Little did we know, as we stepped into 2020 what was to come; the year started with a win against Morpeth and the opening of the Club’s new disability lift; further wins followed against Ilkley and Kirkby Lonsdale before the awaited big clash with top-of-the-table Harrogate. The day started with the President’s Lunch, with special guest, Lions’ and dual international rugby legend, John Bentley, entertaining the packed Clubhouse. What followed was Macclesfield’s best game of the season, the 35 to 14 win put Macclesfield top of the table and on track for National league rugby again; Josh Redfern got over the whitewash and was awarded MOTM. Whilst there were a few more games to be played, Covid-19 finally put an end to rugby for the season in early March.
It would be 3 months before anyone touched a rugby ball again at Priory Park and another 6 months before any kind of contact rugby was to be played. However, whilst there was no rugby to watch, as such, the non-contact games at the Club got going again, until the Boxing Day Lockdown put a stop to everything, again! What this dour year has given the Club, is a vitalised membership that rose to the challenge when we needed funds to keep going, has made things happen outside and inside the Clubhouse, and when we do get back to playing again the Club will be in the strongest state that it has been for a long time.
Phil Mason, part of the Executive team and Manager of the Mini and Junior’s section had this to say about 2020: “In a normal year at this point in the season, the Mini and Junior’s squads would be resting up, and taking stock of the first half of the season. Mini and Junior rugby’s barometer for success is about developing the players to their potential, rather than necessarily winning games and leagues. These are, however, far from normal times; the last fixture played was the U15s v Stockport, under lights, way back in March 2020. Two days later, the country went into a complete Lockdown and all rugby stopped.
As families emerged from their houses, the RFU tentatively set out a ‘phased plan’ to return to age-grade rugby. Six stages (A to F) were set out, with stage A commencing in July 2020. Players were allowed to take part in fitness activities with one other person; no balls were allowed! At Macclesfield we made use of social media to set challenges for the players, focussing on fitness and strength development. The players uploaded their efforts and held mini-competitions to keep that competitive edge going.
By the time September came around we were at stage C, with coach-led training allowed in groups of 6 people, no contact at all, and strict sanitisation rules being followed. Disinfecting rugby balls at the pitchside has become the new ‘normal’. Whilst this seemed strange at first, it allowed for some really creative coaching techniques to focus on skills and set-piece development.
As the season progressed, we moved through to stage D (10 players, no contact Ready4 Rugby games) and finally finishing up at Stage E in November. This allowed for limited contact (no scrums or mauls) together with the ability to play games either within the Club or against other sides.
Understandably there was a little nervousness when it came to playing other clubs, nevertheless on the final Sunday before Christmas the Under 13s invited local rivals Wilmslow over for a friendly game, under the lights at Priory Park.
It finally felt as though rugby was back at Priory Park, with the first game against another club in over 40 weeks kicking off! Having purchased a ticket, socially distanced spectators were allowed back in the stands to cheer on the players, who soaked up the atmosphere.
It seemed fitting one of the Junior Sides was the first to take to the pitch, and it was truly an all-Junior affair with U15 player Tom Brierley refereeing the fixture. Coaches let the players lead the game themselves, with minimal intervention apart from ensuring all the kids had equal game time. Four 15-minute quarters gave every player a good spell on the field and an opportunity to play some strong rugby.
A series of early tries from Wilmslow went unanswered, yet the young Macclesfield players would not let their heads drop, keeping up a strong defensive line. When they got organised, they made progress with the ball and broke through Wilmslow’s line a number of times. Sadly, Macclesfield was too often unable to convert the opportunities into points, leaving Macclesfield with a score-line which did not reflect the quality of the game.
Wilmslow was, without doubt, the more organised team, able to pass the ball wide more often, creating space and openings in the Macclesfield defence. The players put on a superb game for the gathered parents and spectators. Tough, physical tackling, creative game-play and some great tries were scored. Over 60 players finished the hour exhausted, muddy but happy. Huge smiles on faces, cheers from the fans and a day to remember.
We will emerge after the Christmas Break into Stage E, and it is intended to commence fixtures with clubs in Tier 2 and 3 as per the RFU and Government Regulations. Adjustments will have to be made; there will be no hospitality for example, and limits on the number of people who can watch. The sport goes on at all levels and at Macclesfield RUFC, the Mini and Junior players will continue to adapt and progress to what will undoubtedly become the new normal.
The rugby pathway and player development are very important for our young players, but don’t get into a habit of losing to the ‘Waa-waas’! (only joking Ed.)
The last rugby to be played at Priory Park was by the Ladies who had a full-on training session before Christmas. Their session unexpectedly featured some one-on-one tackle coaching by the Chairman Stephen Branch; apparently, it’s all about ‘dropping your shoulder’ Kirsty and Liz were very impressed (I think you had to be there). The Chairman’s Master-class had followed on from the Mad Lads/Roustabouts Christmas Lunch an excellent affair that featured a little game, for each table to select their ‘best-ever’ Macclesfield players 1 to 15. Naturally, it threw up much debate, although Andy Appleyard’s 15 looked very similar to Macclesfield first XV of last season. This was the fifteen announced at the end of the lunch.
Front Row: 1. John Robinson, 2. David Taylor, 3. Tom Mantell; Second Row: 4. Dave Cusani, 5. Dean Williams; Back Row: 6. Mark Droy, 7. Evan Stuart, 8. Ryan Parkinson; Half Backs: 9. Rick Usher/Steve Smith, 10. Lewis Barker; Backs: 11. Peter Glover, 12. Rob Davies, 13. Justin Thomas, 14. Graham Jennion and 15. Dave Close.
When the fifteen appeared on the Sin Bin bar social media group, there was naturally a lot of debate: “Where’s Worthy; how about the Muchrones, Click Clarke, Rob Oliver, Jordon Brookes, Alan McInnes” etc. Another suggestion might be the best team ever: ‘The Sale Beaters’, ‘Twickenham’s Heroes’ or ‘The Darlington last-minute Champions’ – something to ponder on!
What of 2021? The good news is we now have a confirmed fixture for the 16th January against Caldy at Priory Park; it would be good to see Lewis Barker back at Priory Park if selected. Both the first and second teams are due to play their first Club contests since 7th March. Will it go ahead? We must wait and see what changes take place on the 30th. Will a crowd be allowed? Hopefully, a restricted gate, if not perhaps the amazing Matt Coleridge will find a way of live streaming. All will unfold, watch this space and the website, in the meantime have a Happy New Year and let’s hope for plenty more rugby in 2021.
Since going into Tier 4 the game against Caldy will not take place, unless things change before the 16th January.