Ups and downs of the rugby club who just do not want to be promoted

Despite their resurgence Otley have no intention of playing in the Premiership next season, writes Paul Stephens
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The Independent Online

The race for promotion to the Zurich Premiership is getting serious but Otley, although riding high in National League One, will be only too happy to miss out on the ultimate prize.

The race for promotion to the Zurich Premiership is getting serious but Otley, although riding high in National League One, will be only too happy to miss out on the ultimate prize.

The Yorkshire club are one of the famous names of English rugby, with one of the proudest traditions, but nowadays they know their place. And while that currently is fourth in the second tier of the national ladder, with back-to-back games against the leaders, Exeter, to come over the next two weekends, they know the top division is not for them.

It is one of the paradoxes of modern, money-driven sport. While Exeter are chasing a place in the Premiership, Otley are the club who do not want to be promoted. A largely amateur club, they simply could not afford it. "We have to be realistic," says their coach, Peter Clegg. "The Premiership isn't an option. We don't have the facilities or the finance."

After winning at Penzance & Newlyn last weekend, Otley can claim to be the 16th most successful club in the land. In terms of resources, however, they are light years behind the other 15. Where last year's promoted side Worcester have the millions of their benefactor, Cecil Duckworth, behind them, Otley have Haci Tiras. His "Chips-in-Dale" chip shop, in the Yorkshire market town which was the home of Chippendale furniture, are the club's sponsors.

Haci is not alone. The town's shoe repairer is also on board, along with Weegmann's pork pies and many more. In all, some 350 members and 42 patrons happily chip in to keep the club afloat.

Clegg and his coaching team are unpaid. Indeed, Otley have only one full-time professional player, Justin Wring, the former Bristol and Leeds prop. And the club survive on average home gates of 400 to 600.

Above them in League One, the trio of West Country clubs - Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth Albion - are all far better supported and resourced than Otley. Two of them, Bristol and Plymouth, boast full-time squads.

As Otley's Yorkshire rivals Rotherham can testify, winning League One does not necessarily mean promotion to the Premiership. There are ground criteria to meet and political shenanigans to negotiate. Even so, Exeter, favourites for the solitary promotion place, have already made plans to move in with their footballing neighbours at Exeter City, and share the football club's St James Park ground.

Without being in the least presumptuous, Exeter's director of rugby, Ian Bremner, affirmed bullishly: "We have already submitted our Premiership audit." It is unlikely Otley know what constitutes a Premiership audit.

They do know, however, what makes a rugby club. Founded in 1862, they are Yorkshire's oldest senior club and their Cross Green home was the scene of the North Division's famous victory over the All Blacks in 1979. The rickety grandstand, which shook that day as Bill Beaumont's side carved their place in history, was originally bought from Preston North End Football Club and carted over the Pennines to its new home. It is still in place today.

When the game went professional 10 years ago, it heralded an impoverished future for clubs like Otley, the ceiling of whose ambitions was likely to be an existence of struggle in the relative obscurity of the lower leagues. Four years ago they avoided relegation on points difference, when it seemed as if their stay in National One would be as brief as it was in 1993/94, when they lasted just one season. By the end of the following campaign they had improved to seventh. Then up to fifth last May as they continued to confound the doubters.

They simply refused to acknowledge the inevitable which befell the likes of West Hartlepool, who reformed after falling out of the Premiership and into liquidation, or Wakefield, who folded amid acrimony and insolvency.

Otley turned instinctively to their core values of community, good housekeeping and teamwork. It helps if you can also turn to players of the quality of Simon Binns and Dave Scully at half-back, or a front row boasting three players, all of whom have experienced Premiership rugby. Here astute recruitment has been crucial and Clegg can take the credit for this.

"Between us, we've tried to develop the club in the professional era," explains Mike Wright, Otley's chairman of rugby, "while retaining the amateur rugby-club ethos. The place is buzzing, and we're doing well on the field, because Peter gets people to play for him."

Scully, who was a key member of the England team that won the World Cup Sevens at Murrayfield in 1993, has a day job like most of the others. He is a watch manager in the fire service at Doncaster. Although he will be 40 in August, the belief at the club is that Scully will be drawing his fire-service pension before his playing days are over. "I love it here," says the evergreen scrum-half. "I'm happy to have a career and still play rugby at a high level. There is a great mix of people at Cross Green and it is still a rugby club. Not somewhere we all go to work."

Binns, like Scully, experienced Premiership rugby with Rotherham, but is content to end his playing days at Otley. "The fundamentals are right," declares Binns. "There is a great work ethic here and terrific enjoyment. When I joined the club, they were difficult to beat at home. Now we travel well."

With seven games remaining, Otley trail Exeter by 19 points but, as all the top three still have to visit Cross Green - where both Bristol and Exeter lost last season - the Yorkshire club are sure to have a say in the promotion race.

Bremner knows that his Exeter side, who host Otley next weekend before venturing north the following week, will be tested to the full.

"We know what sort of challenge to expect, and these back-to-back games are going to be most interesting and very hard for us," said Bremner.

"Otley may be a remote little rugby club in a beautiful valley, but somehow they do extraordinarily well. Defensively they're solid and sound and, after Bristol, with due respect to Plymouth, they are the most difficult team to beat in the league."

Surviving, and competing, in the professional age is a major feat and Clegg is proud of his team. "It's fantastic what the players have achieved, and we're well above where we wanted to be. It's also good that we can hold our own with the professional clubs, and we take a great deal of pride from that.'

If Otley put one over the professionals of Exeter, he will be prouder still. And Haci Tiras will no doubt be doing a roaring trade down at Chips-in-Dale.