Sidmouth Chiefs and the top 10 seasons of the past 120 years

PUBLISHED: 10:11 15 May 2020 | UPDATED: 10:11 15 May 2020

Sidmouth RFC from the 1905 season. Picture: AARFC

Sidmouth RFC from the 1905 season. Picture: AARFC

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Selecting the top ten seasons from the 136 years since the foundation of Sidmouth Rugby Club has not been too difficult a task, albeit I have stretched matters by selecting 11 with ‘joint’ 10th places, writes Terry O’Brien.

The Sidmouth RFC team from the 1985/86 season. Picture SRFCThe Sidmouth RFC team from the 1985/86 season. Picture SRFC

Placing them in order is a different, more nuanced and potentially controversial matter. The achievements of the Chiefs are paramount, but the strength of the Quins is also a factor.

It requires the assessment of seasons beyond living memory alongside those more recent, with the associated celebration of success still lingering.

There is also the number of changes which have taken place over the years in terms of the laws, tactics and competitive structures.

However, talented players, and hence teams, in the19th and 20th centuries would also be talented in 2020 and vice versa.

Success in competitions is a significant factor but the competitive structure has changed over the years. Indeed, in some years there were no competitions available and all matches were played as ‘friendlies’.

The national league structure has only been in place since 1987 and merit tables of various types, official and unofficial, since the 1970s

The Devon Senior Cup, introduced in 1888, was rarely without controversy until it was discontinued after the 1932 final.

During this time many clubs did not enter and rarely did more than eight teams compete. However, when it was eventually reintroduced in 1968 all clubs in the county took part producing a much tougher competition to win.

In fact, until 1996, when Exeter Chiefs and Plymouth Albion dropped out to concentrate on their league aspirations, only five teams had won it with Exeter and Plymouth predominant. Now it is only contested by teams at league level five who operate on a semi-professional basis.

To keep all clubs interested in the competition, the Havill Plate was introduced in 1971 for all teams knocked out of the Senior Cup in the first two rounds.

It was discontinued in 1999, when the Intermediate Cup was introduced, joining the Junior Cup to provide three graded levels of cup competition to match league levels.

The Devon Junior Cup also dates back to 1888 and continued until 1957, when it succumbed to lack of interest. It was reintroduced in 1986.

Ultimately, the quality of the team at the time is clearly the critical factor, but the context of any achievement and impact on the Club at the time are also relevant. Where there has been a run of successful seasons, only the best has been selected with due acknowledgement to the context.

And so to those ‘top 10’ seasons....

First up and ‘equal 10th’ it’s the 1905-06 campaign and the one 2002-03.

At the turn of the 20th century, the club was going through difficult times.

Indeed, its very existence was in doubt. The fundraising efforts of a prominent cricketer Clifford Wells and the Sidmouth Carnival had provided relief from serious debt.

Freddie Orchard as secretary and treasurer brought order and inspiration to the administration while captain Tommy Fitzgerald, provided the leadership on the field to lead a revival.

The 1905-06 season was the apex of the revival. Tommy Fitzgerald was joined by three other veterans of the 1890s cup winning teams in Tom Wooley, Sammy Skinner and Harry Skinner along with talented youngsters like Charlie Gibbs.

The playing strength had been increased such that the occasional third team was fielded.

The playing record of 23 wins, eight defeats and no draws was not bettered until 1951.

It included 11 consecutive victories between December 19 and February 24 with the success’s being against Old Sherbornians, 11-3; Cardiff Northern, twice, 9-3 and 3-0; Public Schools XV, 21-3; Wellington, 8-3; Exmouth, 9-5; Honiton, 34-0; Newton Abbot, 13-9; St Luke’s College, 30-0; Taunton, 21-3, and finally, in that particular winning run, Exmouth 3-0.

The club’s standing in the community had been restored as exemplified when the local MP, Sir John Kennaway, kicked off the match against Newton Abbot on February 3, 1906.

Sharing 10th spot in the list is the 2002-03 campaign. It followed the previous two seasons of struggle. The first of the millennium had seen the Chiefs suffer their poorest campaign since the 1960s! They had just seven wins from 27 games and were relegated from the Cornwall and Devon League to Devon One. This is the lowest level the Chiefs have played at since the leagues started in 1987. The decision was made to advertise for a coach from outside the club and funds were made available to pay for his services. Mark Tomlinson was appointed, and the benefit was apparent from the outset. He was unknown to the players, had no preconceived ideas and brought a fresh approach to training.

In his first season in charge, 16 games were won, promotion was missed by one place and the Devon Junior Cup final was reached, losing 9-10 at Tavistock.

With Nick Baker as the newly appointed captain, they opened the 2002-03 competitive season with a 32-20 league win over Topsham and reached the end of November with 10 consecutive victories in league and cup. The run came to an end at Henley in the South West final of the National Tetley Bitter Junior Vase, where they lost 22-28. They went into the new year at the top of the league with a 100 per cent record before suffering their only league set-back with a 16-9 defeat at OPM. This was followed by another run of 10 victories to reassert the league and cup challenge.

The Devon Junior Cup competition started the following week and wins against Tavistock (10-3) and Cullompton (20-10) put them in the final.

The league celebrations began following a 52-0 win at Devonport High School Old Boys on April 12.

Unfortunately, the 11-10 defeat in the Devon Junior Cup final at Honiton spoiled a near perfect season, but the playing record of 25 wins from 30 games was the best since 1981-82 in the pre-league era.

The club had regained its status, and, with a good crop of talented young players, the future was promising.


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