More than a few Celtic League sides have been disbanded over the years

What it’s like to… See your rugby team go extinct

It felt like taunting fate when the Southern Kings were bailed out financially by The Greatest Rugby Company in the Whole Wide World (Pty) Ltd (GRC) last year. Could selling a hefty 74% stake in the Guinness Pro14 side to the less-than-modestly named business consortium safeguard the future of an outfit with a history of struggles?

By the time Covid-10 got its teeth into the professional game, we had the answer. In June, SA Rugby resumed control of the Kings after GRC failed to honour its contractual commitments. In August, the Kings suspended all rugby activities. In September, the company that trades as the Kings went into voluntary liquidation.

Teams going out of existence ain’t new in this league. Many good people and fine players have felt the sting. For example, while rattling off a list of former Aironi team-mates, George Biagi initially forgets that Sinoti Sinoti, the Samoan with sewing-machine feet, was part of the set-up there, before quickly texting back with a shock emoji. It was a decent side the Italians had in Lombardy, between 2010 and 2012.

Biagi says: “If you look at the squad, in the forwards we had the likes of Nick Williams, Gareth Krause, Mauro Bergamasco, Carlo del Fava, Quintin Geldenhuys, Marco Bortolami, Fabio Ongaro, Salvatore Perugini… In the backs we had Tyson Keats and James Marshall to name a few. I think if you’d given us probably a bit more time, keeping that squad together and young players coming through, we could have achieved a lot.”

See your rugby team go extinct

Forza: Andrea Masi for Aironi (Getty Images)

For the lock it was a big step up from Italy’s Eccellenza into the Celtic league. He relished the jump but got a big setback when contracting mumps orchitis. He was hospitalised for a few weeks, and the pain and swelling in his testicles meant that it would be three or four months before he could return to action. He came back just as things were looking financially untenable.

“The club guaranteed us that everything was going to be fine, that they were going to find the money (to keep operating),” Biagi tells of the end. “And the players in general were all very professional – as professional as they could be. You just get on with the work.

“It came towards the end of the season and you just realised at the last few games that it was over, but you were hoping everything was going to be okay.

“We were all a bit disillusioned when it all went sideways all of a sudden, and everyone was then looking for clubs, for somewhere else to go.”

It was unquestionably tough slogging on when wages seemed to disappear and everyone was advised to simply crack on and hope it would get sorted. At times like this, senior players like Bortolami showed their worth.

Biagi appreciates the leg-up that signing for the club gave him. Zebre would eventually come into being, but the lock would go on to sample life in the English Championship with Bristol, in due course working his way into the Italy team too.

See your rugby team go extinct

Tough time: The Southern Kings (Inpho)

There are some elements of the Aironi story that will be familiar for those who saw the Celtic Warriors, the ill-fated Welsh outfit that lasted one season, from 2003 to 2004.

Talking to The Independent back in 2005, hooker Mefin Davies said of the adventure with the Valleys outfit: “Huge sacrifices had been made to create a new identity, and the Warriors were gelling into something very good. We had beaten Wasps away, we had qualified for the Heineken Cup and we won our last six games.

“The Celtic Warriors boys were told to attend a meeting (at a Welsh national squad meet-up that summer) and we didn’t have a clue what it was about. We were told the Welsh Rugby Union had bought an interest in the club but that the Warriors would continue. We weren’t sure what to believe.

“It soon became clear that the Warriors would be sacrificed. The other regions chipped in to finish us off. They weren’t the ones being shafted. They would get more money and the pick of the Warriors squad.”

There is no way to make it feel alright, getting the bullet. When the Border Reivers were disbanded in 2007, they received the gut punch with a string of competitive matches still lying ahead.

Former Scotland captain Chris Cusiter tells Rugby World of the time: “When they announced the decision, two of the ladies from the office started crying. It was quite upsetting.

“I had found out the night before. I received a call from somebody on the SRU board. I assume I wasn’t the only one. Some of us were given the option of moving clubs, to either Edinburgh or Glasgow. Others weren’t. It was a brutal way to do it but I suppose the only way.

See your rugby team go extinct

Pass marks: Chris Cusiter with the Borders (Inpho)

“I think it’s fair to say that`for the rest of the season, there was a large drop in motivation for the group. There was literally no future for us. We were already bottom of the league. Some players were playing their last games of professional rugby ever and others were moving on to other clubs.

“For those of the group that were still young and ambitious, the weights and fitness continued to be taken seriously.  I do remember one young lad getting shouted at for lifting his weights and getting in the way of some of the others who were involved in an intense game of football tennis in the gym.”

For the scrum-half, there was frustration at going out with a whimper. He had fond memories, playing his first four years as a pro there, getting capped through play at the Borders, becoming a British & Irish Lion while with them. Then he saw days get shorter, while tempers frayed in some sessions.

It was Scotland coach Gregor Townsend’s last-ever season as a player. Some would never see professional rugby again. The end-of-season ‘party’, as Cusiter calls it, was certainly emotional.

Yet tales of the passing of a club rarely linger. Sport moves on quickly.

This article originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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