A Potted History of Thornbury RFC
Rugby was played in Thornbury back in Victorian times but the club struggled to survive and eventually folded in the late nineteenth century. Thornbury Rugby Club as it is today was founded in 1963 by a handful of rugby enthusiasts working on major engineering projects in the north Bristol area. With no obvious local club to play for the original members, which included the father of future England international Simon Hodgkinson, decided to form their own and after advertising for players in the local newspaper played their first games in September 1963.
The first home game was a 9-9 draw with Whitehall played on the Mundy Playing Fields. The club continued to play there until in 1965 when they secured a loan to buy land at Cooper’s Farm on the northern outskirts of the town. It has remained the very happy home of the club ever since. The major construction works also brought in former Wales international Gareth Payne into the neighbourhood and he played in the second row during the 1964/65 season. In the early years of the club the playing side was built around the mercurial John Broad, the former Bristol and Gloucestershire player who was an enormous influence off and on the rugby field.
Thornbury, as with all clubs in the Bristol Combination, serve as a feeder club for Bristol with several players cutting their teeth at Cooper’s Farm before playing for Bristol. Arguably, the most notable of these was Phil Cue, who played senior rugby for Thornbury when still at school before joining Bristol in the mid-1970s and becoming one of the most popular Bristol players of his era, and latterly for Bath.
Thorns have had several players play international rugby at schools level but it was fittingly in the club’s fiftieth season that one went the extra step and gained a full England senior cap. When Saracens prop Mako Vunipola ran on to Twickenham as a replacement for England against Fiji in 2012 he became the first player to have come through the junior section of the club to play at the highest level for England. However, it was Rhys Oakley who was the first full international from Thornbury RFC. He played for Thornbury before joining Bristol and subsequently being capped twice for Wales in 2003. Former Connacht and Ireland squad centre Darren Yapp began his playing career at Thornbury, whilst Billy Vunipola, younger brother of Mako, is in the Wasps squad and tipped for the top as well. Before joining Saracens Mako played regularly for Bristol alongside Wayne Thompson, who is also a former Thornbury player. Roz Lambe represented England Ladies from the Thornbury club and Rhiannon Parker played for England U-20s.
Thornbury remains a popular social sporting club. They field three senior sides, Colts and an occasional veterans side. In addition, Thornbury has a thriving junior section which fields teams from 7 to under-18. Thornbury were one of first clubs in England to have Level Two Seal of Approval status from the RFU for their development of rugby at a junior level. It is remarkable to see so many children having fun playing rugby on Sunday mornings at the club. The club is now striving for the Whole Club Seal of Approval.
Thornbury played in the Gloucestershire and Western Counties leagues from their introduction. They won Gloucester Premier in 2000/01 and were promoted from Western Counties North to South West Two in 2003 but chose to stand by their ethos of not paying players and after a tough but enjoyable season they dropped down a level. However, Thornbury are a forward-looking club with realistic ambitions.
In 2008/09 Thornbury had a mixed season but made the rugby headlines by becoming the first side in over four years to defeat the seemingly invincible Hartpury College league team. At the end of the season former Wales international and captain Gareth Llewellyn joined the club as head coach. In his first season Thornbury narrowly missed out on promotion but in 2010/11 they went one stage further and following a rousing 54-7 play-off win over Devon side Kingsbridge Thornbury gained their deserved promotion to South West One West.
The 2011/12 season saw the arrival of Rob Higgitt, a former professional player with Bristol, the Scarlets and Worcester, who fulfilled the dual role of player coach. Thornbury survived an enjoyable first season in South West One West, the season beginning with a sensational 54-44 home win over eventual champions Brixham and ending with the club’s first appearance in a Bristol Combination Cup Final. Although Thorns lost 23-15 to Avonmouth they defeated National League side Clifton 8-3 win in the semi-final in what was described as the biggest shock in the history of the Combination Cup.
In 2007 founder member Iva Hall stepped down after 44 years as Honorary Treasurer, but continues to run the touchline for the club, a role he continues to perform despite being an octogenarian. He has also made a huge contribution to the club’s fundraising activities, a role he also continues.
Iva will be looking to run the line again during 2012/13, which is Thornbury’s Fiftieth season, and a full year of events off and on the field are planned to make it another memorable period in the club’s history.