FORFAR is probably best known for its bridies, a steak-and-pastry snack said to have originated in the Scottish town in the middle of the 19th Century.
Now Rugby League converts Stuart Gray and Dave Vernon, a player development coach for Scotland’s governing body, are aiming to give the game’s oldest amateur side food for thought in the first round of the Challenge Cup.
The pair were behind the formation of Strathmore Silverbacks, the latest cub from North of the border to qualify for the famous old competition.
Having won last year’s Scottish National League title, defeating Edinburgh Eagles 32-30 in an exciting Grand Final in the capital, the Silverbacks, set up in 2015, make their bow when they head to Millom, founded in 1873.
It will be a special moment for the team from the county of Angus (between Edinburgh and Aberdeen), who play alongside Strathmore Rugby Union Club at Inchmacoble Park on the banks of Forfar Loch and have come a long way in a short time.
Team manager and prop Gray will miss the big match to attend a friend’s wedding, but at least has the consolation of having played in the Challenge Cup for Aberdeen Warriors, when they went down 46-6 at Pilkington Recs in the first round in 2014.
“I spent a few years travelling up to Aberdeen to play for the Warriors,” explains Gray, who also turns out for Strathmore’s union team.
“Then Dave Vernon, who I knew through his Scotland RL role, moved to the Forfar area, and started to play union for Strathmore.
“He was playing league for Edinburgh Eagles, who were Challenge Cup regulars for a spell, and we got talking about setting up a team in Forfar.
“There was interest from a number of the union lads because it provided a chance to play in the summer months, and by January 2015, we were able to enter the Scottish National League.”
With Gray and hooker Vernon leading from the front, the Silverbacks finished runners-up to Aberdeen in their first two campaigns before taking the title last season.
As well as Aberdeen and Edinburgh, the league also includes Easterhouse Panthers, from Glasgow, with the sides playing each other home and away for league points also in a series of nines tournaments.
“It’s good to look back at the way things have developed,” adds Gray. “I think Dave and I work well together, because I am more of an organiser while he is an experienced coach.
“We have had great support from the union side of the club, and plenty of the lads like playing league.
“They have got used the the play the ball and getting back at the tackle, although it’s taken longer to master some of the running lines, which are obviously different to those in union.
“But they are getting there and they certainly seem to enjoy that extra bit of freedom which comes from having less players on the pitch than in union.”
The Silverbacks are also doing their bit to spread the Rugby League word in a town with a 15,000 population which also has football club, Forfar Athletic, playing in League One, the third tier of the Scottish pyramid.
“The Angus authorities decided a few years ago that the school week would end at Friday lunchtime,” says Gray.
“Strathmore have set up a rugby academy on Friday afternoons, and we have been able to include league in that, so we are starting to make some inroads and in the longer term, we will try to expand the league side of the club.”
It’s also a source of satisfaction that the cub will supply three players to the 15-strong Scotland Nines squad for the February Rugby League Commonwealth Games in Australia – front row Niall Hall, centre Murray Mitchell and fullback Ali Oliver.
Hall played for Scotland at last year’s Student World Cup.
The Championships in Queensland are endorsed by the Commonwealth Games as an exhibition for Rugby League and the participating countries will be fielding Under 23 sides.
The others taking part are Australia, England, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Wales, and each team will play at least five times.
Of course before the Nines comes the Millom mission, a round trip of more than 500 miles.
“The lads will go there and back in the one day,” confirms Gray.
“The union division we play in (Caledonia League One) has involved trips to places like Thurso right up at the top of Scotland, and we’ve also taken the plane to Orkney, so going down into England won’t bother them.
“They are used to travelling long distances, and on the way back, quite a few of them are planning to hop off the bus in Glasgow for a night out.”
Rugby League World will drink to that!
Words: Doug Thomson
This feature appears in Rugby League World, Issue 442, on sale now. In shops across the UK or order your copy now for delivery by post at www.totalrl.com/shop – also available in digital format to read online on PC/Mac, smartphone or tablet from Pocketmags (save an extra 25% on the digital edition until end of Jan, enter code RUGBY25 at Pocketmags checkout).
Ladbrokes Challenge Cup – First Round
Saturday, January 28 (all games kick off at 2.00pm unless stated)
London Chargers v Hammersmith Hills Hoists (1.00pm)
Millom v Strathmore Silverbacks (1.30pm)
Royal Air Force v Drighlington (1.30pm)
Rochdale Mayfield v Crosfields (2.00pm, live on BBC Sport)
Kells v British Police
Hunslet Warriors v Wath Brow Hornets
Saddleworth Rangers v Thatto Heath Crusaders
York Acorn v Askam
Royal Navy v Normanton Knights
Shaw Cross Sharks v Beverley
Distington v Queens
Lock Lane v Hindley
Oulton Raiders v Siddal
Underbank Rangers v Batley Boys
Hunslet Club Parkside v Valley Cougars
Featherstone Lions v Skirlaugh
Wallsend Eagles v Pilkington Recs (2.30pm)
Leigh Miners Rangers v Myton Warriors (2.30pm)
Orrell St James v Northampton Demons (2.30pm)
Unversity of Hull v Hensingham (2.30pm)
East Leeds v Thornhill Trojans (2.30pm)
British Army v Milford Marlins (3.00pm)
Loughborough University v Bradford Dudley Hill
Sunday, January 29
West Hull v Longhorns RL (2.00pm)