While we all eagerly await news of when rugby might return to Coombe Lane, we thought this would be a good time to catch up with OWRFC First XV Captain James Howell, almost exactly one year after he was first appointed in the role, to see how he found his first season at the helm.
After the 2019/20 season was cut short due to the lockdown in the UK, it’s difficult to predict when it will be safe to begin playing rugby again. But James is already thinking about what kind of preparation will be required of the squad heading into the next season, whenever that does arrive.
We spoke to James and asked him to reflect on his first year leading the side, to tell us what he’s learned from the experience, and to share his thoughts on what our supporters can expect to see from the OWs next season. Read on for the full interview.
When we spoke to you last summer, you said this 2019/20 season was all about bouncing back from a particularly bad year previously. Do you think the squad achieved that?
Yeah I definitely feel the squad achieved that, and more. This season wasn’t without its low points, but that’s just the nature of the sport really. But looking back on the last year or so, we saw a massive improvement.
The arrival of a new Director of Rugby, Gabriel Enright, really gave the squad the kick-start it needed last summer and we got off to a good start with a few wins under our belt early on.
The most important thing that came out of this season on the field was an improved structure of play with a bit more direction. Our defence was also outstanding throughout most of the year. There are still plenty of things to work on moving forward, but we’ve definitely built a great platform which will allow us to continue to improve for the coming season whenever it arrives.
There were plenty of new faces turning out for the First XV this season. What sort of impact did the new recruits have, both on and off the pitch?
It’s always good to have new guys coming in that bring different qualities to the squad. The OWs is an open-to-all club and this past season we welcomed guys straight from Wimbledon College, some Aussies and Kiwis who had just moved over looking for a place to play some rugby, as well as a few other guys. On and off the field the new guys have brought great energy and commitment.
For example Cameron Thurtell, our youngest new recruit fresh from Wimbledon College, brought plenty of physicality and is definitely one to look out for next season. Also Richard Hutton, our resident doctor, has also been a valuable addition to the squad this season, showing his versatility between the back row and centres.
What was the highlight of the season for you personally?
It was a miserable day in terms of the weather, but our home win against old rivals Cranleigh stands out as our best performance of the season. We played some very good rugby in terrible conditions, but we also showed great control and resilience to see out the match comfortably against a tough side who ultimately finished a few places above us in the table.
This was my first game back for a while as I had been out with an injury, and I was so proud to come back and lead the boys to such a memorable victory that day.
What was the most important lesson you learned in your first season as captain? How do you plan to apply that moving forward?
I’ve found that behind the scenes it requires a lot more organisation than I realised. I often say it can be like herding cats! I can definitely improve to be a bit more organised myself, which should make things slightly easier moving forward and will also help the team.
On the pitch I personally believe leading by example is incredibly important for a captain, which was something my predecessor Rory Southgate did so well. I’ll be working hard to continue to do this and help facilitate the team to play as well as possible every week.
What are the biggest positives from this season that you can take into the next league campaign?
I've been really happy this past season with how well we’ve steadied the ship, so to speak. We've put in place the right people across the club, both on and off the field, to hit the ground running next season.
Our game plan and structure have improved no end, so I’m really looking forward to developing that even further. Off the field, I think we’ve seen how beneficial it is to have some fresh young players joining our squad, so I want to make sure we’re doing all we can to boost our recruitment as well. This will enable us to realise one of the club’s major goals, which is to start consistently getting a Second XV out.
Because of lockdown, this will be a much longer off-season than usual. What sort of qualities are you looking for from your squad when they eventually return to training?
A bit of fitness wouldn’t go amiss… It’s always easy to let yourself go a bit over the summer! All jokes aside, though, being a smaller side physically than most teams we come up against in Surrey 2, speed and fitness round the park is something we rely on to give us an edge over our opponents. Hopefully, guidelines permitting, the squad can get together for some summer touch sessions soon, which are always a fun way to sharpen up your skills and build fitness.
What are you most looking forward to about getting back to playing rugby again when it’s safe?
I’m really looking forward to getting back to the buzz of the club house and seeing all the boys again. The OWs is a really special club with a unique community-like culture, so I’m sure the atmosphere will be amazing at Coombe Lane once rugby returns after a longer off-season than usual. I have high hopes for next season and I’m mainly just looking forward to getting started!
Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share?
I’d also just like to say a personal thank you to everyone who has been involved across the club, including the First XV, the Warriors, and the wider OWA, for their outstanding contributions to helping the local community during the pandemic.
Through the community action project that's been going on, the Old Wimbledonians has been supporting key-workers and vulnerable people in our local area with warm meals, food donations, and other supplies during lockdown. They've exemplified the values of our club and shown the power of the OWA community spirit in this testing time.
Help James Raise Money for a Very Important Cause!
James, alongside 10 more of our First XV players, will be taking part in a mammoth day of cycling on Saturday, July 4, to raise money for the charity CALM, and to raise awareness for mental health and suicide prevention.
They’ll be cycling to 18 different sporting venues all across London in one day (roughly 130km), and they’d greatly appreciate any donations made to this important cause. If you’d like to contribute, please visit their JustGiving page here. Thanks!