James Shanahan. The Blackheath Renaissance

I write after our unfortunate relegation into National 2. That’s a hard thing to write. I’m sure for all supporters, sponsors, committee members it’s been a tough watch. It’s also tough for the players and coaches too. I’ve been numb for most of the last couple of weeks… the what if’s.

16 losing bonus points is hard to take – the so close too often. “Why?” you may ask. Haven’t we all. Was it lack of experience, lack of fitness, lack of clarity, lack of ability? Probably a combination of all of those important features BUT what I can say, hand on heart, is that the squad never gave up. My coaching team gave every ounce to the preparation. The team fought for everything, showed they cared. Sometimes that may not have been felt, and as a supporter you are entitled to that opinion and that’s ok. But to pick yourself up when 18 of your teammates left with 5 weeks to the season start; to pick yourself up when you came so close having given it everything; to keep turning up and feeling the hurt of a loss is a huge ask when in fact the whole world has been picking themselves up and dusting off after a really crazy two years. We are all mentally exhausted. But, actually, I think the team grew in mental toughness, something that we struggled with in previous seasons and yet finished in the top 5 consistently; it’s something we need to learn and carry into next year.

Losing so many players over the Covid period hurt us a lot, trying to manage an ever-changing employee market in the Covid period was a challenging process. Budget cuts across the board hurt us a lot but the club couldn’t risk overspending coming out of a pandemic: many clubs we know have overspent and then disappeared (I don’t need to mention our neighbours). The Committee had to make decisions to preserve the club and, sadly, that didn’t mean we could entirely preserve our mature squad.

You look at the top half of National 1 and those squads were settled, with minimum recruitment or loss of players. It takes time to build. I arrived at Blackheath and since then we have been a Top 5 team, keeping the same players and adding where needed. With all the new players who turned up in August we were behind the ball and playing catch up, which we never quite did. People will say you have nearly 40 weeks, which sounds a long time to get things right – this is true. But when you really break it down, it’s 3 hours a week, and that’s only 120 hours in a season. That’s 5 days!

We know where we stand now, we still had to grapple with an uncertain fate during player re-signing periods towards the end of the season but we are now on solid ground. Recruitment and retainment are key: the club are working hard with me to get the right people in place. So far, retainment and recruitment is going well and we believe the squad is already stronger than last season.

Next season is all about the ‘The Rebirth’ – The Renaissance. Yes, we have gone down but we are still here to fight another day. I know the whole club is hurting, a cut that won’t stop bleeding. But we as a club must look forward. We take heart and inspiration in what Caldy achieved this year: back-to-back promotions after being relegated into National 2. I know it won’t be easy – nothing ever is, if it means something. And this means something.

I’m a quiet man away from the game but I’m extremely passionate about rugby (hopefully you read my piece ‘My Life in Rugby’ ). I take defeats very personally and I’m the first person that will look at what, how and why I prepared the team that week. Unfortunately, the wins – which I know weren’t enough this year – I never really seem to enjoy: I move on to the next game. What’s next? How do we prepare for next week? As coach, as a team, as a club we need to enjoy the wins. Those magical moments like the win against Rosslyn Park. I know the players new and old said they had never felt that kind of buzz during the game and after. We need more of those games. A game that players and supporters feel part of, that they help to achieve that win.

That’s why one of our focus areas in the new season will be to get a closer connection between the squad and the supporters which, at times, gets lost. To help you feel more part of the efforts that people make and that the players also fight as much for the supporters as they do their teammates. We need to build a really good culture across the whole club – minis, juniors, women, Bandits, and 1st XV. I know we can do that over the next 12 months.

Our goal is to get back to National 1 as quickly as possible and beyond. We know it’s a huge challenge but what a challenge, and one we can’t wait to start.


James Shanahan

Head Coach, Blackheath Rugby