In the beginning…
St Albans School, founded in 948AD and the second oldest school in the country behind Kings School, Canterbury, was the birthplace in 1924 of OARFC. A group of former pupils with an urge to continue playing rugby together began the club and acquired as a first pavilion a timber World War One barrack hut.
As the last century progressed a ground in north St Albans, known as Beech Bottom, was acquired and in the nineteen fifties a group of OAs including architects and builders constructed a homely pavilion entirely from their own resources. This housed the OA rugby, cricket and shooting clubs; later a groundsman’s cottage was added to the site.
Around its fiftieth anniversary, the rugby club became fully open to all comers, ran six sides and enjoyed fixtures with other clubs in Hertfordshire, Essex, Beds, Bucks and London of similar size and standing. In the days before leagues it was customary to play clubs who offered a fixture with every team in the club, three saying at home and three away, which alternated year on year.
The coming of leagues
Around the time of the first Rugby World Cup in 1987 the first league structure was formed and, based on a good showing in the previous season’s Herts President’s Cup, OAs found themselves in London League II but struggled to maintain that standard being relegated a couple of seasons later to League III. The next few seasons saw an attritional revival culminating in promotion in 2002 (of which more later) to London 1.
In the season prior to this the club spent a nomadic year playing on the school playing fields and at other venues as Beech Bottom was sold to developers anxious to realise their new asset. This sale allowed the club to pair up with the school and move to Cheapside Farm, previously purchased by the school on Harpenden Road, St Albans.
OAs celebrated this move by gaining promotion to London 1 in their first season of occupancy. After five seasons of finishing gradually higher and higher in the London 1 table, the 2010/2011 season saw the club consolidate this by winning promotion to National League 2 South in an exciting and close play-off with Old Patesians from Cheltenham in front of a large and boisterous crowd. The 15-0 result also crowned OAs as the top old boys club in England.
A roof over our heads
This area of Cheapside Farm was renamed ‘Woollams’ in honour of Charles Woollam, a former mayor of the city in the nineteenth century and generous benefactor to the school. This site, opened in 2002, was and is considered one of the finest sporting facilities in Europe. The pitches have been layered and levelled to exacting specifications to produce a flat and well-drained surface. Many a yacht club looks in envy at the pavilion with its areas of canvas and wood which won an award for its architect.
Inside there are two sports bars, extensive kitchens, changing facilities and showers for rugby and cricket players, officials and physios. Outside, the facility boasts six rugby pitches, three cricket, hockey and soccer as well as state-of-the-art tennis courts. The whole site occupies seventy acres, shared with St Albans School’s own pavilion and pitches all of which is disabled-friendly. During the weeks of the season, Saracens RFC train at Woollams.
A host of OA players have won county honours, including the late Nigel Cartwright and Ian MacMillin, who also played for London Scottish in 1950/60s. In 1970s Jeff Probyn joined the club and played at loose-head prop for a few seasons before switching clubs – and switching to tight-head – ending up at Wasps FC with full international honours for England and the Barbarians. Bob Wilkinson of Bedford RFC also played for the club as a youngster while at the school and won the same honours as Probyn.
The club’s recent promotion to the National Leagues has involved interplay with the Saracens’ Academy. Maro Itoje, British Lion and England, played a full season for OAs as did Nathan Earle on the England wing. Nick Isiekwe of England joined Saracens from OA Juniors and Colts whilst Max Malins has graced the England Under-20 side.
Alumni Gregg Botterman, Darren O’Mahoney and Steve Pope have all played for the Barbarians, whilst former Welsh International, Paul Turner has both played for the club and coached. Also around for a number of years has been ex-Saracens player and coach, Bruce Millar, who was Director of Rugby for the years in London 1 and one season in NL2 South. Millar resumed as Director of Rugby in the 2013/2014 season.
From a WW1 barrack hut…
The OA family of clubs now includes the Saints, a ladies side who joined shortly after Woollams was opened; in the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons, the Saints played in the WRFU Premiership. Several of the Saints have achieved international recognition at all levels for England, Wales and Italy. Although now a Saracen, Sarah McKenna has England honours in both the 15- and 7-a-side codes.
Every Sunday morning in the season around 900 Minis and Juniors who stretch as far as the eye can see turn out with their parents and coaches. Many trophies have been won at county level at all age groups, which also includes a successful Colts side.
At the crossroads
Inspired by a fifth position out of sixteen clubs in NL2 South in the 2010/11 season and coached by Director of Rugby James Shanahan and his team, the following season saw OAs celebrate a nineteen- match-winning run from October to April by clinching the League Championship and automatic promotion to National League 1. This positioned the club among the top forty clubs in England.
If that was not good enough, OAs finished fifth in their first season of National League 1, placing it as the 29th club in the country. The 2013/2014 season proved to be a tougher assignment and the club finished with a mid-table position in NL1.
Relegation followed in 2014/2015 after an up and down season marred at the last by a points deduction for a technical registration matter. No sooner down than up again as OAs stormed through National League 2 South, ending up second and achieving promotion back to League 1 for the 2016/17 season by virtue of a 24-0 win in the play-off against Sedgley Park Tigers.
The 2016/17 season was marred by injuries – at times barely half of the squad was available for selection – the retirement of some long-established players and the announcement that Head Coach James Shanahan would leave at the season’s end for Blackheath to be replaced by Gavin Hogg. The club ended up in 9th position in NL 1.
Faced with a number of player departures, plus some difficulties with player availabilities, OAs had a forgettable start to the 2017/18 season and lacked the momentum to stay in NL1 despite a fine rally during March and April which all but saved them from relegation to National League 2 South.
Following two modest seasons both in results and performance the club faces a third season in National League 2 South with a third coach in four seasons in the wake of the Spring 2020 Coronavirus, which curtailed all activity after the visit of Westcliff on 7th March. Speculation is rife about the future of semi-professional rugby, an issue brought into focus before the virus by the RFU’s decision to limit funding to the Championship. This was followed by a revised offer to stagger what little was on offer over two seasons.
A colossal amount of voluntary work has taken place not just within OAs but also by our competitors to accrue sponsorship to attract players who are prepared to accept a modest salary to train and play for their clubs. Some hold down a day job as well, some belong to professional clubs’ academies. It seems inevitable that the now heavily cash-strapped RFU will look to fund only the professional game – which must come as a disappointment, to say the least, to the volunteers who have created an attractive ambience in which to enjoy a Saturday afternoon’s sport, some of which verged on professional quality at times.
What next for OARFC? Watch this space…