Those who followed rugby prior to the 1990s will be well-aware of the name Rosslyn Park FC. The London side was one of the country’s top teams, twice reaching the final of the National Cup.
They have plenty of historic moments since their inception in 1879, which includes partaking in the first-ever rugby games in Prague, Budapest, and Vienna. When the game turned professional in 1995, Rosslyn Park made the bold decision to remain amateur. As a result, they no longer play at the highest level in England – currently competing in the third division of English Rugby (otherwise known as National League 1).
Yet the club has found a renewed identity since the 1990s, creating a huge impact on the sport in a different way. LWOS Rugby reporter Connor Dickins spoke to the club’s Managing Director, Dom Shabbo, to find out more.
We spoke with Shabbo just hours before their massive fixture against unbeaten Cinderford. It was 1st v 3rd in the table, after Rosslyn Park had won all their fixtures other than a three-point loss away to Rams RFC. Speaking about their strong start, Shabbo said: “If you would’ve said we had won six and lost one at the start of the season, we would have bitten your arm off”.
Ambitions for Championship Rugby
Rosslyn Park have certainly made themselves contenders for promotion to the championship. 25 games into last season (before the rest of the season was canceled due to COVID restrictions), Rosslyn Park FC were just seven league points behind eventual champions Richmond. They had also beaten the league-leaders home and away.
“We’re not trying to hide anything, there is ambition to go up. We feel we have the right model in place to be a sustainable club [to graduate up to] the Championship. That is our goal. We’re not there yet; no way near.
“Hopefully in a year, or by the end of the season, we’ll try and get there”. And the club will be delighted with their form after all the anxiety and worry during the pandemic.
To give context, National League 1 was the highest level in the country to have their season canceled entirely due to COVID. “Getting crowds back and having facilities open again certainly helped us. That’s been a blessing” noted Shabbo. He admitted there were “some pretty bleak months” when the club had to shut completely.
Whilst Rosslyn Park managed to retain ’85-90%’ of their squad, the playing personnel of other clubs has changed significantly since the pandemic. Shabbo also said: “Every club has been affected differently. We’ve been quite fortunate with how we’ve bounced back both financially and on the field”.
Shabbo brings experience from the Highest Level
Dom Shabbo brings experience from the highest level to his role as Managing Director. He played for London Irish and England 7s. Shabbo isn’t the only member of the backroom staff to have played at the top level. The coaching team includes former internationals Bryan Redpath and Sean O’Brien. “We try to create an environment where we can eradicate what we didn’t like as players” notes Shabbo.
There are also challenges in National 1 that don’t concern Premiership clubs: “The top sides of the Championship are full-time, whereas every side in National 1 is part-time. We’re not the primary source of income for the players. They have different agendas, and work has to come first. The coaches react accordingly and make it as easy as possible for the players”.
The relationship with the club has been mutually beneficial. “I didn’t really know what to do when I finished playing full-time. So I started playing rugby here, like others in our current 1st team have done. Then I got involved with coordinating and running the National School 7s. It transpired from there that I got more involved with the commercial side of the business. Then five years ago, I took over as managing director.
“I have really enjoyed every single minute of it. It’s great to be involved in an industry that I’ve been in since school”. His experiences illustrate the importance of England’s 2nd and 3rd divisions. Not only do they help develop young players for the future but, they allow retiring players to stay within our sport.
Football Club has a huge impact in the Community
Despite not being a full-time club, Rosslyn continues to have a massive impact on the game. The clearest example is the historic Rosslyn Park national school 7s: Shabbo said, “The National school 7s is the largest of its form. We’ve got around 10,000 participants coming in March 2022. It should be a really good week of rugby” notes Shabbo.
The world’s largest school 7s tournament has an impressive alumnus of internationals including Gareth Edwards, Martin Johnson, and James Haskell. The tournament offers the first taste of elite sport for many youngsters and produces lifelong memories.
Six years ago, the club invested in a new astro-turf pitch. The result has been new opportunities to benefit the local community. Shabbo explained the difference the new pitch has made: “(with grass) the pitch was reserved for the 1st team and home games only. Now, during the week it’s busy with local schools, universities, other clubs, other sports, and charity events.
“We use the facility to help others who don’t have them so they can prosper in rugby, football, and whatever other sport they’re into”. Before and after their match against Cinderford, there were also bookings bringing revenue to Rosslyn Park FC coffers. Becoming a ‘one-pitch club’ as Shabbo put it, has certainly helped the club; and adds another perspective on the going debate about astro-turf pitches.
Last Word on Rugby gives thanks for wonderful club visit.
Following the interview, it was time to see the spectacle of Rosslyn Park vs Cinderford. It was a true clash of styles as the monstrous pack of Cinderford battled against the slick handling skills of Rossyln.
In a truly heroic defensive performance, combined with some beautiful tries (including the club’s try of the month), the home side pulled through. In the process, they ended the unbeaten run of league leaders Cinderford. The result leaves them 2nd place of National 1, in line with the club’s goal to be within the top 14 English clubs outside of the Premiership. It was a great atmosphere with stands right next to the pitch, and a charismatic announcer on the microphone. The clubhouse after the game was a real treat.
It had a communal atmosphere to enjoy the Autumn Internationals on the big screen. Memorabilia of the club’s rich history is etched on the walls. Appropriately, much tribute is paid to arguably the club’s greatest player, Andrew Ripley. The bar is fittingly named ‘Ripley’s Bar‘ with a photo collage enshrining his Barbarians and British and Irish Lions achievements.
If you are looking for a new rugby experience, then attending a Championship or National League 1 fixture could be the way to go. The grassroots atmosphere and values envelop you right from the entry gates of the club.
A big thank you goes to all who welcomed Last Word on Rugby with open arms. As a gateway to the game’s place in the modern world then, you couldn’t get a more historic place to start from than Rosslyn Park FC.
“Main photo credits – Connor Dickins”