Rugby Union: Stabler waits for a new dawn in West

David Llewellyn discovers Hartlepool's senior club are pointless but far from hopeless
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TOP-CLASS rugby appears to have gone west in Hartlepool. Rovers are chugging along way down the league structure in North East Three, while seven divisions higher up their neighbours and long-time rivals West Hartlepool have suffered 10 defeats in their 10 Allied Dunbar Premiership Two games this season.

Things are unlikely to get much better today at The Friarage when West entertain the second division pace-setters Leeds. It could actually be something of a Groundhog Day, as West went 11 matches without a point last year in Premiership One. By the end of the season West could be out of the Premiership altogether.

It is a depressing prospect for a region with a strong rugby tradition, and this afternoon presents a vivid contrast in fortunes. West were founded in 1881; Leeds Tykes were formed by the merging of Headingley and Roundhay exactly 110 years later. Leeds are part of Leeds Rugby Ltd, which embraces Leeds Rhinos rugby league side and they play at Headingley. West do not even have a home of their own: they share with Hartlepool Rovers.

So when the new coach, former stalwart John Stabler, took a two- year sabbatical from the police to try to pick up the tattered remnants of the club in the summer he was not facing a cheery prospect. The first pre-season training session saw 18 people turn up, only a handful of whom showed any real potential. The next day there were four. "I did not get depressed about it," Stabler, a fly-half at West from 1983 to 1997, said wryly this week. "None of them had been at training the night before, so I took it as a positive sign."

Now at least they can produce a full 22 on a Saturday, more than they were doing at the end of last season when they could not even field the full complement of seven replacements. And Stabler is proud of the fact that the bulk of the squad, whose average age hovers around 22, are locally born or locally based players.

That the coach is the first from the region since Dave Stubbs, who coached them into the top flight between 1982 to 1994, may also give some hope. Certainly, a string of outsiders have not achieved much. Barry Taylor, an Australian, took up the reins in April 1994. He was followed by Barry Forster, a Yorkshireman, who took charge in August 1995. Ten consecutive defeats later he was on his bike and from January 1996 to April 1997 the former Welsh international Mark Ring had a go. The team carried on where they had left off under Forster and went through the then Courage League without a point - 18 defeats out of 18 matches.

Even the introduction of a host of Wales players failed to improve West's fortunes and they managed only three wins the following season. In stepped Mike Brewer, the former All Black, in April 1997. He got them out of Premiership Two at the first attempt, only to march them straight back down last year. Desperate measures as the end drew nigh saw half the players taking pay cuts, the rest going part-time.

Into this mess stepped Stabler. He had been ditched by Brewer in 1997 and had gone to Redcar, whom he guided from North East Three to One in successive seasons. He is under no illusions about what confronts him, nor does he delude himself about what can be achieved. "I don't think there is a place in the town for a Premiership One side," he said. "Second division rugby is a more realistic aim, but the gap between One and Two is growing bigger all the time."

Then, of course, there is the support. The sale of West's Brierton Lane to their then president Phillip Yuill in July 1998 - it has subsequently become a housing estate - proved unpopular. The pounds 1m raised went towards servicing the existing debt.

West began a groundshare with the football club Hartlepool United, where rent was around pounds 100,000 for the season and even diehard supporters found it unpalatable to watch their rugby there. Rovers stepped in and, for a far more realistic pounds 20,000 for the season, West at least have somewhere to change, play and have a beer afterwards. Now they just have to establish themselves again on the playing front. That huge task begins today.