Exclusive - Stourbridge DoR Neil Mitchell provides latest on potential Atlas partnership

“There hasn’t a lot changed really since we last spoke,” Stourbridge RFC’s Director of Rugby, Neil Mitchell, told Talking Rugby Union. 

For much of the past two weeks, Mitchell and National 2 West side Stourbridge have been subject to much attention after new Worcester Warriors owner Jim O’Toole revealed the intention to partner with the National League Rugby club. 

On the day that the news made the back pages, Mitchell exclusively revealed to TRU that while conversations with Atlas – the group which owns Worcester – have been ongoing, Stourbridge’s future relies on a vote by the club’s membership. 

Without a definitive consensus, a partnership with the former Gallagher Premiership club’s owners cannot be made. It has been a difficult season for Stourbridge, who have found playing numbers down and fixture cancellations almost commonplace. 

This is by no means an isolated occurrence, with the sport having not managed to reach its pre-pandemic heights.  

Add to this Stourbridge’s own unique circumstances where there are limited young players coming to the club, with rugby not widely played at schools in the region and the folding of Wasps and Worcester. 

An injury crisis has stunted the side’s First XV and after Mitchell reached out to a leading rugby agent, regarding player recruitment which led to conversations between him and James Sandford the prospect of a partnership with Atlas came to the table. 

In their 9 February statement, Stourbridge stated that Atlas would support the club commercially throughout the club while remaining members owned.  

Mitchell and the club’s committee have now held informal meetings with members to dissect what a partnership may mean, although in the eyes of the DoR there is still much groundwork to be done. 

“We need to meet with Atlas, we have had the initial consultation, we have looked at the possibilities of that symbiotic relationship developing, but again, it is a long way off,” Mitchell said. 

“The key thing is, if there is a commercial vehicle in relation to our first team, then there must be a payback which is substantial for our club, for our members. 

“That’s the key thing, is keeping the identity of Stourbridge Rugby Club, which is primarily a rugby club which has been around since 1876 and ensure that the infrastructure of our club is compensated. 

“You can say ‘you’re selling your soul to the devil’, well we are not. We are in a position now, and I’ve said it repeatedly, about where we are a club. 

“People have said to me in the last few weeks that ‘you have got clubs that are local to you like DK [Dudley Kingswinford] and Old Hales [Old Halesonians], who are doing really well and are within four miles of where we are’, but the difference is; this is the National Leagues. 

“One of the key things we have highlighted as a club, is our feeling that out demographic is not great. None of our senior schools, apart from Old Swinford [Hospital], play rugby. 

“We need to address that. That’s our quick fix. It is something we need to establish and be established over several years. That is why we looked at this ‘how do we go forward as a club?’. 

“We have great facilities, we champion any National 1, or even potentially a Championship with our facilities, but now we are not in a good place, and we need to address that. This is an opportunity to do that.” 

There has been a sense of frustration at Stourton Park as misinformation has been perpetuated about the potential partnership around the two sides.  

This includes the various inaccuracies which have done the rounds on social media, as well as the club not having been asked themselves about what the future has in store. 

Mitchell was even forced to take to social media to combat some of the reporting, including the claim that the first informal meeting with members went badly. 

“We did a PowerPoint, explained what the situation is, we talked about the myths first and foremost, that had come out in the last two or three days, in relation to the fact that we are going to play at Sixways, that the club was going to be called Sixways, that was not the case,” Mitchell explained. 

“This is in its infancy and this is a case of speaking to the club, saying ‘we have got a potential sponsorship here’. What this is, is a sponsorship deal.

“It’s giving a bit because we are potentially giving our first team, but at the moment we are 13 points adrift in the National Leagues.” 

Mitchell also confirmed that regardless of where his team finishes in National 2 West this season, the side would have the support of Atlas. There would be plenty of positives to align Stourbridge with the consortium. 

A platform to take rugby into more schools in the Stourbridge area and grow the base of players coming to Stourton Park, there would also be the inherent commercial benefits from the off, as well as taking the club into the national spotlight. 

Director of Rugby with Stourbridge for the past two decades, Mitchell has watched on from afar as clubs like Manchester have faded into the lower rungs of English club rugby and is fully aware that he is not the most popular figure at the club right now. 

As things stand, Mitchell and many of the committee members at Stourbridge must sit around a table with the powers that be at Atlas to discuss exactly what the future may hold before the members vote. 

There is even the potential of Corinthian rugby, whereby Stourbridge and the new Worcester Warriors would be heavily linked with a flow of players going both ways, akin to the relationship which Sale Sharks and Sale FC have. 

But, as has been the case through the whole saga, the future is dictated by what the members decide.  

“We have got to have the majority on board with this,” Mitchell said. “Clearly there is going to be people who totally disagree with what is going on. They don’t want to lose the name and we will not, we are and will remain as Stourbridge RFC with the old First XV changing their name for a commercial purpose. 

We cannot have it both ways. If we have the potential for a serious, financial build into our infrastructure for the future, for generations to come, that has got to be worthwhile, that has got to be worth looking at. We have got to give that a chance.” 

It is also notable that whatever is decided, the Rugby Football Union ultimately have the final say. Should the game’s governing body in England choose not to accept a name change or change in home venue, then the whole venture stops dead. 

That was one of the key takeaways when the potential of partnering first emerged, including a move to Sixways, as well as the potential of a name change. Since then, Worcester Warriors Women have signed a long-term deal to play at the venue, while O’Toole stated that Wasps would be playing Championship rugby at the venue next season – although that was denied later. 

As for Stourbridge, they have several more hurdles to leap over before anything is put in stone. While the committee are clearly enthusiastic about the enormous potential of moving their relationship with Atlas further, it is not an autocratic decision. 

Before a Special General Meeting can take place, as many of the club’s membership must be made aware of how the club would adapt with the partnership and dispel any of the rumours circulating. 

“We have got to be an open book with this,” Mitchell said. “We have seen it on social media, people have doubts. Integrity has come into question, which I think is unfair. 

“There are several things that need to be outed in relation to that, but the key thing is the presentation to the members, that the concept is, and then we will be getting a consulting group together from all areas of the club and stakeholders. 

“There will be businesspeople involved in that, plus what we call stakeholders in the club, to ensure that we are doing the right thing, and then we present Atlas with a fait accompli; this is what you are looking at and this is what we want. 

“If we cannot meet that or negotiate that decision, then the deal is off the table, and we continue doing what we are doing. We have lost nothing. 

“Yes, it has been highlighted in the media and on social media, and it has obviously ruffled a few feathers, but this is where we are. 

“As I say, it is nothing lost for the club. It is an opportunity to get sponsorship and commercial investment into something that is not in a particularly good place now, and if it works, brilliant. If it does not, the members will decide.” 

National League Rugby