A number of club members have been in touch and expressed their disappointment and disapproval at the outcome of our ADM Premier Division fixture against Oldham on Saturday. For those reasons, I feel it’s important to clarify our position. Oldham will have their own views. This is strictly our version of events.
The game didn’t go ahead. Oldham put out a message on social media saying that the game was cancelled due to the ‘unavailability of pitches at Ford Lane’, which is not quite accurate. That tweet dropped at about 1pm, at which point our players were getting changed and being briefed by the referee.
There appears to have been a breakdown in communication overnight on Friday into Saturday. Oldham said - and I believe them - that they confirmed to the League that they would not be playing, accepting an offer from us to rearrange due the unusual circumstances/timing in the lead up. At no stage was that communicated to us or to the referee. In fact, I was told the opposite: that the game would definitely be going ahead the moment we informed the League that we had reassigned MMU as our home venue.
To be clear, there was a pitch available at Ford Lane but because of the adverse weather (and the forecast of a storm) we made plans to play the fixture on the RFU-accredited artificial pitch at MMU, where we train. We informed Oldham of the change in venue on Monday last week (via the email on their website, which they did not pick up). We followed it up on Thursday by phone and there was plenty of conversation between ourselves, Oldham and Lancashire Rugby on Friday. Oldham said their players didn’t have the correct footwear to play on a 3G. We have never come across that before, and MMU confirmed on Saturday it wasn’t an issue.
As many members will know, we’ve been based down at MMU for the past couple of years. Last season we played a number of our home fixtures there to help us maintain the quality of our two grass pitches. Heaton Moor, Orrell, Congleton and MMU were among the teams to play us there. This season, the University of Manchester (twice) and Burnage RFC have played us there. It is worth noting that we would prefer to play all our matches at Ford Lane - but that is not always the right option for us in the long-term. I hope this note outlines some of the reasons why.
Two years ago the club started to invest heavily in off-site facilities because, at this time of year, we often have to postpone matches because our pitches are unplayable. They sit in a flood plain and have to accommodate five senior teams. Indeed, in 2016, the club had so many postponements that we couldn’t even complete our league fixtures. Clearly that couldn’t continue. This initial investment in facilities became a priority and formed part of a wider three-year plan which focused on player recruitment, player retention and coach development.
The poor training facilities at Ford Lane – which is basically a small area of a dimly lit cricket outfield - were making it harder for us to recruit and retain new players to the area. There are a lot of rugby clubs within a five/ten-mile radius of us and all our teams rely heavily on young professionals.
We also wanted to improve our links with the two Manchester universities, both of whom play on artificial pitches, and also to help us to attract better players. The strategy has paid dividends. The average age of our 1st XV squad has dropped to 25 from 30 and we are now competing well in a tough league at a higher level. The club also made a commitment to provide rugby at home every weekend for all our five senior teams. We feel – well, we know – that training and playing off-site for a chunk of the season also improves the experience for our women’s and juniors’ sections.
Alongside the significant financial outlay on the 3G pitch, we have also embarked upon an expensive grounds maintenance programme to re-engage the drainage system that was put into our pitches almost a decade ago. All this forms part of a bigger plan to ensure the best possible playing surfaces for our teams all year round. It is not because we are deliberately obstructive and contrive to play certain teams on certain surfaces. That is simply not the case, I can promise you. We just want good games of rugby and feel the 3G is more conducive to producing that, especially during a storm.
Oldham’s view is that playing on an artificial surface would give us an unfair advantage. Ours is that, as the home team, we should be able to play where we like so long as safety isn’t an issue. That position - as I understood it - had been supported by Lancashire Rugby at 4pm on Friday, which is the last I heard before kick-off.
For further reference, this is the principal regulation upon which we based our initial argument:
Reg 16.9.1 - "16.9.1 It is the responsibility of the home team to provide a suitable pitch for the match to be played on. If a team’s pitch is prone to being waterlogged or frozen, every effort must be made to secure another pitch within a reasonable distance of the team’s ground to try to ensure the fixture takes place on the designated day."
So, in terms of a resolution, I am not entirely sure what happens next. Thinking Oldham had not shown up, I told the League and the referee that we had no interest in taking any points, a stance not universally supported by the players who were clearly unimpressed at forfeiting a Saturday.
To my knowledge we have not been informed of, or agreed to, a date for the game to be played. I will keep you posted when I hear more. What I can tell you is that we have now formally had to switch our home venue to MMU until February and the League will be informing other teams of that decision.