It’s incredible to think that prior to 1987, rugby union never had an ‘official’ national league competition in the UK for its major clubs.
The likes of Leicester Tigers, Harlequin, Bath and Wasps, all formed back in the late 1800’s and with more than a hundred years of history and existence, would play over ten decades of exhibition games, local competitions and friendly matches against varied level opponents from neighbouring club sides or thrown-together outfits like the Barbarians to elite level magnitude matches such as hosting the New Zealand or Australian test teams, this before the (then Nottingham brand sponsored) John Player Cup would come along in the 1970’s, which at least provided a regular prize to play for in pitting the wits of the country’s best.
The RFU had long resisted a ‘league format’ which they said would ‘increase dirty play’ and put pressure on clubs to pay players… But in 1987 they succumbed.
After much deliberation a new national league structure was finally implemented following the growing success of the John Player Cup. The Courage League would feature twelve of England’s finest, although there was initially no fixture list, teams would arrange fixtures themselves with most playing eleven games over the course of the season with some only playing ten in its debut year.
Leicester Tigers were the first ever winners in a division that included Bath, Bristol, Coventry, Gloucester, Harlequins, Moseley, Orrell, Sale, Wasps, Waterloo and Nottingham.
By then, Nottingham were over 110 years old themselves having been in existence since 1877. Based at Ireland Avenue in Beeston the club was considered as one of the best in the country. The previous season they reached the fourth round of the John Players Cup only to lose to eventual finalists Wasps who also beat them the year before in the Quarter Finals en-route to losing the first of two successive finals against Bath at Twickenham.
In 1986 a Green and Whites team that included a young fly-half called Rob Andrews, would be minutes away from beating their London opponents in a muddy match at Beeston before a late try saw the visitors struggle through, the match ending 13-13 with the away side going on to the semis’ after ending the 80 minutes all-square but progressing thanks to tries scored.
A year later, England International Andrew would turn out for Wasps against Nottingham in a reverse fixture a round earlier, this time it wasn’t so close as the home side went through 25-10.
But proof if any was needed Nottingham could mix it with the best. Wasps fell short of Leicester Tigers to finish second in the first ever Courage League campaign whilst Nottingham finished a credible eighth. A side that included the legendary likes of Gary Rees, Brian Moore and Simon Hodgkinson, would do even better the year after finishing fourth behind champions Bath, Gloucester and yes you’ve guessed it, Wasps. A 10-6 win against Bristol, a 12-0 win against Harlequins and a 12-12 draw against the previous seasons champions Leicester Tigers three results at Ireland Avenue that more than stood out.
It was finally Wasps turn to be crowned champions in 1989/90 as Nottingham finished sixth with wins against Bath, Saracens and Harlequins amongst others, the season after the side finished eighth in the table but by then a major shift towards ‘professionalism’ was on its way.
Brian Moore had left Nottingham for London based Harlequins, a solicitor in the Midlands who by now was playing for England, was one that was ‘helped’ by Harlequins hierarchy to become a solicitor in London for a much healthier wage than what he could perhaps achieve up north. It wasn’t uncommon to hear of teams ‘assisting’ new players with ‘better’ jobs to get them signed up and committed in a lucrative loophole that saw the best players join the best ‘connected’ clubs.
By 1991/92 Nottingham had all but surrendered their status amongst the top echelons of English rugby for good, they haven’t been back since, the advent of professionalism and Nottingham not having the ‘buying power’ to compete with those elsewhere meant that relegation to the second tier along with little old Roslyn Park was on the cards.
Turning fully professional in 1995 the game had ‘shifted’ from the initial resistance of the RFU to the reality that competition creates business and with it success brings cash. The reluctance from the RFU to originally create competition eventually faded, as did the competitions original ethos on ‘amateurism’ and ‘sportsmanship’ in favour of good old pound notes.
Whilst the likes of Bath and Leicester Tigers would see regular gates in excess of 10,000 at their quaint grounds and having lucrative sponsors on board with TV revenue helped by growing demand to watch elite level rugby on the box, Nottingham, now outside the top tier, like many others unable to step up fully to professionalism, would fall on harder times and after the turn of the millennium only just avoided relegation to the regional leagues in what would have been a disaster for the sport in our city.
It’s been a tough battle since, the move from Ireland Avenue to Lady Bay in between a tenancy at Meadow Lane and the recent move to go part-time professional prior to covid ripping through the game has all been traumatic and turbulent but the future is that one day Nottingham can repeat the success of the late eighties and early nineties and again challenge the elite with a few new stars of their own.
Whilst the sport of rugby union has come in for plenty of criticism in recent times, you feel 33 years on from 1987 the game at the top level is at least in its strongest ever place even though those below it might not see the benefit. Wouldn’t it be great to think that our very own piece of green and white could one day be back, benefitting again from the lucrative lure of top flight rugby… Like it did all be it briefly, all those years ago.
*Main image @NottinghamRugby Gary Rees, Peter Cook & Rob Andrews were all selected by England in a golden era for the club.