Cumbria versus Serbia

28th January 2019

52 amateur teams competed this weekend in the first round of the 2019 Rugby League Challenge Cup. 13 of these sides will progress to the third round, when they will be joined by the 11 teams in League 1. Thereafter, the staggered entry of sides in the rugby league hierarchy will continue until the sixth round, when the top 8 teams in last year’s Super League will join the party. The final – won last year by the Catalan Dragons – will be played at Wembley in August.

I could not resist attending one of yesterday’s fixtures. Millom RLFC – which is generally acknowledged to be the oldest amateur rugby league club in the world, having been formed in 1873 – were pitted against Red Star Belgrade. I know that we live in times that do occasionally appear rather bizarre but, even so, this was a side from the southernmost tip of the old county of Cumberland doing battle with a team from Serbia in a cup competition that dates from 1897 and of which the current trophy-holders are based in France .

The leading experts on the history of rugby league in Cumberland/Cumbria are Harry Edgar (the editor of the Rugby League Journal) and Stephen Bowes (an Editorial Contributor to the RLJ). As it happens, in the latest (Winter 2018) edition of the publication, there is a very interesting article about the region’s various towns and villages – from Burgh by Sands in the north to Millom in the south – and the distinguished players that they have produced over the years. (I learned, for example, that the latter was the birthplace of Billy Eagers, who played 40 matches in the centre for the great Hunslet “All Four Cups” side of 1907-08). Millom are currently in the Third Division of the Kingstone Press National Conference League: the fourth tier of the sport at the amateur/community level.

The coverage of the Red Star Sports Society in Belgrade extends to no fewer than 30 different sports, ranging from taekwondo to water polo and karate to women’s basketball. The largest and best-known member is, of course, the football club, which won the European Cup in 1991. The rugby league section was founded in 2006.

The history of the sport in Serbia dates back much further – to its introduction by the French Rugby XIII Federation in 1953. However, in the following decade, the Yugoslav authorities demanded that clubs switch to rugby union and it was not until 2001 that the sport was re-established with the formation of the Serbian Rugby League Federation. Red Star Belgrade were the dominant team in 2018, winning the “quadruple” of Serbia ’s Championship, Cup and Supercup together with the Balkan Super League.

It might be noted that Millom is not the easiest place to reach by public transport from Glasgow on a weekend. I spent the Saturday night in Lancaster and took the local trains on a bright and cold Sunday morning, changing at Barrow-in-Furness . It is an interesting route, crossing the Kent and Leven Viaducts over the estuaries (sandy and misleadingly enticing at low tide) to Morecambe Bay and Lancaster Sound, passing through Ulverston (the birthplace of Stan Laurel, as the promotion of the recently released film Stan & Ollie currently reminds us) and skirting the ruins of the 12th century Furness Abbey.

I watched the match from the terraces in the company of Harry and Stephen. We looked out on a welcoming scene: a healthy crowd ringed the touchlines and in-goal areas (supplemented by those looking over the low wall on Devonshire Road, who had declined to stump up the £3 entrance fee); the pitch was in excellent condition; and, in the middle distance, against the blue sky, there was Black Combe which, at just under 2,000 feet above sea level, is the dominant natural landmark in the locality.

The only slight downside was the very strong wind, which blew straight down the pitch and favoured Millom in the first half. They took full advantage – not least through two long-range penalty goals, rare occurrences in modern-day rugby league – to establish a 22-6 lead at the interval. The question was whether this was a big enough margin for the home side to defend when the gale was against them and the answer was quickly given, when they scored the opening try of the second half. The final score was 38-10.

Red Star Belgrade were not disgraced. As expected, they played with passion and commitment, notably when defending on several occasions near their own line, and they scored two neat tries of their own. The American centre three-quarter Jamil Robinson – one of only three non-Balkan-born players in the team – played a particularly impressive game with his forceful running and stout defence. However, they were vulnerable to the runs from acting half-back by the Millom hooker, Noah Robinson, and they struggled to complete any threatening passing moves, through the windy conditions certainly did not help in that respect.

As ever with my trips to towns being visited for the first time, I was interested in Millom’s economic history. The relevant starting point is the 1850s, when the local discovery of iron ore led to the swift transformation of a collection of fishing villages into a major industrial centre. The new town was built in the 1860s and, by 1881, the Hodbarrow Mining Company was operating seven pits to feed the furnaces of the Millom Ironworks. (Stephen Bowes informed me that many of the incoming workers came from Cornwall and that some Cornish surnames are still to be found in the locality today).

The industry’s decline, when it came, was just as swift: the Hodbarrow Mines and Millom Ironworks were closed in 1968 and the town’s population fell by over one-third (to just over 7,000) in three years. Wikipedia reports that “Millom’s economy is now mainly based around retail, services and tourism” – the standard cocktail in post-industrial localities – with the options of commuting to Barrow or Sellafield.

My walks to and from the ground from the railway station suggested a neat town that is proud of its industrial heritage. There is firm evidence for this in Market Square, where Colin Telfer’s sculpture “The Scutcher” stands in front of the 1879 Clock Tower. A scutcher’s task was to stop the heavy iron ore tubs by thrusting a metal bar through the wheels – it required a hard man to do a hard job – and the public display is a fine tribute.

Harry Edgar’s RLJ article emphasises the strong two-way connection between Cumbria and rugby league, of which, over many decades, the tough industrial environment was a key component. For over a century, the region has provided a plethora of outstanding players, many of whom – from Billy Eagers onwards – earned their honours with other teams outside the area. At the same time, the sport has been an integral part of the local culture, which – I fervently hope – will continue into the future.

The Millom club is certainly playing its part. Harry informed me that the current side is almost entirely made up of local lads, whilst a glance of the match programme revealed that the club runs no fewer than seven age-group teams from Under 18s down to Under 6s. I wonder if, in 20 years time, some of the latter group will be playing for the first team in the Rugby League Challenge Cup.

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