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History of Horsham Minis Rugby

Minis Festival

In 1978, Horsham Rugby Club was celebrating its Golden Jubilee, and to mark the occasion the club held its first ever Festival of Mini Rugby. There were tournaments for the Under 8s, Under 10s, Under 12s and Under 14s, with Horsham teams ending up triumphant in two competitions. In the programme notes, the club said it “intends the make the festival an annual event’.

It has very much panned out that way. Now in the year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, some 850 youngsters took part in the most recent festival of mini rugby on 25th March. Like they were in the very first tournament, Horsham were victorious in two categories, this time the Under 10 and Under 12 players taking home winning trophies.

Horsham Rugby Club was founded in 1928 by E.J. Hodgson and A.G. Puttock at the Station Hotel, but it took 48 years for the club to establish its own Minis section. When Horsham RUFC finally did start the section, there were a large number of promising players ready to play.

John Price, a former president and player at Horsham Rugby Club, recalls: “We started the mini rugby in 1976, two years before the first festival, and I was one of several people involved in setting it up, along with Mike Beckwith and Jim Endicott.

“We had 119 kids turn up to the first training session and I still have the accident report from the very first day. Wouldn’t you know it, one child broke a finger. Two years later, we started up the festival. We had some 150 boys and girls aged between seven and 12-years-old taking part. Some of the children from those early days went on to play for Horsham in the 1990s, in what was undoubtedly one of the best teams that the town has ever produced. Horsham won the London South East Division 3 title in 1993 and the Sussex Knockout Cup twice.

“Youngsters such as Andy Johnson, Simon and Richard Bell, my son David ‘Puff’ Price, and several others all went on to form the backbone of a very good senior team. But back then, like today, the problem has been getting the promising players to make the transition to the senior teams.”

That problem has only increased over the years. Not only have the best players been lured by other clubs willing to pay appearance fees, but a higher proportion of young people head off to college and university. This has meant that, while Horsham has had a fantastic set-up for mini rugby for many years, the best youths have not necessarily progressed to the senior squad.

Paul Harding, chairman of the club, said: “We’ve tried to improve the transition from junior to senior rugby over the past four or five years. The club suffers a bit from the education system in Horsham – it’s very good so of course a lot of people disappear at the age of 18 off to various universities.

“We are trying to retain players, so we’ve introduced a system for an Under-20 team, so that perhaps at Christmas and during breaks when players come back to the town, they can play rugby and maintain links with the club. The RFU in general is looking at ways to ensure that when players head off to universities across the country, they can link up with another team, so they are not lost to the game for four years or perhaps even for good. We do have quite a few players in the first team now that have come all the way through the minis teams, into the senior squad and eventually the first team, which is great.”

As the years have gone by, so have the links and associations with local businesses. Henry Adams has recently renewed its sponsorship with the club, and strong links have been formed with Christ’s Hospital. This year, the school sponsored the medals, which were awarded by Joe Launchbury. Joe is now a London Wasps player and was recently named in England’s Six Nations rugby squad.

The Director of Sport at Christ’s Hospital, David Messenger said: “This is an excellent festival. It is great to see so many youngsters enjoying the game in a positive and friendly atmosphere.”

But it’s not all just about kids having fun – the event is an important fundraiser too. Horsham Rugby Club is renowned for its fantastic ground – a space and location that the town’s football club can only dream of. But the clubhouse is in need of improvement. At the time of the first mini festival in 1978, Horsham Rugby club had been settled in at Coolhurst for a few years. Horsham had purchased the land for £5,750 in 1968, but it took a lot of effort to raise the £16,000 needed for the clubhouse.

The club won a Government grant, secured loans and sponsorship, and with the help of fundraising events it finally had enough to begin building in October 1971. Horsham played against an International XV to celebrate the opening of the clubhouse on Sunday, 24th September 1972. The visitors were captained by Bob Hillier, who had earned the last of his 19 England caps earlier that year.

Now, thirty years on, the next generation of players, parents and committee members are thinking of the future, with the clubhouse at the centre of the plans. Paul said: “The clubhouse is an important asset to us. Last year we put a new roof on it so it doesn’t leak. Now we’re putting plans in place that will affect the club in 15 or 20 years’ time. As we strengthen the club from a
playing perspective, we have to look at facilities and one of the areas we need to develop is our changing rooms. They are small and we need to extend those, and if we’re thinking of getting ladies rugby up here we need separate changing rooms and showers. There’s a lot of work to do in that area.

“I personally would like to see ladies rugby at Horsham but we have to be careful as there aren’t a great number of ladies that wish to play rugby. Pulborough are looking at creating a ladies team as well, so it may be that we work alongside them.”

More emphasis is also being placed on functions and events. John O’ Sullivan, well-known in Horsham as a comedian and former newsagent owner, is running the bar now and has big ideas.
“I’ve increased the takings at the bar and that’s what I’m here for” he said. “I want to make it a place that people will come back to, and it’ll help after we revamp the clubhouse during the summer."

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