Jake Armstrong Exclusive: I got to a point where I had lost the love for the game - but Wharfedale has helped me recapture that

Jake Armstrong had a spell with Wharfedale earlier in his career before returning to the National Leagues in 2023/24
©John + Ro Burridge

Preparing to face Sale Sharks at the Salford Community Stadium was something Jake Armstrong used to relish. 

While his former side Bristol Bears travel to the North-West on Friday night for one of the opening Premiership games of 2024, the 29-year-old's first foray of the New Year will come in two weeks time.

But instead of being in the top-flight, he will resume the campaign in National Two North with Wharfedale.

Back in October 2022, after four and a half seasons with Bristol, Armstrong departed the club by mutual consent after agreeing an early release from his contract.

In the September of that year, he had been on a month-long loan at Doncaster Knights and after parting ways with the Bears, he decided to officially rejoin the Championship outfit after a stint with the club in 2015.

"I got to a point where I had lost the love for the game, to be honest," Armstrong says. "I didn’t really know whether I wanted to even carry on playing. I was kind of done with it after Bristol, after Doncaster but then Wharfedale approached me.

"My motivation [after Bristol] was to get back to Yorkshire and get back home. I spent just under 10 years away in Jersey and in Bristol so it was time for me to get back to what I know and that is being in Yorkshire."

And after leaving Castle Park in the summer, it was back to another one of his old stomping grounds.

"I only spent a couple of years at Wharfedale when I was 19/20 years old but it is something that is very close to me. The connection that I had with Wharfedale when I was there previously made it quite an easy decision to go back there."

Last July, Wharfedale announced Armstrong would be linking up with the club he spent two seasons at between 2013 and 2015 when they were in National One. In the second of the two campaigns, the prop started all 30 games for the 'Green Machine' but this term, he has been combining his playing time with a coaching role at The Avenue.

 "It [National Two] is obviously a world away from the professional game but it is giving me enjoyment for the game and I'm loving that," Armstrong, who is forwards coach at Wharfedale, says.

"I love my coaching. When I was at Bristol, I coached. When I was at Jersey, I coached and it was something I wanted to keep doing so when Wharfedale asked whether I will put my boots on and also coach, I just thought it seemed like a good common ground.

"For me, the lads have really brought into what I have been trying to implement which has been great. 

"I have brought in some things, mainly technical stuff, around the breakdown, maul defence/attack. So like when I was at Bristol, there was an answer for everything. If you did something wrong, chances are the coaches would say go in your toolbox and what tool would you use in that situation again? For me, it is about giving them a tool for a certain situation.

"If you bombard them with the information I used to have to deal with at a professional level, they will just have their minds blown so it is about giving them some subtle, technical things that make a huge difference to the rest of the game."

And the influence Armstrong and the rest of the Wharfedale coaching group have had on the side this season has led to a strong first half of the campaign for Simon Verbickas' troops.

After finishing eighth in 2022/23 - their joint-highest finish in the fourth tier since they were relegated from National One in 2016 - Wharfedale currently occupy fourth spot in the table. Added to this, they have already achieved nine victories, just one fewer than they recorded in the whole of last term.

"To be honest with you mate, when I came in, I was pretty vocal about what I thought we should be aiming for and I said we should aim for promotion and everyone laughed at me!" Armstrong chuckles. 

"What I was trying to get at with the lads was if we train and play like we expect to get promoted, then the chances are we will develop some habits that reflect that as opposed to if we go into the league and say; 'It would be really great if we could be midtable again' chances are in this league you will struggle because you are settling rather than looking up.

"If we can fight for third place or even those upper positions, then for me, that is a massive win in terms of this season."

Armstrong reveals promotion back to the third tier is a target for the club over the next couple of seasons, but perhaps returning to National One is out of their reach for this term.

The relentless nature of current league leaders Leeds Tykes - who have won all 13 of their matches - and second-placed Rotherham Titans means it is shaping up to be a two-horse race for the title.

But Armstrong decides to look at the bigger picture. The top four teams in the division are all from Yorkshire and the personal buzz stirred up by this - as well as being involved in National League Rugby - is exactly why the tighthead is content with his decision to drop down to level four.

"We are lucky in Yorkshire at the minute that we have got so many good National League clubs and the excitement that is generating is superb," Armstrong adds.

"I am very fond of National League Rugby and I think it is going from strength to strength at the moment. I also think the uncertainty around professional rugby at the moment in terms of finances also played a part [in the move back to Wharfedale].

"When I was deciding on what to do next, there was also some chat of going over to France and things like that. I just had a good think and thought what actually is important to me going forward because I was missing home anyway so to go to France is even further away.

"I was getting to that point where I felt like I needed to have a look at something else and find a new challenge and I feel like I have found that.

"Along with Wharfedale, I have my job in recruitment (Armstrong now works for a company called ITP) and that is a challenge, that's for sure. I just had this pull to go into something that was completely the opposite to running around on a pitch all day and now I am sat at a desk all day but I have obviously still got the connection with Wharfedale so to be playing rugby, playing an enjoyable and competitive level of rugby just gives me the best of both worlds.

"Am I content with my decision? Yes. I mean, one of the lads from Edinburgh - which is where I played for a very short time but on loan - he reached out to me to ask what I was doing because they needed a tighthead. I just messaged him back and said; 'Whatever you do, just don’t mention my name.' I just don’t want to be involved. That might sound weird to some but I am just content now."

Armstrong agrees his passion for rugby has been rekindled since moving back to the Dales, but his enthusiasm also filters into enhancing the opportunities and prospects of those at Wharfedale.

His own career has been punctuated by spells in the tiers below the Premiership and given his experience and qualities as a player - added to the talent he has been surrounded by in the past - Armstong takes immense satisfaction from imparting some of his wisdom onto the emerging talent at The Avenue.

"It [playing National League Rugby] was a real learning curve for me when I was younger," Armstrong says. "If I speak to any young players now and they ask me for my advice, I say; 'The best thing you can do is play with and against men and learn on the job week in, week out. What you will get at this level is you will get bashed around, you will learn your set-piece very, very quickly and that is exactly what I did and it was the best grounding I could have had to go into the professional game. 

"For example, we have got an 18-year-old, Oliver Riddiough, playing at nine. Then we have a young hooker, Dan Wills, as well who is 18/19 so at this level, you get an opportunity and I think for players like the two I have just mentioned, it is an invaluable experience. Fingers crossed the experience they have means they can go on to play at whatever level they want to.

"If Wharfedale or National League Rugby in general can be a small part in that, then I think it is a massive kudos to the leagues."

Armstrong also touches on the sheer size of some of the forwards he has faced in National Two thus far, describing them as a 'serious challenge' for any player to come up against.

The tighthead has been at the coalface of all 13 of Wharfedale's games this season and while it is evident he is loving his rugby once again, his appreciation for the club as a whole - and the community which binds it together - amplifies what it means for Armstrong to be back home. 

 "The club is very much the heart of the community up there and you get a sense of belonging which can’t necessarily be replicated unfortunately in the professional game," Armstrong says. 

"We are a very small club in the middle of a cow field in the Yorkshire Dales but for us to get between 500-800 fans every other Saturday is brilliant. To have that kind of support, it just shows how much it means to the community.

"There are so many fans that genuinely care about the players and clubs they support and that is reflected across the whole of the league. Ultimately when Wharfedale are winning - and we have been doing that - people in the Dales are very happy and when we’re losing, they are really quite sad!

"For a lot of them, it is the difference between enjoying their weekend or not enjoying their weekend depending on the result so it is a very well-supported club. It is a proper rugby club and I am thoroughly enjoying it."

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