To paraphrase a cliche, Southampton RFC's men's teams had a season of two halves in 2016-17. At the end of the 2015-16 season the Head Coach left the club following a few players, who were part of the 'core' of the team, also deciding to leave (for a range of reasons) the club was left with only a small number of committed players. Most of the pre season was spent playing touch rugby.
The first game of the season was probably as perfect a demonstration as possible of the club's status at the time - there was no captain, only 15 players available which including people turning up late and Club legend, but well past his playing days, Mark Mauger having to play 80 minutes at prop, as well as an administrative error leading to the forfeiting of the game (after a victory over Reigate in the cup).
A new coaching team of Tom Morton and forwards coach Sheridan Easton were appointed, both with vast experience and a long history of success, but were working with a depleted squad as well as juggling the Southampton Solent student team at the same time. An embarrassing 14 man (with one man playing with a broken hand) 0-60 odd point Hampshire cup loss to Overton was followed by an uncompetitive start to the league season. SRFC were leaking tries and had very little to offer in attack.
The new game plan was being drilled into the players and was beginning to be used, but it was clear the team lacked key players in the play making roles. This was shown when SRFC travelled to Overton for the third time in 9 months, with a handful of further injuries and unavailable players and lost 0-104. In the three games in 2016 Overton had put 200+ points on SRFC and not conceded a single point back. This was a turning point and would be long remembered by the entire club.
A change in recruitment strategies, with Tom Morton coming in to play Fly Half and the student team being heavily encouraged to join the Saturday side for added experience led to a far stronger SRFC lining up to beat Southsea Nomads 22-3. A demolition of Kingslere and a bonus point win at home to Lymington Mariners followed. The mood around the club changed and suddenly the numbers at training increased again.
The second key moment of the season was the 9-22 loss away at (eventually league winners) Alresford. Alresford were a huge size that dwarfed SRFC but the fact SRFC kept the game so close (9-15 until the last minute) was proof that they could compete with the best. The game plan was finally being used successfully in matches. This improvement was backed-up with a very resounding 80-5 home win over Aldershot to end the year on a high.
2017 started with a poor performance against Alton losing 0-22. Key players were still away on their Christmas breaks and the team was a bit lost without them. However, it showed how far the club had come in a few months as it was a far better performance than earlier in the season. With a full strength team SRFC went and put in their first big 'shock result' of the season by beating Fawley comprehensively 24-5 away from home.
This was the perfect result to build the team up for a two week gap before Overton made the trip to Test Park. The humiliation of the previous three results, with ever increasing margins, was motivation at each and every training session since that game.
Ominously, Overton took to the pitch 90 mins before the game and appeared to be conducting a training session - fortunately SRFC had been training twice a week all season and all knew their roles within the game plan so decided to spend more time talking tactics and less time having to practice it. The match report speaks for itself, but SRFC put their bodies on the line and got the result they so desperately wanted. 20-12 to SRFC and some of the demons were buried.
After the high of the Overton game, and the student season restarting (which they eventually won promotion in) which took priority at training, there seemed to be a slight drop in desire from the players. Promotion was not achievable, so maybe players started thinking about summer too early. The only positive was that recruitment increased and even the second team started to get more and more games, even on days when the first team were also playing. Getting 36+ players out on multiple weekends was a huge achievement by the club considering they struggled to get 15 for the first cup game.
SRFC ended the season with a very enjoyable 62-7 beating of Locksheath - who had beaten SRFC 64-14 on the first day of the season. This was a nice mirror to finish the season on.
After the 0-104 loss to Overton, the club won 9/12 games (which would have been 10/13 had Kingslere not left the league). The club finished 5th (out of 10) but showed that they can compete with the best and certainly expect to be at the top of the table in 2017/18.
Updated 11:20 - 25 Sep 2017 by Kenny Baughan