By Roger Linn
David Harrison was very short-sighted, but he was also one of our prop forwards, so he didn’t feel inconvenienced by not being able to see much further than his arm’s length. That is until the day when he arrived late for our away fixture at Old Azurians. He changed quickly in the empty dressing room then, appearing in the doorway, proudly wearing Ditchling’s famous laurel green strip, he ran down the pavilion steps and joined the game.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t our game. It had to be halted while the referee persuaded him to leave the field by indicating where we were playing on another pitch a hundred yards or so away.
David ran joyously towards us and paused only when he fell over the protective wire surrounding the cricket pitch. This occurrence, while hugely entertaining, is by no means exceptional in Ditchling’s history, because over the years we seem to have gained a reputation for cheerful eccentricity. And it hasn’t always been our fault.
There was the occasion, reported in the august pages of The Times, when a visiting player spent some of the warm-up period scrumming down against one of our goalposts. We watched in admiration – warming-up not being one of the things we were ever much good at – until he succeeded in moving the post just enough to allow the crossbar to fall on his head. His efforts required six stitches and precluded his participation in the game. Life can sometimes be rewarding in small but satisfactory ways…
Ditchling Rugby Club is celebrating its 55th anniversary in 2018, having been founded in 1963 in pretty much the spirit we’ve tried to maintain ever since. Five blokes sitting in a pub with nothing much to do thought it would be a good idea to start a rugby club. So they did. They persuaded their friends to play, found a field and took on all-comers. In fact, the club’s facilities in those early days were not so much limited as non-existent and this, in turn, led to Ditchling gaining many lasting friends.
At the end of every game, as there was no pavilion or clubhouse, each player took his opposite number home, gave him somewhere to wash and change before entertaining him to tea. They then repaired to the late and much lamented North Star pub at Ditchling where they rejoined their fellows.
We still try to maintain that same level of hospitality towards our opponents – except Burgess Hill, obviously.
As our fixture list grew, we played hotly contested ‘friendlies’ against everybody from Chichester to Hastings and Crawley to Hove. Then along came league and cup competitions and, in truth, for all our size, we flourished. By this time we were fielding two and a half teams (the other half was often made up of friends from the surrounding village teams) and our 1st XV was proving something of a handful for most of our opposition. Indeed, in the national Pilkington Shield competition, we came within three games of a Twickenham final!
We have never lacked ambition and Ditchling’s touring side ‘The Wild Pigs’ has besported itself everywhere from Cambridge to Barcelona and Holland to the USA. In Holland, we won an international vets' competition by beating an extremely fit but vastly over-trained French XV in the final. When they had recovered their sense of humor, they admitted that they had never come across a team like Ditchling.
But even Holland does not compare to some of our more exotic away fixtures in Sussex, like Seaford, where a good south-westerly can have the beach shingle coming across the pitch like shrapnel. Or Plumpton, where it was possible to kick a drop goal from your own half when the wind was behind you – a feat once achieved by Ditchling’s great full back Brian Rogers, even if he had to ask the referee where the ball had gone because he’d lost sight of it.
Like all village sports clubs, we have waxed and wained over the years, at times having more players than we knew what to do with and, at others, barely having enough to cover our fixtures. Top class players have joined us as they’ve come towards the end of their rugby careers and we’ve sent on younger players to bigger and better clubs at the start of theirs.
As we start 2018, Ditchling Rugby Club enters a new phase in its history, but one that appropriately echoes its past. The field that was originally found in 1963 became the pitch at Ditchling Recreation Ground which, in recent years became unplayable because of drainage issues.
But through the unstinting efforts of current club president, Justin Wallden, Ditchling has found a new field and transformed it into a high-quality pitch, nestling in the shadow of the South Downs. And while, as in the early days, the team is without its own clubhouse, it maintains the provision of changing rooms and its traditionally warm hospitality to visiting opponents through the facilities of St. James’s Cricket Club, adjacent to the new ground on the road between Ditchling and Keymer.
The 1st XV currently competes in Sussex Division 1 but is on a renewed recruitment drive, looking for new players to display their talents on the pitch, and to maintain the club’s reputation for sociability and hospitality off it.
If you’d like to join us, you’ll be made very welcome and if you can play rugby, then so much the better.
Roger Linn was a former captain and chairman of Ditchling Rugby Club and played a huge role in its history. He died in 2015 and is sorely missed.