A Rugby Life

A Rugby Volunteer's Blog

3G or not 3G?

20200118_163547There is always at least one weekend a season when a number of games are called off because of snow, ice or waterlogged pitches, and this weekend was one of them.  The RFU’s Artificial Grass Pitch (AGP) strategy was designed to allow players to train and play despite the weather conditions by placing AGPs where a number of clubs could have easy access to them when needed.  Saturday was a great example of how an AGP allows rugby to be played when the alternative would have been to cancel.

The St Benedict’s School pitches at Perivale were waterlogged so rather than postpone two school matches and the Old Priorians league game, Grasshoppers RFC were approached to see if the games could be played on their AGP in Isleworth as has happened before.  So Saturday saw five games starting with the school’s U12s followed by their 1st XV playing against Northampton School for Boys.  Grasshoppers 2nd XV took on London Cornish at 1pm then the 1st XV kicked off their league game against Hemel Hempstead at 3pm.  Finally at 5pm, Old Priorians played their London 1 North game against Woodford and what a thriller it was, with OPs snatching victory 26-24 with the last move of the game.

Five matches on one pitch in one day, with over 150 players enjoying a game.  No grass pitch could withstand that kind of wear at this time of year.

20200118_170953Old Priorians are well used to matches on an artificial pitch, having played league games on the AGPs at Ealing Trailfinders and London Irish as well as at Grasshoppers, reflecting the relatively high number of 3G surfaces at clubs in the capital.  But it is a different picture in the provinces and in particular East Anglia, an area I know well.  Shelford is the only Eastern Counties club with an AGP, although the number will double when Colchester RFC moves to its new ground next season.  I noticed that games at Ruislip, Beccles and Saffron Walden were called off amongst others due to poor pitch conditions and I wonder how many players would have preferred to play on an AGP rather than have a forced Saturday off?  What would be interesting to know is how far players would be willing to travel to be guaranteed a game.

AGPs have their critics.  You hear stories of friction burns early season, but do they happen any more often than on hard, dry grass pitches at the same time of year?  Certainly they are unpopular amongst traditionalists but if it means that games of rugby can be played when grass pitches are unplayable then I am in favour, 

To put things in perspective, there are over 3,000 grass rugby pitches in England compared to about 100 AGPs.  Rugby will continue to be predominantly played on grass but at this time of year and with climate change producing warmer, wetter winters, it is good to have the backup of a 3G pitch.

The heartbreakingly simple truth

A thoughtful piece about the RWC final, including the importance of understanding how the referee is going to manage the game.

Double Dummy Scissors

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Does the Haka need to be protected?

England’s response to the All Black’s Haka in the World Cup semi-final reminded me of the French arrowhead formation they took up at the 2011 final. They ended up being fined and that prompted me to write an article about some of the more memorable ways opposition teams have faced the New Zealander’s challenge.

This was originally posted in October 2011.

england v haka

A Rugby Life

The IRB have fined £2,500 France for crossing the half-way line during New Zealand’s haka before the World Cup final, but is that fair?  I have always been a fan of the haka as one of the great traditions of rugby, although my view has changed a bit after my recent trip to New Zealand.  But more of that later.

I thought the French response to the All Blacks’ haka was a good one – lining up in arrow formation before advancing to accept the challenge.  It provided a bit of theatre before the kick-off and I’m sure gave the French an extra psychological edge.  After all, why should the All Blacks be the only ones allowed to benefit mentally from their pre-match ritual?

This reminded me of the 2008 Autumn International series when Wales were accused of being disrespectful to New Zealand when they faced them during their haka…

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Colchester v Woodford 1997: The game that triggered Colchester’s demise

crfc_2_029 croppedMost weekends I tweet stats pertaining to the game Colchester RFC are playing next; numbers of wins and losses and other facts that might be interesting.  This coming Saturday Colchester play away at Woodford RFC and it reminded me of a significant game between the two clubs back in 1997 that had an effect on Colchester’s fortunes for several seasons.

Some details are a bit hazy but it was a London 2 North league fixture, level 6 so the same level as this weekend’s game, and I think the match was played in late November or early December.  In those days, the league was made up of 17 teams, each playing each other once, and both Colchester and Woodford were unbeaten with the same number of points, Woodford topping the table with a superior points difference.  Only one team would be promoted and the play-off system was yet to be introduced.

Woodford were one of the big beasts of Essex rugby but Colchester was enjoying one of its most successful spells. They had won the Suffolk Cup for the first time in 1995 (back then the county cup competitions were a big thing) and won promotion to level 6 having been playing at level 7 since the leagues started in 1986.  This was their third season in London 2 North and with an experienced squad they were strong contenders for promotion to London 1 (level 5). 

I remember it was a bright day at Mill Road and Colchester started very well.  They were leading something like 15-0 after 30 minutes with all the momentum, so the home supporters were looking forward to their team topping the table.  Then a Woodford player got injured and it was serious.  An ambulance had to be called and the game was help up for well over 20 minutes while he received treatment on the pitch and was taken to hospital.  Other games were going on so the players just had to wait.  I don’t know what happened during the delay, but when the game finally restarted, the fire that Colchester had shown from the kick off seemed to have gone out and Woodford, having had a respite from Colchester’s dominance, started to play with confidence.  I can’t remember if Colchester scored any more points but they went on to lose that game, and several more, finishing mid-table by the end of the season.

Many of the players that had served the club so well had decided that it was time to retire and the following season Colchester were relegated.  In fact, the sudden loss of so much experience was so severe that the club suffered three successive relegations, dropping four levels, ending up in Eastern Counties Two or level 10.  The subsequent change of fortunes that got Colchester as high as level 5 is a subject for another article, but whenever Colchester play Woodford, I always think back to that game in 1997 as the one that started Colchester’s tumble down the leagues in the late 1990s.

This is my personal recollection of the game, but I would be happy for anyone else who was there in 1997 to correct me on some of the facts by leaving a comment below.


Photograph courtesy of Richard Parker

Back on Home Ground

PerivaleIt’s been a couple of years since I left the RFU and Eastern Counties committees and I promised myself at least two seasons away from any kind of rugby administrative role.  My reasons for leaving centred around keeping an eye on my mother in London, as trying to juggle her needs, my work and my rugby commitments was proving too much and something had to give.

But there was more to it than that; I felt that I was no longer making a difference in the game, particularly at the RFU.  I remember in the winter of 2008 when I was addressing clubs in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk in my campaign to be elected the RFU representative for Eastern Counties, I said that I had made a difference at my club, at my county and at Eastern Counties, and that I wanted to make a difference at Twickenham.  I am confident that I have made a difference during my tenure but after the 2015 Rugby World Cup there were others that were better placed than me to take the community game forward.  Rather than hang on without making any significant contribution at a national level, I left the following season.

So I moved to London.  I live overlooking the Wasps FC ground in Twyford Avenue and although I stepped away from admin, my love of the grass-roots game is undiminished.  When the 2017/18 season started I went along to see what was happening at the ground and it was a hive of activity, being the home of a number of clubs in West London.  One of the teams playing a warm-up game was Old Priorians, the old boys team from my school St Benedict’s in Ealing.  Since then I have spent many Saturdays at the school ground of my youth watching OPs playing at Level 6, or if they were playing away in the further reaches of East Anglia, I would watch Colchester if they were playing in London.

Old Priorians is an amateur club with most of the players being old boys of the school and with few members over 40.  An exception is the President, Peter Halsall, who came to teach at St Benedict’s during my last year there.  If he couldn’t make a home game I would step in to meet and greet opposition committee and supporters, many of whom I knew from clubs such as North Walsham, Luton, Diss, Southend, Sudbury and of course Colchester.  Towards the end of last season I offered my help on the club committee and at the recent AGM I was duly elected as the RFU and NW Cluster rep.  It is a role that I hope my experience over the years will be of help to local clubs as well as OPs.

I intend to avoid falling into the trap of putting my hand up for too many jobs.  These past two seasons without a role have allowed me to just enjoy the game, and I know what it is like to be an overworked volunteer.  It will also give me an excuse to regularly contribute once again to this blog, something I have enjoyed, even though readers may not fell the same.  Maybe I will write about playing, watching and administering rugby in the capital compared to the game in rural East Anglia, mixed with reminiscences of good and not so good times serving on the Eastern Counties and RFU committees.

So check back every few weeks or so to see what ramblings I have committed to the web.

Will RFU Council Members bear their share of cuts?

img_07981235.jpgIt has been a while since I added anything to my blog but having read about the RFU’s financial problems over the last few months I thought it was time to add by two-penn’th.  The catalyst was the article in the Telegraph on 1 October where chief exec Steve Brown warned of £20m cuts over the next four years.

I’m not going to pretend that I know where cuts should be made in either the professional or community game, but having spent nine years as a Council Member at Twickenham I think I am better qualified than most to talk about where cuts can be made to Council running costs.

The most effective cut to the budget could be made by decreasing the size of Council.  When I joined in 2008/9 the big debate was about the report of the Constitutional Review Task Group (CRTG) which was looking at a number of areas including the composition of Council and who members represented.  There were proposals to remove representation from Oxford and Cambridge universities and the National Clubs Association, and to increase the minimum number of clubs for a CB to have representation to 20, forcing those with fewer to combine.

I had experienced how unwieldy a Council of 57 was and I enthusiastically voted in favour of reducing the number, but by colleagues had other ideas and the proposals were not carried.  Ironically, within a few years the number of RFU Council Members rose to 60!

Another attempt to reduce member numbers came with the Slaughter & May report in 2014, and although some of its recommendations were adopted, the most recent being a maximum term of nine years for Council Members, the size of Council remained the same.

So despite these attempts to slim down Council, my former colleagues have stubbornly refused to accept any change that may affect their seat at the table.  A cynic would point to complimentary tickets, travel and accommodation for England games at Twickenham and in Europe as powerful incentives to maintain the status quo.

I have heard that Council Members have been asked to consider paying for the tickets and meals for their wives and partners, currently part of their entitlement, to save a reported £30k a year, but again this has been turned down.

My proposal is much more radical but could save £300k a year from the approximate Council Services budget of £1½m.  I would revisit some of the recommendations of the CRTG and Slaughter & May reports and consider some serious pruning of Member numbers:

  • The Army, Navy and RAF each have a representative on Council.  Replace these three with one representative for the Services.
  • Both Oxford University and Cambridge University have a representative.  There is no good reason for this anachronism to continue.
  • There is a representative for Womens Rugby which was introduced comparatively recently.  It was an appropriate thing to do at the time but with the womens game so integrated in CBs and in an increasing number of clubs, it is no longer necessary.
  • The Schools Union and the Students Union each have two representatives on Council; they should be reduced to one each.
  • CBs with 60 or more voting clubs are entitled to two Council Members.  Seven CBs should have their have two representatives reduced to one; Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Notts, Lincs & Derbyshire (NLD), North Midlands, Surrey and Yorkshire,
  • The numbers of clubs in CBs varies enormously and I would propose a minimum of 30 voting clubs for a CB, with those with fewer clubs forced to combine.  Berkshire (13 clubs), Buckinghamshire (16) and Oxfordshire (18) would become one CB, while Cumbria (25), Northumberland (21) and Durham(18) would form another.
  • The National Clubs Association represents clubs at Level 3 and 4, but these are already represented by geographical CBs.  The NCA is primarily a competition organising committee and it can still represent clubs’ views without being on Council.

I am sure that there will be a degree of harrumphing at the idea of reducing the size of Council by 19 but it will still be the largest in international rugby.  Well organised CBs should be able to get opinions from clubs and feed them through to their representative on Council, which in a slimmed-down form would be more effective.

The RFU Council is not a popular body amongst grass-roots clubs, their players and supporters, with few understanding what they do and what it is for.  They have an opportunity to show they are not the self-serving body that many perceive them as.  What is important is that Council is seen to be doing something to contribute towards the £20m cuts over four years that the RFU is seeking; a reduction like this would see over £1m towards the target.

At last a strategy to counter Rugby’s injury-stricken image

DSC02581I was delighted to read an article on the Telegraph website about the RFU launching a programme to combat concerns about the risk of injury (read article).  It talks about fighting back against the negative publicity brought about by so many injuries in the professional game and the regular attempts by Professor Alysson Pollock to stop contact rugby being played in schools.  It is a much needed campaign and I am sure when we get the details there will be many facets to it, but why has it taken so long to put something in place?

Back in 2014 I wrote an article titled ‘Rugby’s biggest challenge’ where I identified the perceived risk of injury as the biggest threat to the future of our game.  This was following an article by Prof Pollock in the Daily Mail ‘Why NO mother should let her son play rugby’.  After all, why would mothers want their children involved in a sport where they see so much damage being done to players?  Then when George North kept getting knocked out in 2015 I penned another article in much the same vein (click here to read it) where I found it incredible that North and other players were allowed to stay on the pitch despite being so obviously unfit to do so.

Although the RFU robustly countered by pointing out the benefits of playing rugby in terms of the Core Values and the life lessons it teaches, along with changes in coaching courses to take account of head injuries, why has it taken until 2017 to put together a coordinated and sustained campaign to win over the general non-playing public?

I think the answer lies in the aforementioned article in the Telegraph.  Up until recently, the RFU Board did not really have a credible answer to Prof Pollock’s assertions about injuries except to quote figures that the game is getting safer, more safeguards are being put in place and the positive life lessons that children are taught through playing the game.  But a change of Chairman at the RFU when Bill Beaumont left to take charge of World Rugby also brought new thinking and new experiences to the role.

Andy Cosslett chaired England 2015 to deliver the most successful Rugby World Cup ever and amongst several high profile jobs around the world, he spent time in the 1990’s working with the AFL to bolster the image of Aussie Rules Football by promoting participation of the whole family, parents in particular.  The theory is that the more parents understand the game and all the goes with it, the more inclined they are to let their children take part.  The SFL campaign was a fruitful one and the hope is that a similar campaign updated for today’s risk-averse society will prove just as successful.

Rugby’s best strapline in my view is ‘More than an Game’, emphasising the social elements that go with it and the friends for life that you make through being involved.  Cosslett’s experience with the AFL will have been invaluable in creating this new strategy for the RFU which must get the support of everyone involved the game.

Promises, Promises

Another witty piece by Sam Roberts

Double Dummy Scissors

What a time to exist. This last week has, amazingly, trumped much of what has come before. I mean, a man celebrated losing a general election by high-fiving a middle-aged woman’s tit. Politically, we are very drunk. Staggering left and right, eyes drooping, dance moves echoing around our body because we can still hear the music; deliriously chuntering to ourselves, oblivious to the amount of vomit on our suit. We should go home, but we won’t. The bus left hours ago. We are here and fucked. Shouting incomprehensibly at people holding hands. We have nothing but a dirty, heavy, nauseating hangover in our future. Better make this last.

And this piece has no political bias. Every way you looked was another person grandstanding; talking on tiptoes, trying to be heard over the others; promising you better and hoping to god they didn’t ever have to deliver. Promises is what got…

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A Small Piece About Time and Togetherness

Double Dummy Scissors

I have some questions for you. Would that Lions side that lost yesterday be able to beat Saracens? The Saracens that dispatched so expertly with Munster and then Leinster on their way to back to back European titles? With all their mutual trust and pack mentality. Brits’ feet would have found a way through at some point, the ball spread wide, Wyles in the corner, you know the drill.


What about the Scarlets? That Lions side, who played together for the first time ever competitively, would they be able to cope with the rugby that saw the West Walians claim the Pro12 title in such style? We delighted at their flamboyant, length of the field, almost telepathic, efforts – James Davies to Scott Williams to DTH  – too strong for a scratch side like the Lions surely?

So, therefore, Stander and Itoje and Biggar wouldn’t have liked Exeter? The Chiefs…

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Never let your guard down

The recent news that a child abuser has been at large targetting young players at rugby clubs in West London is a stark warning that we can never let our guard down.  I should point out that he has only been accused of various offences involving young boys between 2011 and 2015 and is yet to be found guilty, but all rugby clubs need to understand that it could happen to them.  Click here for the Evening Standard article.

I have felt that there has been a degree of complacency in the rugby community that the game’s Core Values somehow make it immune to potential abusers.  When the story of Barry Bennell’s historic abuses in football broke last year, there were a number of posts on social media implying that ‘this kind of thing’ is rare in rugby.  At a subsequent RFU Council meeting abuse in the game was raised as a question and the RFU Safeguarding team, who do an excellent job, provided some statistics about how many cases they had investigated and the numbers were higher than most had expected.

During my 25 years working in the NHS I have come across some very distressing cases of child abuse and one thing is very clear; a paedophile will go to extraordinary lengths and wait years if necessary to get into a position of trust and gain access to children.  The rugby abuser in question did not fit most people’s typical profile of a paedophile in that he was in his twenties and maybe that was why he was allowed more leeway than normal.  He may have had a DBS check (which superseded the CRB check) but that would only show anything if he had been caught before.

Rugby is a welcoming and tolerant sport.  I recently listened to Nigel Owens’ interview on Desert Island Discs and he said that without rugby he may not even be alive, so worried was he about the reaction of players and union officials to his coming out as gay.  But he was treated like any other person and his sexuality simply wasn’t an issue.  But it is that same tolerance a paedophile will use to his advantage along with the general supposition that anyone involved in rugby must be a ‘good guy’.

For the safety of our young players and the reputation of our sport, ask questions about anyone who you have any doubts about, particularly if they coach or manage any mini or youth squads.  Try to make sure there are at least two adults at every coaching session and match, even if you have to press-gang some parents into helping.  There should be no reason for adults to be in changing rooms when children are changing.  Club Safeguarding Officers have an important role so speak to them if something doesn’t look right.

All this should be obvious to most people but don’t let complacency be the way in for an abuser.

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