Rugby Union: West leave Rovers and dog days behind: Paul Stephens on the northern club who will take their place in rugby union's top flight on Saturday

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IT WAS a dog's life for Dave Stubbs when he first played for West Hartlepool as a wing 27 years ago, for unless he was extra-careful when scoring in the corner, it meant a painful trip on to the cinders of the greyhound track which encircled West's rented and somewhat unhygienic pitch.

Frank Gibbon, who was secretary for almost 30 years at the club who make their First Division debut on Saturday, well remembers receiving notice to quit in 1965. 'There were some glum faces, I can tell you,' he said, 'because it meant we were homeless. But the younger men, most of whom are still with the club, realised it meant we had to do something.'

West, in those days, had their clubhouse near the town centre, while north of Hartlepool United's Victoria Ground were Hartlepool Rovers, who lorded it over every club in Durham, winning the county cup a record 45 times.

In 1967 West acquired the use of two pitches at Rossmere, close to their present ground in Brierton Lane, but until the grandstand and changing-rooms were opened at their new headquarters the following year, Saturday shoppers were treated to the sight of a couple of double-decker buses crammed with fully kitted rugby players making their way across town to their game.

In these happy, if uncertain, times West put down the markers for a trail of achievements which has led them into the First Division with a wonderful opportunity to stand shoulder by shoulder with Orrell as the north's standard- bearers. Saturday's opening day test, at home to the former champions Wasps, will give an early indication of their ability to take it.

But although the journey has not been completed without pitfalls or disappointments, they will never forget the Good Samaritan they met on the way. Colin Bentley was the promoter of the Sunderland basketball team who had some experience of running fund-raising operations for football clubs, and he gave West the idea of setting up their own scheme.

The Stag Swag lottery was the spectacular result of Bentley's suggestion and by the late 1970s it was producing pounds 100,000 annually, which enabled the club to buy the land at Brierton.

Every penny earned went into the development of a ground, the envy of all but the best-equipped northern clubs, where divisional and representative matches are now regularly staged. Debt-free, it sparkles as bright as a new pin; a testimony to good housekeeping, thrift and sound management. In the birthplace of Andy Capp, who endorsed sloth and hire-purchase dependence as positive virtues, West nailed the lie.

An imaginative youth rugby initiative underpinned their rise to prominence and West were prepared when the Courage leagues were launched in 1987. Hartlepool Rovers, despite their fine traditions, were not and have slipped into the relative obscurity of regional rugby.

Had there been promotion from the Third Division in that first season, West would have gone up with Wakefield. Two years later, the Yorkshire club and London Scottish just beat them to it. Last term, newly promoted to the Second Division along with Morley, West lost only to the Scots by a single point at Richmond to join the elite.

During the season they lost the giant lock, John Howe, who died after a heart attack on the pitch. Stubbs, who has spent all of his adult life helping the club he loves and now coaches, is in no doubt of the contribution made by the Northern Division forward.

'John epitomised all the values we hold dear at this club and we would not be where we are now without his input,' he said. 'We shall cherish his memory and hope to commemorate it with a good showing in our first year in the First Division.'

Wasps will make this weekend's journey with a 7-3 Pilkington Cup escape in 1991 firmly in mind. 'No one should travel to Brierton Lane expecting anything but the severest possible test,' the London club's coach, Rob Smith, warned. 'They will be very tough.'

Harlequins, Rugby, Saracens, Bath and Orrell are next in line to hear Stubbs's rallying call: 'The dog days are a thing of the past at West Hartlepool.'

(Photograph omitted)