BY MICHAEL WHITFIELD
The year started so normally didn’t it?
In a dreadful year for so many, Barnes RFC reached new heights of spirit and community and I could not be prouder as Chairman
This time last year, like many of you, I was, looking forward to 2020, with all of the normal rugby we excepted back then. The second half of the season started for the Men’s 1st XV, as it has done for over a decade, with the Annual Vets Lunch in January, where more than 150 of us gathered to remember (well those who still could remember) our illustrious playing days, with Mark Durden-Smith again expertly running the lunch, and taking no prisoners.
As we laughed, hugged and made merry, little did we know of the awful perils that lay less than two months away. I returned to Cape Town a happy Chairman, looking forward to my second honeymoon with Mrs Rhino.
Then along came a spider, or was it a bat?
The day before we were due to depart, my life changed pretty radically, when I was admitted to hospital for what, at first, seemed to be a fairly straightforward gall bladder procedure. Fourteen days, and two long and complex operations later, the good news was that I no longer had my gall bladder, but that bad news was that in its place I now had cancer, not the late Christmas present I was expecting!
As the world found out that Wuhan was a city in China, with a population the same size as London, and we all became experts about COVID-19, I managed to recover sufficiently from my surgery to get on a plane back to the UK, a week before the world-famous Barnes City Lunch on 13th March.
The Barnes RFC City Lunch
Whilst it was clear that this was no ordinary illness, and the word pandemic, was on everyone’s lips, we still managed to have over 350 people attend our lunch, which was almost certainly the last rugby lunch of the year, coming as it did just ten days before the first lockdown. There was no social distancing, no masks, but buckets of gallows humour, underpinned with an eerie, and pervasive, realisation by all those present that our lives were about to change forever.
We were blessed that day to have the amazing Martin Bayfield hosting the event, his acerbic wit to the fore as ever, and he was supported by our guest speaker, Joe Roff, who played 86 times for Australia before teaming up with Barnes 1st XV legendary Captain, Rich Matthews, to play in the 2006 Varsity match. Still disappointingly suave and handsome (Joe not Rich!) everyone immediately fell in love with big Joe, who had us in stitches as he regaled us with his many rugby stories. He will always be welcomed back by the Barnow massif!
Honouring the memory of Garry Garrett
We were also blessed to have Garry Garrett at the lunch, less than a month before COVID so cruelly took him from his family, his friends, and Barnes RFC. Garry, and his wife Yolanda, were ever-present at Barnes 1st XV games, irrespective of whether Jack, their son, was selected at hooker or not. Garry’s passing was obviously horrific and distressing for his family, and for those at the club that knew him well, but it also proved to be the inspiration for 1000’s of people, not just in the UK but globally too, to embrace the Barnes RFC Big Lift.
After competitive rugby finished prematurely for the club in March, as a club we wanted to make sure we all stayed in touch throughout the lockdown, ensuring that where we were able that we could help support each other, and those less fortunate than us. As we sought ideas to keep the club together, several ideas came from the ranks of the core club volunteers, and the one that stood out was the Barnes RFC Big Lift. The idea came from 1st XV squad legend, Adam Libbey: “let’s lift 1 million kgs above our heads, and raise £10,000 for the NHS, and all to honour the memory of Garry Garrett”.
It was a brilliantly simple idea, with everybody in the club able to take part, from Under 5’s lifting cans of peas, to the strong young 1st XV Men and Women of Barnow pumping large poundage of iron, but still…. 1 million kgs? And £10,000 too? It seemed such a big ask, but cometh the hour, cometh the Barnow.
With the day of the Big Lift set for 2nd May, there was the small matter of only seven days to organise it in!
We quickly formed a fighting force of five intrepid souls, led by the Colonel, Adam Libbey himself. Almost instantly, the idea took off, firstly throughout the entire Barnes RFC community (both home and abroad), then local clubs, national clubs and we harnessed the support of over 100 new and old rugby professionals, including most of the current England squad, thanks to Jamie George and Danny Care’s persuasive powers (Jamie having played with Jack Garrett at Bishop Stortford RFC when they were both youngsters).
In many respects it was a perfect storm. Everyone was frustrated by being stuck at home with the lockdown, the voice of the rugby community had not yet been heard in the pandemic, rugby people wanted to show their love for Garry, and their support for the Garrett family and the NHS and, of course, the weather on the day was sunny and warm.
But no one anticipated that over 4000 people would take part, all over the world, and that we would raise over £160,000 and lift over 8 million kgs! From celebs and rugby pros to the local vicar and a 90-year-old grandma, the Big Lift gripped everyone, even Sky News and ITV!
It was a very fitting way for us all to honour Garry and the NHS, and to show Yolanda, and her two children Jack and Verity, how much we respected Garry and missed him too. With the Owen Slot article that appeared on Monday 4th May in the Times also all about Garry, we hope that Barnes RFC were able to give the entire Garrett family some solace and happy memories to look back on.
From my personal perspective, it was without doubt one of the most humbling and amazing experiences of my life. It demonstrated not just the incredible spirit of the rugby community per se, but also the absolutely stunning way that the whole Barnes RFC community rallied round and demonstrated yet again what a very special club we really are. It was quite overwhelming, and moved me to many tears, on more than one occasion.
I want to say again, a massive thank you to all of you that took part, that helped make it happen and that donated.
When we are able, there will be one hell of a shindig at the clubhouse so we can celebrate this astonishing achievement. Here is a little memory of the day: https://youtu.be/iLyz0Luf8oc
Whist the Big Lift stole the headlines, it also provided incredible momentum and va va voom for the whole of the club for the rest of this troubled year.
We achieved so much, but it is not until you actually write it all down and then take a step back that you can fully appreciate the efforts made by all sections of the club, across all age groups.
A year of massive Barnow achievement in the face of massive adversity
Whilst the Big Lift was the show stealer, it has become abundantly clear that we are so much more than a one trick pony, so here are some of the other things we achieved as a club and some individuals within the club achieved in their own right:
• Hot on the heels of the Big Lift, our beloved clubhouse manager Zoe Rand, and mum Abby, cooked 100’s of hot meals for the resident front line health care workers at Queen Mary’s twice a week for three months.
- In May we also embraced the Zoom revolution by holding our AGM virtually, over 120 people attended, well over five times the amount who come when it is live in the clubhouse!
• Once the lockdown was lifted socially distanced training started for the men and women on a Saturday morning – expertly marshalled by Joe Gray, Jack Heald, Chris Browne, Chris and Tommy Bell and of course the relentless Paul Spencer!
• Hand in hand with training started, Zoe and Dave Doonan and Kenny Worrall, ably supported by the logistics king Si Givens, got the clubhouse into a COVID-compliant state and boy did we rock and roll for several super Saturdays in the summer, table service from Team Zoe and Bacon and Bubba burgers from our two North American tong twizzlers on the barbie.
• Soon Wednesday night weight sessions were added, and we even played the inaugural Barnes RFC cricket match, and a game of volleyball!
- In July we held our first Zoom Rugby panel, over 250 of you listened as our distinguished guests, RFU CEO Bill Sweeney and England hooker Jamie George, were joined by our own Joe Gray and Kirsty Openshaw for a fascinating discussion which covered everything from the pandemic and rugby to Black Lives Matter in rugby.
• In September we saw the return of hordes of Minis and Juniors, and record number of new players and triallists signed up, over 550 in total! This is a massive testament to the powerhouses that drive the Minis and Juniors: Chris Williams, Jason Betteley, Peter Thomas and Andy Beaver, along with all of the droves of dedicated home grown Barnow coaches. You are a very special cohort of rugby people. Special mention here also to Jack Heald and Cameron Ruddock for their coaching support.
• Also in September, we joined in the Nat West Club Clean Up weekend, over 90 people mucked in to clean, tidy and paint inside and outside the clubhouse, first time we have ever done this and so many new people volunteered – which is what it is all about
• September actually proved to be our busiest rugby month, with the RFU introducing a new version of rugby, called Ready4Rugby, a cross between touch and sevens, Men, Women and the Minis and Juniors all took part, we played Richmond, Rosslyn Park and held a special Ready4Rugby day at the club with all sections playing in mixed teams, the RFU filmed it and we were honoured by the presence of next year’s RFU President, Nigel Gillingham, who drove all the way up from Stroud to be with us – a great day all round culminating in yet another mega barbie and a few quiet beers with the Garrett clan – Yolanda, kids and grandkids – all in attendance.
This is the RFU’s video of the day: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=TKwhG2ifEBY
• Just as we were getting going again the proverbial doo doo hit the fan and, hey presto, we were back in lockdown as Winter approached. There was nothing to warm our cockles – but then along came the news that our illustrious Women’s Head Coach Kirsty Openshaw not only qualified as a fully fledged firefighter but she and Bex also got engaged.
• On Remembrance Sunday, Adam Libbey was at it again, with his 11:11 challenge. Libs called on the Barnow faithful to do something with the number 11 in it Walking, running or cycling 11kms were the most popular things done. The objective was to raise a modest £1000 but, as always, Barnow exceeded the odds and he actually raised over £5,500 for the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal – Adam Libbey for PM perhaps?
• In late November we were all incredibly proud of Zainab Alema – known universally in rugby circles as Zee, who won the Sunday Times and Vitality Grassroots Sportswoman of the Year. She has set a brilliant standard for others to aspire to, as a rugby playing mum of three, a Muslim and fund raiser for her Ghanaian Studs in the Mud charity – oh and have I mentioned her full time role as a neonatal nurse? Quite an amazing human our Zee!
• As I type this, ex-Minis Captain at Barnes RFC, Calum Barclay, is almost halfway through rowing 3000 miles across the Atlantic with three other guys. They are looking to raise £100,000 to help fund four schools in Nepal. At the moment Calum’s boat is fighting tooth and nail for second place, an extraordinary achievement for an inexperienced team.
• And the final word of 2020 once again goes to the Minis and Junior section of our wonderful club. No sooner had the Christmas puds cooled down, and the blow up Santas starting deflating, than the Minis and Juniors first ever Winter Rugby camp kicked off, all again fully COVID compliant and socially distanced for maximum protection. 110 youngsters have taken part each day, with nine coaches, led by Cameron Ruddock, directing the proceedings. The camp finished with an exclusive Girl players day, with over 120 girls taking part. This commitment and energy tells you all you need to know about Minis and Juniors rugby at Barnes RFC, it is in the rudest of health!
The end of the beginning – or is it the beginning of the end?
So what a year that was, there was very little competitive rugby as we know it, but what there was we embraced fully, with total Barnow commitment and joie de vivre, as you might expect.
But it was off the field that our true Barnow green and gold hearts beat the strongest.
In such a terrible year I think we have shown our best side, both in the community and further afiled, our actions speak volumes for the character of Barnes RFC. I am always proud to lead our club bur this year I think we have surpassed ourselves in what we have done together.
It sets an incredibly high bar for next year, but one I know we will rise to the challenge of, whatever live throws at us.
We simply can’t run this club without your love, care and hard graft. So whether you wash the kit, sanitise the balls, take the photos, coach the kids, or just turn up and support when asked, thank you to all of you from the bottom of my heart.
May I take this opportunity to thank the many of you who help the club, overtly or covertly, who I may not have already specifically called out in this piece.
We can only hope that this pandemic recedes, and that we can all happily and healthily resume our personal lives, and our rugby lives, at Barnes RFC – the most amazing rugby club in the universe!
For me personally, my little battle with cancer continues and, whilst the fight goes on, I am heading in the right direction.
Onwards and upwards, and all the very best to you all for 2021.
Michael “Rhino” Whitfield – Chairman Barnes RFC – December 29th 2020