Rugby: In Touch With its Future
Last year the Rugby Football Union (RFU) unveiled ambitious development plans. And with more women and youngsters coming to the game, and the not insignificant matter of next year’s World Cup in Japan, rugby has reason to be optimistic.
The most recent statistics from Sport England show rugby union as being second only to football in team sport participation, possibly signalling a challenge to the game with that “other” ball to which around one-and-a-half million are attracted every week.
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) last year announced details of a new four-year strategic plan that will see an investment of £443 million – an increase of more than £100 million from the previous level of funding.
Roger Clarke is President of Tunbridge Wells Rugby Football Club (TWRFC), Chairman of the Kent RFU Executive Committee and an RFU member for Kent. We asked him how the sport is doing.
How is the sport currently fairing? Are participation levels holding up?
In Kent we have 80 affiliated clubs and 58 RFU voting clubs that are firmly established and play a substantial number of games each season. The county is one of the largest in England in terms of clubs and players. TWRFC currently play First XV Rugby at RFU level five (one being the premiership). The club has 650 junior members, 160 seniors and more than 1,000 in total. It runs four senior sides, a veterans’ team, has a successful academy from which players graduate to the senior sides, and girls’ under-13, 15 and 18 sides.
What is being done across Kent to encourage people into, or back to, the sport?
The sport is offering more opportunities to play friendly fixtures rather than league games in the lower sides. This is based around flexible times, which, for instance, aim to attract old or new players to midweek games played under floodlight. Variations of the game such as O2 Touch Rugby and work with the All Schools Initiative and Premier Club Academies are encouraging all abilities and, through the higher and further education establishments, we want to encourage people to play the game on leaving full-time education.
What are the barriers to participation and how are they being addressed?
Busier lifestyles have affected numerous sports as has the varying standards in how clubs welcome people, as well as a shortage of volunteers. At county level this is being addressed by providing coaching courses, running a regular Leadership Academy, encouraging the recruitment of young ambassadors and development events. Providing flexibility in offering different formats of the game at times other than just Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning is crucial.
What schemes are available to encourage people into rugby?
Things such as the All Schools Initiative, O2 Touch, Nights under Lights are all key, as are schemes like the Inner Warrior events for girls and women, the young ambassadors scheme, and youth and mini age grade developments.
With the World Cup next year, what are Kent Rugby’s current priorities?
The county’s objectives this year are to improve our methods of communicating with members by working closely with clubs, using social media, our InTouch magazine and through a special insight evening. We also need to address our succession planning to ensure a pipeline of high-quality people to lead in all areas from players and coaches to referees, volunteers and administrators.
By day Frank Reynolds is a Staplehurst dairy farmer but at any available opportunity the 21-year-old can be found on the rugby pitch or in training for a sport he’s been involved with since the age of five.
Frank, who plays for TWRFC, cites his biggest achievement to date as representing the Kent First Team playing against national number ones – and his ambition to be a starting fly half for a national first squad.
“I think rugby is a great sport because it offers a hugely encouraging and sociable environment that allows you to switch off mentally from the working day,” says Frank, who is also quick to acknowledge the support that is crucial in any sport at a competitive level.
“I wouldn’t be in the position I am without Kent coach Taff Gwilliam who gave me the opportunity to play at different levels, and also Simon Whatling – my coach at TWRFC – for his continuous coaching and inspiring me to be a better number 10.”
For Aaron Grandidier-Nkanang, playing professional rugby full-time and representing his country is a clearly defined ambition. The 18-year-old from Bromley, who recently started at St Mary’s University in – appropriately Twickenham – quickly converted his love of the game from a schoolboy sport to competing at international level.
“I seriously got into the sport in 2016 and am proud I’ve already represented the England Counties under-18s, winning the test match series against Ireland,” says Aaron who plays for Old Elthamians RFC.
“I love the energy and speed of rugby as well as the physical and mental training that comes with it. You need a range of skills to be good at this game, and I’m grateful to people such as my school coach Mike Perks and one of my closest friends, Tom Whichello, because I would never have gotten as far as I have without them.”
Girls in the game
It may have a reputation of being a tough sport played by men of muscle, but rugby is attracting an increasing number of female participants.
Marc Smith is in charge of the women and girls’ game at Kent Rugby. He says the past five years has seen a real step change.
“There are now 300 clubs across England providing regular training and playing opportunities for over 27,500 players, and there are currently 512 women and girls’ teams in the country,” says Marc. “The RFU recently rolled out an action plan setting a framework on which this can be sustained. It includes growing numbers, improving playing opportunities, ensuring those with talent can progress, increasing the numbers of women engaged in coaching, refereeing and volunteering, and improving the female-friendliness of rugby facilities.”
Kent has long been regarded a key driver of grass roots female rugby and has seen players progress to compete at the very highest levels, as Marc explains: “The county’s commitment to developing female rugby is clear. This season sees the first competitive league for under-18s, with the hope this can be extended to include a similar league for under-15s next season.
“Working with the leadership team at the Old Elthamians RFC, led by current England and Harlequins star centre Rachael Burford, we have developed a training academy for players in the under-15 and under-18 age brackets who aspire to play at the highest level.
“The women and girls’ game is accessible to all from school years seven to 13 with women’s rugby taking on girls once they reach 18. What’s more, the game warmly welcomes every standard and ability and affords the same opportunities to all.”
Images: TWRFC, Kent Rugby, Sport England, Bruce Elliott, Rugby Football Union, Leo Wilkinson Photography, Rob Howarth Photography