A Rugby Life

A Rugby Volunteer's Blog

Recruitment is the challenge for Norwich Union


I was invited to the Norwich Union RFC dinner at Sprowston Manor near Norwich and got talking to Rob Huson, who at 28 must be one of the youngest Rugby Club Hon Secretaries in the country, about the problems of keeping a small club going.

Norwich Union RFC was faced with being wound up at one stage and it is worth reading an article I wrote in 2011 (The Norwich Union name lives on…) to get some background.  Since then the club has rejoined the Eastern Counties Leagues finishing a creditable sixth this season with some narrow losses that they would hope would go their way next year.  The committee are nearly all current players, the club fields a regular 2nd XV in the Norfolk Merit Table and with nearly 100 guests at the annual dinner I got the impression of a club in good health.

But like all good club officers Rob has an eye to the future and we spoke about how the clubs recruits its players.  I naively assumed that most of them worked at Aviva, formerly Norwich Union, but whereas that was the case in years gone by, only about 20% of of the club’s players now work there.  The rest come mainly from referrals, players getting their friends to play, reinforcing the social nature of the club.  One of the barriers is the club’s name with potential players believing that you need to be an Aviva employee to play for them, something that was true 20 years ago or more.

When I look around other one and two team clubs in Eastern Counties they tend to have a strong identity with where they play.  Thurston has a High School from which it can recruit players from, Cambourne Exiles draws its players from the new town west of Cambridge and Mersea have a fierce pride in their island status that attracts people to play for them.  Norwich Union have a corporate identity rather than an obvious geographical identity.

To borrow an idea from The Apprentice I set Rob and the rest of the membership the challenge of establishing a Unique Selling point for Norwich Union RFC and find innovative ways to promote that USP in the city.  The temporary self-imposed suspension of rugby at the University of East Anglia presents an opportunity but I will be interested to see how the club can build on that and compete for players with the big-hitters like near neighbours Norwich RFC and North Walsham, as well as Lakenham-Hewett, Wymondham and Crusaders.

Let’s see what they come up with and I will revisit them next season to see how they have got on.

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3 responses to “Recruitment is the challenge for Norwich Union

  1. abovaird 8 May 2012 at 2:20 pm

    This is an interesting point Andrew. Our club – Wendens Ambo RFC is part of Cambridgeshire as you know – and we operate well alongside our neighbours (and rivals), Saffron Walden. As you know from your visit a few years back, we originated as a mini rugby only club and offer coaching and training in Saffron Walden town centre on Saturday mornings – which seems to be USP enough for many of our parents. Well, that and our inclusive, participatory ethos.

    The senior side has grown in recent years from a pub-type team of Dads, Coaches and has-beens into a flourishing sociable team that tries to play seriously on and off the field. Adult recruitment is by word of mouth and we often find that our recruits come to us because they are looking for something different to the experience that other clubs offer – less pressure to play every week, a policy of always turning up for games (even when we only take ten players with us), and an ability to ensure that whoever turns up will get some game time. We’re in a league now because it’s the only way to get a decent fixture list, but the emphasis is very much on the game being the thing, not the points or the prizes.

    Not ready for a second team yet, but if things go as they have for the last two or three seasons, it won’t be long – there seem to be plenty of guys out there who are looking for that kind of experience: if we tried to replicate what Saffron Walden do, then we’d just be the junior club in the area.

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  2. abovaird 8 May 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Andrew – I think you’re exactly right about needing some sort of USP – particularly for smaller clubs operating ‘in the shadow’ so to speak of a larger one.

    Here at Wendens Ambo we get on well with our friends, neighbours and rivals at Saffron Walden and by being able to offer mini-rugby on Saturdays not Sundays and in Saffron Walden town centre rather than at Henham eight miles away – we are able to recruit strongly for the mini age groups. As you will recall from your visit a few years back, the club started as a mini-only club and the adult side came along later, and youth remains our priority.

    Meanwhile, the adult side has successfully grown from its pub-side type origins as a Dads and Coaches team into a more conventional one team club, but with quite a different approach to many around us: we recruit mainly by word of mouth or personal connection – but attract all sorts of people who would probably not play if they hadn’t found us: they don’t want to play every week, or they are complete novices, or they have not found the atmosphere in other clubs to their liking for whatever reason – but our ethos has something to do with it. We turn up every time we have arranged a game (even with only ten guys, although we’re improving on that score), we take our on-field activities seriously (but with a sense of perspective) and the social side seriously too. This season we have had a hard core of regular players (about fifteen of them which is handy!), but by my count 51 players have turned out for us at some point this year. Useful connections have been made with the local high school and with the Royal Engineers barracks nearby – but that will only bring people once. When they do turn up we try to make them welcome, and they always get game time – and that’s what I think brings them back for the second, third, fourth time.

    We’re in a league now, because that seemed like the only way to get a decent fixture list, but we hang on to the game being the thing – because that is the reason we exist at all. If we just tried to be the same as the other clubs around us, then we’d just be a poor relation to the more established clubs and recruitment and retention I am sure would suffer.

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    • abovaird 8 May 2012 at 3:51 pm

      Sorry for making the same points twice – the first post seemed to vanish into nowhere, so I did it again – and now I am repeating myself!

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