Rugby Union / Pilkington Cup: Healey keeps Waterloo on the road: Orrell take same exit as Bath

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The Independent Online
THERE is a fine line in metaphors at Waterloo: the name itself conjures an appropriate vision whenever the club from leafy Liverpool 23 win a battle against one or other of their loftier brethren. And any side that has a wing named Austin Healey scoring their tries . . .

Whenever, not when. Waterloo's sudden success after years of decline and inertia is becoming habitual. Having knocked out Bath, holders and league champions, in the Pilkington Cup's third round, they have now done the same to Orrell - pipped by Bath only on points difference last April - in the fourth.

They built an 8-3 lead downwind and then defended it so heroically that Orrell could not add a single point. (Nor did Waterloo.) If they can beat Bath and Orrell, they feel they can beat anyone they may pull out in today's quarter-final draw at Twickenham. But, please Lord, let it be at home.

Because at home, actually Blundellsands rather than Waterloo, which is nearer the city centre, the leaders of the Second Division are taking on an air of invincibility. Naturally they are fallible and limited; otherwise they would be members of, rather than aspirants to, the First Division. But within their fallibilities and limitations, they have become inspired.

Something has happened here which shows that great clubs who go into decline do not have to remain so. If Northampton are England's most obvious example of recent years, Waterloo - striving to foster rugby in a footballing city and greatly assisted by the malaise of Everton and Liverpool - are making a fair stab at following the example. They had fallen far and fast, though it was a long time ago that Waterloo were in the final of what was quaintly called the RFU Club Competition (with the bit about John Player Cup always in brackets), losing in 1977 to Gosforth. Ten thousand turned up at Twickenham; now the figure is routinely six times as many.

Ten years on, Waterloo led the First Division for a while during the league's fragmented inaugural season and even won at Bath. But they finished only one place above relegation, went down in 1989 and were saved from further relegation in 1990 only by the good fortune that there was none while each division was increased from 12 to 13 clubs.

Lucky 'Loo. In 1990-91 they were ninth, last season third. Peter Buckton, the ball-playing Yorkshire flanker who had played for Orrell and Liverpool St Helens, became Waterloo's Blucher, riding to the rescue when he joined the club as coaching director. With the change in personnel came changes in style and fortune.

Buckton, 32, whose brother John has played centre for England, is employed by the Rugby Football Union as its youth development officer covering Liverpool and is based - where else? - at Waterloo FC. It is a two-way thing: the club dished out dozens of complimentary tickets for primary-school teachers, the very group Buckton is targeting, for Saturday's match.

What they saw was wonderful for Waterloo though, with its prime billing on Rugby Special, hardly wonderful for rugby because the standard was so poor. Orrell won more ball than they knew what to do with. 'It wasn't like us,' Buckton said.

'We normally control the line-outs in Second Division rugby and we're not used to playing without the ball for such large chunks of time. It's such a step up: you're always being tested and can't relax, whereas in the Second you can falter for 15 minutes and get away with it.' Which only goes to show how high the step up would be if Waterloo kept in front of Newcastle and Nottingham - though more fundamental even than promotion is the uncharacteristic freedom of expression given to, and demanded by, a back division with an average age of 22. This is certainly not the Waterloo we used to know and not love very much.

Waterloo used to bask in a fearsome reputation for aggressive forward play. 'Water-Shoe' was an unflattering nickname that covered a multitude of sins real and imagined. Jim Syddall, who briefly became an England lock a decade ago, was a figure of folklore and some clubs - one remembers a row with Coventry in particular - were reluctant to play them.

The 10-year, 250-match career of Nick Allott, lock and captain, has covered both eras and thank goodness he prefers the new smile to the old scowl. 'It's a change to see backs down at Waterloo,' he said. 'It was that change of attitude when Peter came in. We wanted to play a more expansive game. We started to look forward rather than always remembering the time when we had a pack who could chew up and spit out opposing forwards. That's gone.'

For some reason, Waterloo are reluctant to harp on about Buckton's club position - strange given the fuss they made when he was appointed. He is not the coach: that post is held by Mike Briars. But he is undoubtedly a coach and highly influential at that.

'Peter has domonstrated to us that there is another way of playing, but we aren't big on titles here,' Allott said - by which he meant Buckton's title, not the Second Division title. 'But that really is one of the differences from how it used to be: the lads are taking the responsibility on themselves.' You could hardly say the youthful Waterloo backs got going on Saturday, but they looked livelier and more penetrative than Orrell's and their crucial try was well taken.

When Austin Healey received the ball on the blind side after the half-backs had used scrummage ball to form a maul, he ran like a sprite, leaving Phil Halsall in his exhaust. Mr and Mrs Healey clearly had a sense of humour; they realised their son would be able to motor, rev up, accelerate, swerve, etc, etc on the rugby field as well as the open road.

Gerry Ainscough kicked a penalty for Orrell and Paul Grayson - already signed up by Northampton for next season - one for Waterloo, and that was that. Of tension there was plenty, of memorable rugby very little, which was especially frustrating for the 6ft 8in Bob Kimmins and the England scrum-half Dewi Morris. Kimmins ruled the line-out and Morris, who can motor a bit himself, would have ruled in broken play but for the dire quality of the delivery from his forwards.

So for Orrell it was yet another big game that got away and, all right, it has to be said: in the Lancashire derby at Blundellsands they really did meet their Waterloo.

Waterloo: Try Healey; Penalty Grayson. Orrell: Penalty Ainscough.

Waterloo: S Swindells; A Healey, M Craig, N Hill, G Fraser; P Grayson, C Saverimutto; M Beckett, P Hackett, S Peters, N Wilkinson, N Allott (capt), J Ashcroft, S Beeley, P Buckton.

Orrell: N Heslop; P Hamer, S Langford, G Ainscough, P Halsall; B Wellens (I Wynn, 62), D Morris; M Hynes, N Hitchen, D Southern (capt), R Kimmins, C Cusani, D Cleary, S Gallagher, N Ashurst.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).

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