Sidmouth Chiefs’ top 10 seasons: Part II, 1985/86; 1995/96 and 1929/30
PUBLISHED: 09:21 22 May 2020 | UPDATED: 09:21 22 May 2020
We continue our on-going look at the top 10 seasons for Sidmouth Rugby Club with Terry O’Brien.
This week it’s ninth, eighth and seventh places...
NINTH PLACE 1985-1986: A playing record reading played 39, won 22, drawn 2, lost 15 does not stand out as exceptional.
However, a playing record does not tell you that among the teams played were, Exeter, Saracens, Redruth, Barnstaple, Exeter University, Penzance (now Cornish Pirates), Cinderford and Ampthill.
It also does not reveal the crippling injury list which had to be overcome for much of the first half of the season.
Having skipper Geoff Retter and fellow prop Bob Smith away on county duty in October and November did not help the availability issue.
Eventually, it was one match which lifted this season from being average into the top ten. The important competition was the Devon Merit Table and the match was the last of the season.
Ten games were lost in the first half of the season, but only one was in the Merit Table, that a 4-3 defeat to Devon and Cornwall Police. It left the Chiefs approaching the new year in contention. However, a 7-3 defeat by Exmouth on New Year’s Day was a setback, but there would be only three more defeats in the remaining four months and none of them were Merit Table games.
Crucially, the closing week saw important wins against fellow contenders when fielding weakened sides. Okehampton were beaten 3-0 at Blackmore and Tiverton, 19-14 away.
It all left one final, decisive match, at Okehampton on April 26. The home side topped the table and needed only a draw. Sidmouth were second and needed a win. Okehampton, who had not conceded a try on their own ground all season, built up an 11-0 lead midway through the first half playing with the wind and slope in their favour. Just before half-time, a slick move by the backs saw full back Barry Withecombe join the line to send Tony Morrison in for an unconverted try.
In the second half, with the elements in their favour, the Sidmouth pack took control and 18-year-old fly half Simon Stilling produced a tactical kicking masterclass to keep Okehampton pinned inside their own half. Tony Morrison scored a second try while Graham Denner, Bob Smith and Mike Spiller added three more. Duncan Nice kicked a penalty and conversion to complete a decisive 25-11 victory to bring the Merit Table trophy to Sidmouth.
The success had added importance as it would be used to decide which league level Sidmouth would be placed in a season later.
EIGHTH PLACE 1995-1996: National leagues were introduced in 1987. There were 12 teams in a league and they only played each other once a season giving 11 games, leaving plenty of scope for traditional friendlies.
Sidmouth went into the competition unprepared, at least in comparison to the other teams at their level of Western Counties, which covered the same regions as their current South West One league.
Other clubs had upped their game in terms of fitness, coaching and match preparation.
The result was relegation to the Cornwall and Devon league in that first season.
The following season, the arrival of Tim Smith as coach brought the necessary change in intensity of preparation and organisation to meet the demands of league rugby leading to a runner-up finish in his second season. Unfortunately, only one team were promoted at that time.
That was as good as it got for the next five years. By 1995, Richard Grainger had taken over the coaching and Graham Bess, in his second season back from Exeter, provided the experience gained from playing at a higher level.
Brother Russell had also returned to join him and, along with Geoff Retter, Brian Jones and Max Hansford, offered more valuable experience.
Importantly, Andy Burrough would prove to be a reliable goalkicker, contributing 217 points in the season.
With six past and future captains in the squad, there was plenty of leadership and rugby know how.
The first four league games were won to make the Chiefs clear contenders before a setback at Saltash in November.
This made the fifth game, at home against leaders St Austell, crucial.
In preparation and showing intent, the Cornishmen travelled on the Friday staying overnight at the Fortfield Hotel.
On a near waterlogged pitch, the Chiefs produced an outstanding performance to win 10-0 and move to the top of the table.
The next four games were won comfortably scoring 218 points to maintain the lead with a huge advantage in points difference.
They travelled to South Molton for the final game needing a draw to win the league. With St Austell losing, the 16-6 victory was academic, and Sidmouth had won their first league championship.
The final playing record of 25 wins from 33 games is up there among the best albeit with a fixture list less challenging than some.
SEVENTH PLACE 1929-1930: To put the game played before 1970 into perspective, it is pertinent to consider the revolutionary changes to the laws of the game made during the 1960s.
When I played my first game of rugby in 1959, the offside line at a scrum was through the ball in the scrum and for a lineout a line across the field through the lineout.
Flankers could break from a scrum provided they stayed behind the ball.
The ball could be kicked directly into touch from anywhere on the field. Lifting in the lineout was not allowed.
Tries only gained three points and the predominant tactic was to gain ground by kicking for touch.
Try scoring opportunities came from individual breaks or, more often, mistakes. It was much harder to score points and score-lines were closer.
By the end of the decade, the offside lines were the back foot of the scrum and ten metres back from the lineout.
Kicking direct to touch was only allowed inside the 25-yard line and the try was worth four points.
Suddenly there was more space for the backs and the running full back was born.
More points were scored. Between the wars, rugby in Sidmouth was at its most popular, with four figure crowds the norm at the Blackmore Field.
Also, the fixture list was as strong as at any time.
The Chiefs played all the top clubs in Devon, including Exeter and Plymouth Albion. To achieve more wins than loses in 13 of the 20 seasons was commendable for a small town. They were among the elite clubs in the county. The only thing missing was a trophy.
Up until 1929, the Chiefs had reached the semi-finals of the Devon Senior Cup five times in ten years, losing narrowly on each occasion.
By then, the team had a good mix of experience and talented youth.
Until 1928, Eric Mills had not been able to play for health reasons. In that year he stood down as secretary and took on the captaincy of the Chiefs. He was clearly a talented player and good leader.
The cup final team included three other past or future captains. Once again, the Chiefs reached the semi-final, playing Tiverton on the neutral County Ground in Exeter.
They were the better team throughout but only managed to win 3-0 thanks to a Bunny Palmer penalty.
The final was played on March 29, 1930 against Brixham at the Torquay Recreation Ground. Southern Railways put on a special train and Sidmouth was well represented in the crowd of more than 3,000 people.
Brixham were the favourites, but Sidmouth outplayed them in the first half. Left winger Chip Mortimore came close to scoring, but the half-time score was 0-0.
Midway through the second half, scrum half Arthur Bagwell tackled his opposite number at a scrum and flanker Bert Welsman hacked on the loose ball over the goal line.
Speedy wingman Mossy Turner won the chase for the touchdown to score one of 33 tries in 33 games that season.
The score remained 3-0 and Sidmouth had won the cup for the third and last time in the club’s history.
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