When England was awarded the hosting of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, one of the things signed up to was to help develop rugby in Europe. Constituent Bodies (CBs) were linked with European countries, two CBs to each nation, and Eastern Counties, along with Notts, Lincs and Derby (NLD), were linked with Belgium. This is known as the Unity Project.
The plan is for a group from CBs to visit the linked country for a ‘scoping’ exercise to see what areas they may be able to help with in terms of development, then a couple of months later there will be a return visit to the CBs who will have put together a programme to address those areas. The first scoping visit was by Eastern Counties and NLD at the beginning of October.
The CBs each had a team of three, including a Council Member, and they were accompanied by the Area Manager and Katie Dooling who is leading the project at the RFU. Most of the party left on Thursday evening but as there was a Council meeting on Friday the Council Members arrived a day later. This meant the we missed what turned out to be an important couple of meetings where the purpose of the project was explained and the Belgian officials went through how rugby is structured in their country.
Belgium has about 65 rugby clubs, a similar number to NLD, with the best players playing professionally in France. The Belgian Rugby Union is the overall governing body but there are two further Unions that appear to be responsible for club and player development; the Francophone Union which governs the French speaking part of the country and the Flemish Union that governs the rest where the main language is Dutch although there are a significant number of people that speak German. One of the reasons for matching Eastern Counties and NLD with Belgium was the fact that we both have three Domestic Unions, but although we have the problems of competing priorities between the counties, we don’t have the issue of them speaking three different languages!
My Council colleague from NLD and I had arranged to leave the Council meeting early to catch the 3pm Eurostar which got us into central Brussels in two hours and we got a taxi to the hotel where the rest of the party were waiting for us. We were introduced to Jan Coupe, the President of the Belgian RFU who I had met previously in June when I came to watch England Counties play Belgium.
He took us to a traditional Belgian restaurant, one where the locals eat rather than the tourists, where we had Ham Hock in mustard sauce with frites washed down with several glasses of Jupiler beer in my case, while others sampled some of the dark, heavy monastery-brewed ales that are almost the strength of Merlot. Desert was a first for me, something referred to as the Colonel; a sorbet floating in vodka. It takes quite a lot of vodka to float a sorbet but I thought it would be rude to leave any!
The walk to the restaurant and the rather slower return journey were accompanied by Jan’s running commentary of the historic buildings in the capital which is the seat of the Belgian royal family. We returned to the hotel which was a military school in the past and which Jan attended as a teenager. The rooms were sparse but comfortable but it was easy to imagine what like was like for the cadets that were studying there in years past.
Saturday was the day for visiting various clubs and facilities the first one being Rugby Club Leuven, Jan’s own club. We saw a minis training session then there was a regional U15 trial where the standard was pretty good although there were two or three girls playing too, something you wouldn’t see in the UK. I spoke to a couple of coaches about how they recruit their players and it seems that they mainly rely on word of mouth. The child of a coach plays and he asks a friend to join who in turn asks another friend, and so on. Once they start playing the retention rate is high which is attributed partly to the niche status the sport has, which makes it cool to play, and is a reflection of the inclusive nature of the game.
The clubhouse was similar to many that you see anywhere in England including shelves full of rugby memorabilia. When I looked a bit more closely I was delighted to see a rugby ball printed with Colchester Schools Rugby so I knew that my club had been there before me.
Our next visit was half an hour away to Rugby Ottignies Club where the U23 National squad was having a training camp and a number of those taking part played against England Counties when I watched them in June. Once again this was club much like any other you would find in the UK with two pitches and a modest clubhouse. However, we were then taken to their new facility a few minutes away and to which they hope to move to in he New Year. It had a floodlit artificial rugby pitch and two further rugby pitches, while the clubhouse and changing rooms were still being built. There is talk of the national team moving its training base here in the future and the intention is to install many more artificial rugby pitches around the country. It is likely that Belgium could more more pitches like this for its 65 clubs that England has for nearly 2000!
We couldn’t stay for long as we were back into the minibus for a 90 minute drive to Liege, first to have some lunch in the University, then to a Sports Institute where the Rugby Academy is based. The complex has everything; swimming pool, tennis courts, football, hockey and rugby pitches, gyms and accommodation. Our hosts explained that a group of 16/17 years olds with potential to make the national team come to the Institute for a week long program.
The mornings are generally classroom based looking at nutrition, physiology and the technical aspects of fitness and playing, with the afternoons devoted to physical activity of various types including game play. We asked questions about outcomes, pathways and how players responded to the program and it was clear how passionate the academy leaders are about the sport and the players.
It was then back to Brussels to freshen up and go out for dinner, this time to in the tourist area around La Grande Place. After a couple of beers in a bar that used to be an undertaker’s, complete with coffins and skull-shaped mugs, we went to a restaurant for buckets of mussels, a Belgian favourite, followed by excellent steak accompanied by pretty ordinary chips and vegetables.
We continued to talk about rugby development with Jan into the night and the next morning when he was joined by Laurent and Monique from the Francophone Union. One area where we can learn from Belgium is the development of the women’s game at club level. The number of clubs with women’s teams and the number of women playing is higher that in Eastern Counties and NLD combined and we need to explore how they have managed to make the female game so popular.
If nothing else has been achieved I know that we have begun to form strong links between our CBs and Belgium with a request already received for a club youth side to visit to visit us on tour later this season. Officials from Belgium Rugby will be paying us a return visit in January when we will be able to show them how thinks are done in England.