The pandemic has been a difficult time for all sports and none more so than the game of rugby union.
Scrums and mauls do not sit easily with social distancing and with these aspects of the game outlawed beneath the fully professional level, where protective bubbles have been in place, all competitive rugby has been suspended since 14th March 2020.
Blackheath did manage one game, under the so-called ‘adapted laws’, a social match against Askeans on 19th December, and an event which made national news, such was its rarity (and would have been cancelled had it been scheduled a few hours later as further restrictions were imposed).
‘Relief’ was therefore James Shanahan’s overriding emotion as his Blackheath squad returned to training at Well Hall in prospect of a full National League One season from September, and all limitations on full contact were lifted on 19th July.
‘It’s good to be back,’ said the Club’s head coach. ‘Trying to get back to normal, whatever that’s going to mean, and seeing everybody again.’
Not that Shanahan will actually be seeing everyone again. Sixteen months is a long time in the life of a young sportsperson, and sixteen of the squad who finished fifth in the truncated 2019/20 campaign have departed Well Hall either through retirement or moves to other clubs.
‘I expected a few to go anyway, but it’s a little frustrating as I felt we had the personnel to really make the push for promotion in 2020/21.’
‘However, we’re into a new era now. We’ve recruited heavily, with some twenty-six new players arriving, and I’m looking forward to building again. It’ll take a little while to gel but we’ll be very competitive.’
And whereas usually one has insight into where the strong challenges will come from, this season holds a lot of uncertainty.
‘I’ve honestly no idea about other sides,’ continued Shanners. ‘Rosslyn Park have recruited strongly and I suspect Rams will be up there, but we’re going into the unknown.’
‘All I’m really interested in is focusing on what we’re doing and performing as well as we can.’
Blackheath will warm up for their 2021/22 campaign with three matches, starting with Carmarthen Quins at Well Hall this Saturday at 3 pm, followed by Esher away on 21st and a 7.45 pm kick-off on Friday 27th August at home against Chinnor. Entry is free for both home fixtures.
National League One begins on 4th September with a home tie against Cinderford.