretch of meadow alongside their pitch which could be turned into an all-weather training area and both have hopes their Cup run will yield a major sponsor for the club.

Most of all, they do not want to leave the coachloads of supporters from the gurning capital of the world with long faces.

Ellenborough have a different problem. "We can't find any buses," says Murdock. "They're all booked up for that hunt demo in London."

The two Rangers have already hunted for bigger prey. If they get home on Sunday night without a mauling, it will have been a successful foray.