You could forgive Buxton Bulls Rugby League Club for behaving like shrinking violets, cowering in the shadow of their rugby union counterparts.
After all, the town’s Stags have just enjoyed a terrific season, reaching a Twickenham final, lifting the Derbyshire Shield and romping to a National League divisional title by 20 points after a flawless, unbeaten record of 18 wins out of 18. What’s more, rugby league has always been the poor relation of the winter code in the Derbyshire area.
However, talk to the Bulls’ optimistic chairman, Roy Belton, and you get a very different picture. One of a club determined to shrug off the worst season yet in their brief history and confident of going from strength to strength.
“We started from nothing,” Belton reminds us. “No money, no team, no home, no kit. And yet in only three years, we have established ourselves.
“Yes, we are going through a bad season at the moment, but all teams do at some stage. I am a Manchester United supporter, so I’m well aware that clubs can have lean times! I was also brought up in Warrington, who have not won the league title for about 50 years, but it is still a passionate rugby league town.”
Passionate is also the best way to describe Belton, who set up the Bulls in 2014, along with fellow rugby league enthusiasts Tommy McGuigan and Grant Teagle.
“I was working for the GMB union, who were looking to sponsor local sports clubs,” he recalled. “I rang up Tommy, he asked me to come on board and the rest is history.”
Born was the High Peak’s first-ever rugby league club. The Bulls beat Bury Broncos 34-10 in their debut match and made such a dramatic impact that they were crowned champions in the Merit Division of the Midland League at the end of their maiden season, winning all 11 games they played and lifting two trophies. “We were in business!” exclaimed Belton. “That first season was absolutely fantastic.”
The Bulls’ success earned them promotion to the Premier Division last season when they finished halfway up the 12-team table, winning seven and losing seven.
“We moved from the rugby union club at Sunnyfields to Buxton Community School at Temple Fields, with the aim of coaching some of the youngsters there,” explained Belton.
“But it didn’t really work out. Some of the players lost their enthusiasm for playing on a school pitch, and we didn’t do so well.”
Travelling long distances to away matches also made it hard to motivate the Bulls players, so the club suggested splitting the division into north and south sections, which was accepted by the league for this current summer campaign.
“We also returned to Sunnyfields and we are trying to get back on an even keel,” said Belton. “We have suffered one or two heavy defeats, but we are probably learning more by getting hammered than by walking over teams as we did in our first year when everything came too easily.”
The Bulls sit next to bottom in the six-team division after just one win in five matches. They have also suffered a hammer-blow with the resignation from the posts of head coach and secretary of McGuigan, who has moved to live in Salford after changes at work and in his domestic life.
However, they are determined not to let the setbacks cloud their long-term vision and remain confident of a bright future for the club. “All teams have a fallow time,” said Belton. “We had a meeting and made it clear that, now Tommy has gone, we all need to chip in and pull together.”
After initial suspicion, the Bulls are also forging a healthy relationship with the Stags. Rugby union supporters who use Sunnyfields’ clubhouse as their ‘local’ are helping to swell crowds for home matches, while funding has been secured for the Stags’ director of rugby, Karl de Groot, to go on a rugby league coaching course with one of the Bulls’ players, Mike Pullen.
“Much of the work is still falling on just a few volunteers - Mike, myself, captain Ben Austin and also Peter Buxton -- but that is the same with most amateur sports clubs,” said a philosophical Belton.
“We could just do with one or two more who have the time and inclination to help on the committee, and we are always on the lookout for new players. Rugby league is a high-skilled, high-tempo sport, and we have some great lads who enjoy a good laugh.”
If you fancy getting involved, why not pop down to one of the Bulls’ final two home games of the 2016 season -- against Boston Buccaneers this Saturday and leaders Leicester Storm on Saturday, August 6? It’s not quite Twickenham, but you’ll discover a proud club flying the Buxton flag with credit.