The success of the Eastern Counties Beach Rugby Series this season prompted me to look back on how the events have grown since they started ten years ago.
In 2000 the Blackman Report commissioned by the RFU looked at the state of Rugby in England, in particular the falling player numbers. Amongst other recommendations it suggested that other ways should be looked at to attract people into the game, so the RFU came up with the concept of Leisure Rugby that encompassed alternative forms of the game, including Sevens, Tens, Tag, Touch and Beach Rugby.
They set up a Leisure Rugby department headed up by the inimitable Alan Black, known to everyone as Blackie, and later by Dan Brown. Blackie and Dan were nothing if not enthusiastic and went around the country helping county bodies organise events, and they were instrumental in getting Beach Rugby off the ground in East Anglia.
Southwold started its tournament in 2002 and by the time I was elected chair of the Community Rugby committee in Eastern Counties two years later it was already attracting large numbers of teams from around the East of England. I wanted to replicate that success and chose Clacton-on-Sea for the area’s second tournament. From small beginnings that too has gone from strength to strength, providing a family oriented environment that complements Southwold’s weekend-long adult tournament.
Norfolk proved to be a much tougher nut to crack. A couple of events were held at Hunstanton on The Wash in 2006 and 2007 but the competition had to be completed within a five hour window when the tide was out which was pretty challenging. However, the real problem was the fact that the beach wasn’t near enough to an established rugby club that could provide year-on-year support for the tournament and in return reap the benefits of potential new and returning players to Rugby.
In 2010 the RFU held a Beach Rugby tournament at Sea Palling down the coast from Cromer in North Norfolk. It was a three day event with clubs on one day and schools and colleges on the others, but that too failed as again there was no rugby club nearby to support it and it didn’t attract anything like the number of expected teams.
Significantly, the first Beach Rugby tournament at Great Yarmouth was held the year before with the support of Broadland-Gt Yarmouth RFC. Although numbers have yet to get above 20 teams there is a willingness from the club to keep it going, and with support from other Norfolk clubs it will grow in numbers.
The support from the RFU has been tremendous. Blackie and particularly Dan Brown brought as many resources as they could to each event, including a double-decker bus, RFU freebies, public address systems, flags and banners. In 2009 O2 wanted to increase their community profile as part of their sponsorship of England Rugby creating the Scrum on the Beach Series, and Clacton and Great Yarmouth were two of sixteen event nationally that got the full treatment; inflatable pitches, O2 angels giving away goody-bags. a Blue Room, a gaming area, and England stars in the form of James Haskell and Paul Sackey coming for the day. That support only lasted for two seasons and although it provided a lot of high profile razzamatazz, many of the regular teams said that they preferred the tournaments without them.
This year there has been a change at the RFU and Leisure Rugby no longer exists as an idea, it is all just Rugby. Sadly, no Leisure Rugby means no more Leisure Rugby Department and in 2012 the events no longer got the support of previous years. However a parting gift to Eastern Counties was six beach rugby pitches with six sets of posts so the support will now come from within.
The key to future growth is for the tournaments to be run by rugby clubs, and Beach Rugby in Eastern Counties is in safe hands with Broadland-Gt Yarmouth, Clacton and Southwold taking the lead.
Pictures from Beach Rugby events in Eastern Counties