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Interview: Nottingham Outlaws

25 June 14 interview: Joe Sharratt
photos: David Parry

Nottingham Outlaws are one of the Midlands’ top rugby league clubs, boasting more than 200 players across their various senior, academy and junior teams. We caught up with captain and prop forward George Strachan, and committee member and club stalwart Richard Johnson, to talk club history and explain the difference between league and union, as well as bus fires, boozing and bingo...

Nottingham isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of rugby league – a sport that’s played in a pretty narrow strip up north – so how would you sell it to the relative southerners of Notts?
George: It’s quite gladiatorial, big hits and collisions, but there’s still room for fast lads to run around and dodge. They see the ball more at a game of rugby league. In rugby union they might see a big pile of bodies and the ball is in there somewhere.
Richard: Today is the start of our season, the sun is shining and people want to come and see a game played in nice conditions with a pint of beer in their hand, rather than being stuck in the middle of winter in the freezing cold and horizontal rain. So that’s one big difference.
George: Maybe I’m biased, but even watching the worst two teams in the whole country playing would still be enjoyable. It’s the nature of the game.
Richard: I’m not knocking rugby union. At the top level it’s fast, athletic and looks good, but if you drop down a couple of levels, it’s a mess.

Is union a tougher sport?
George: I definitely wouldn’t say it’s tougher. It’s different. The athletes are different. Richard: The other thing you notice with rugby league is you’ve got thirteen people on the field as opposed to fifteen, so there’s more space and you probably have to be aerobically fitter to play league. Rugby union has got a lot more set pieces. You see the lineouts, the scrums, the rucks and the mauls. Rugby league is sort of rugby union with all the…
George: Boring bits taken out. Each to their own, but with your set piece bits, you just need to be a six-foot-four farmer to do well, and obviously not all of us can be tall, can we?

With it being quicker and more technical, is league worse for injuries?
George: I think it’s the same. Any contact sport has injuries.
Richard: Another difference between the codes is that the scrum doesn’t play a major part in league and scrums in rugby union, particularly at lower level, are quite dangerous. You hear of people breaking their necks and scrums collapsing, but you don’t tend to get that in league.
George: With playing in the summer, the hard ground means you don’t have any skin on your knees and elbows.

How long have the Outlaws been around?
George: Since 1999 as the Outlaws, but rugby league has been played in Nottingham since… Well I think there was an England game in 1900-and-something wasn’t there? But in terms of community rugby league, it’s thirty years this year. We’re celebrating that at the moment with Project 30, and we’ve got a heritage night on 7 June, so we’re hoping to raise money to get our own ground at some point. We’re under no illusions, it could take ten years to get a ground, but once you’ve got your own space, bricks and mortar, you’ve got something to build from. I want to be an old guy propping the bar up and talking about how great I was at rugby. I just want somewhere to hang around. We are about two years away from having players that have got kids that’ll start playing. I think it’s a massive thing when you get generations playing, and that’s what you get in the north, several generations at the same club.

You’ve been at Harvey Hadden, right?
George: They’re doing a multi-million pound redevelopment of that so we’re at Highfields at the moment, but we’re not really committed to anywhere.

What sort of crowds are you getting at the moment?
Richard: Our first team get around a couple of hundred people down on a nice day, and we might get more if it’s a big game. Having a home would make a big difference to us, at the moment we’ve still got people going to Harvey Hadden, saying “where are you?”. As part of Project 30 we’re doing a souvenir brochure, and we’ve listed some of the grounds we’ve played at. We’re up to about fifteen different venues in thirty years, everywhere from right up in the north of the city out to Keyworth, across to Basford and Beeston. We’ve played all over.

Nottingham is such a big student city, but with rugby league being a summer sport do you feel the benefits of that?
We’ve got really good links with the universities’. This year both the university’s teams are being coached by people from our club. I’m ex-Trent, and we’re usually about 80% ex-Trent. The club was started by ex-Trent students who stayed here and wanted to carry on playing, so actually it helps. For a lot of people playing league, maybe Nottingham is a better city than where they’ve come from. I didn’t want to go back to Blackpool, so I stayed here.

Nottingham has a pretty intense sporting rivalry with Derby. Is that replicated in rugby league?
Leicester are probably our current local rivals at our level, and we beat them in the first game of the season. Previously the big rival was Coventry, we’re in separate divisions now but we had some real battles with them over the last ten years.
George: Derby City probably hate us more than we hate them. There’s a new team starting in Mansfield, so hopefully that’ll build up because it’s good to have a few rivalries. I agree Leicester is our closest game, and we lost the grand final to Sheffield last year. This sounds like we hate everyone...

Rugby has always had a reputation for being a boozy sport. Is that true?
George: We have some good drinkers and some poor drinkers. I’d put myself in the poor drinker category, but I’m a trier. We travel all over the country – so there are those big bus trips… Put twenty lads on a coach and it’s going to get silly.
Richard: Yeah, those trips down to the south-west. You’re looking at three-plus hours on the coach but they’re good fun. Oh, do you remember going down to Somerset when the coach caught fire?
George: Yeah! You have loads of those classic bits. The main thing on away trips has to be Rich Johnson’s bingo on the way down.
Richard: The lads are mad for the bingo – people have lucky seats, lucky dabbers and everything.

If you were to take on Nottingham Rugby Club, and play one half under union rules and one half under league rules, who would win?
They get paid so you’d really hope they’d win. If they didn’t then someone is spending a lot of money on nothing.

Nottingham Outlaws play home matches against Leicester Storm on 7 June and Bristol Sonics on 28 June at Highfields Park.

Nottingham Outlaws Ruby League website

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