First published in Rugby League World, Issue 386 (June 2013)
Ground: Iffley Road
Game: v South Wales Scorpions Championship 1
Date: Saturday 14 April 2013
Contrary, perhaps, to public perception, Rugby League can take you to some wonderful cities: I’ve been fortunate to have seen Rugby League played in Sydney, Edinburgh, Brisbane, Auckland, London, Perpignan and Padova, among others. Add Oxford to that list. My work takes me to Oxford every couple of months – to various places off the ring road sadly, rather than the glorious spires of the city centre – so I know what it has to offer and I went to this game hoping it would leave me feeling inspired.
Given its location off the M40, Oxford can be reached reasonably quickly from most places. Iffley Road is a major spoke that runs from the A423 southern ring road into the city centre so the ground itself is easily reached, a couple of miles in on your left, but there are no signs whatsoever until you are there. As you near the centre, the houses get grander and eventually you pass folk on sit-up-and-beg bikes and student athletes in dark blue sports-gear coming to and from their various Varsity training sessions. I cannot think of a ground I have visited as Secret Speccie that is in a more attractive neighbourhood. Turn down Jackdaw Lane by the flint church, past Bannister Close and you are there.
Oxford is well served by trains from the north-west, south-east and west midlands, with direct trains to Paddington, Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham. From the station catch either the 4A, 4B or 4C bus from Frideswide Square towards Rose Hill and get off at the James Street stop on Iffley Road. You can also get bus 3 from the city centre to the ground. Then walk down the pretty shrub-lined pathway into the arena.
There is some parking space on a patch of grass beneath a blossoming cherry tree beyond the north-western corner flag which, by the end of the game, is precariously boggy. Parking at the university sports ground beyond is also limited. If they ever get a sizeable crowd, you will have to try the quiet side-streets off Iffley Road or the Riverside Centre car park along Meadow Lane.
We try to get a drink at the Fir Tree pub at the top of Jackdaw Lane but it doesn’t open until 4pm on a Saturday – but stays open until 2am! The rest of Oxford’s home games are on Sundays, when it opens at noon. Thankfully, we find the Oxford Blue, a cool gastro pub tucked away on Marston Street, opposite the plaque marking Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile record on the athletics track next door to the rugby ground. They had ales from three local breweries (Hook Norton, Prospect and City of Oxford) and were serving Bannister burgers and a cheese platter featuring Oxford Blue, of course. Starters were a fiver, main courses around a tenner. It’s worth a visit just to sup your pint in the row of old cinema seats. ORL seem organised: there are plenty of staff, both cheerful and professional. It feels like they have done this before.
The setting is delightful, in a leafy natural basin, not unlike a county cricket outground such as Aigburth or Scarborough. It’s also a rare surviving example of what football grounds were like in the 1950s. A remake of ‘This Sporting Life’ could be filmed here. The mock Tudor corner pavilion is not as imposing as Thrum Hall’s was but inside is fascinating and there is an unusual view from behind the glass on the veranda. The players’ post-match meal is held in the lounge there, where guests and sponsors dined before the game.
The main stand has neat rows of blue or green park benches, the first few soaked as the rain blows in. Opposite is a low stand running along the whole touchline with, unusually, nine gables along its front, all, bizarrely, clad in logs. I count seven people in its five rows of seats, including a steward and three kids playing tig. Behind that, a row of terraced houses have a fine view of the action from their back windows but no-one appears to be taking advantage. Perhaps they have paid to come in instead.
To the right is nothing but a grass training paddock. To the left is grass standing behind a barrier, a traditional scoreboard and a camouflaged TV tower. In the second half, the only spectator braving the wind and rain there is RFL CEO Ralph Rimmer, a major figure in Oxford’s arrival on the semi-pro scene. He seems suitably pleased with his work. The ground has two shortfalls: there is nowhere warm and dry for fans to eat, and only one set of toilets per gender. Oxford’s head honcho Tony Colquitt, late of the St Helens parish, needs to recruit some portaloos, sharpish.
The historic first try here is scored by South Wales’ James Greenwood on 14 minutes but Oxford soon level, Kiwi Valu Bentley ploughing over. It is greeted with a great cheer from the main stand, in which the acoustics are fabulous. A knowledgeable crowd of around 200 is able to give lively support to their new team, the loud music contributing to a fine atmosphere given the attendance and dismal weather. When ORL full-back Johnny Leather intercepts and races 60 metres to level the scores late on, the atmosphere is splendid. But after a long delay for a serious injury to Oxford’s veteran hooker Martin Roden, who is stretchered off, the mood is further dampened when the Scorpions surprisingly opt to run a last minute penalty and justify the decision by scoring on the left. However, in a sea of handling errors, Oxford manage to score again with the last play of the game. The conversion attempt by Leather, which would have earned a deserved draw, is skewered well wide and South Wales win 20-22.
Oxford’s Rugby League heritage is unusual. This very magazine was spawned in the city when Harry Edgar gave birth to Open Rugby in the mid-70s. Harry was also involved in the launch of Oxford University RLFC, which has been around longer than most student teams or amateur clubs south of Sheffield. And yet the only previous senior match to take place in the city was at Court Place Farm football ground when the USA defeated Canada in the 2000 Emerging Nations World Cup.
South Wales’ second try fits the setting perfectly. It is like a tribute to the 19th century: a hack, a dribble and a stramash through a crowd of Blues stumbling around in the mud. The material rugby heritage is all in the Pavilion, accurately described by the bloke behind me as ‘very dignified’. Its walls are lined with OURFC team groups and honours boards, souvenirs from foreign tours including two old balls from which dangle three-foot long leather tassels. It’s from Japan, apparently.
Considering Oxford RL did not exist last season and they have done everything from scratch, the marketing of the club is probably the most impressive aspect. They have already developed a club ‘house style’ and brand identity that other clubs have yet to do after over 100 years. Their website is stylish and signs, fliers and membership brochures all have the same corporate look. Their crest is handsome yet modern and they have gone big on the university’s dark blue identity: as an internationally recognisable brand, they would be mad not to. Even their potentially pretentious slogan – Rugby League Inspires – somehow works. The pitchside advertising is distinctly upmarket but almost all is for the university rugby union team, not Oxford RL. They do have three different shirts on sale already. Refusing to have a contrived nickname or daft suffix seems eminently sensible, too.
At last: a club that realises sending half a dozen frozen schoolgirls out into the rain to dance to a house track in front of a few dozen bemused onlookers does more harm than good. The only entertainment at Iffley Road is on the pitch, with a soundtrack provided by a strong PA system and an impressive announcer who manages the difficult task of conveying information with both enthusiasm and sincerity. His musical choices were also very much to my personal taste. The teams coming out to Girls Aloud’s pop masterpiece ‘Biology’ somehow worked perfectly.
VALUE FOR MONEY
Admission was £12 with concessions half price. Memberships are £85 (£30 concessions) – a decent deal for a season pass. The programme was a little overpriced at £3. Food is limited to two portacabins near the main gates, where hot dogs and burgers were £3, with tea and coffee a quid and cans of Carling and John Smith’s Smooth £2 each. A far better option for drinkers was the pavilion bar, where a fabulous pint of Oxford Blue from the White Horse Brewery was £3. The lack of punters over there suggests most of the crowd mistakenly thought it was private and for guests only.
After visiting Iffley Road, I feel more positive about Oxford’s chances of flourishing in Championship One. On the pitch there are few concerns. Tony Benson has put together a decent mix of experienced league players from his former clubs, some local talent from amateur RL and rugby union converts. Watch out for Sean Morris, a former Saracens junior and union Blue, who was rapid and explosive down the left. He was tremendous for someone playing only his fourth game of Rugby League. Oxford will be competitive if they can afford to keep this squad together.
History suggests they have no chance of survival. In the pro game, only London Broncos (nee Fulham) have been formed out of thin air and kept breathing beyond infancy. I do hope Oxford prove the exception to the rule. If nothing else, it’s a delightful place to go.