Rugby representatives from across Europe on descended on Twickenham on Friday and Saturday for the first ever Unity Project Conference.
The project, which is being run in partnership with the RFU, World Rugby, Rugby Europe and UK Sport, involves 17 European nations and is aiming to grow the game across the continent. All 17 nations were represented at the conference, which provided a chance to check on progress so far, as well as offering practical sessions on diverse subjects including coaching coaches, volunteer recruitment club development and social media. I was attending on behalf on Eastern Counties who, together with Notts, Lincs and Derby (NLD) have been working with the Belgian Rugby Union to help develop the game in their country.
It was the social media sessions that prompted me to write this blog article which is an summary of the conference and the Unity project from my point of view.
I met up on Thursday evening with by friend and colleague from Belgium Raf Renders and Tracy Edmundson from NLD for a curry and a catch up before Day One of the conference. Belgian rugby is broadly split between two leagues; the Flemish Dutch speaking league in the north and the Francophone Union in the West. Over the past year or so we had been dealing almost solely with the Flemish league with the French proving difficult to engage with.
Day one of the conference was opened by Bill Beaumont and was followed by a update from all 17 nations as to progress; what has gone well, what have been the challenges and plans for next year. It was a useful session where we could see how our progress compared with others and it was clear that every country has its issues. The key to success seemed to be the personal relationships that had been formed over the last two years between people from the European nations and the counties.
One key area where some countries struggled was with recruiting volunteers. In Russia and Poland for example, there is no tradition of volunteering for anything let alone in sport. Everyone expects to be paid for what they do so it is very difficult to introduce a volunteering ethos.
Then followed the first social media session looking at dos and donts and effective ways of communications to getting your message across. A keen user of social media myself I was tweeting during the session and made the point that it can also be used to promote debate and not just impart news.
The afternoon session was at Staines Rugby Club where indoor and outdoor sessions were planned and as it had been raining solidly since 9am, so I was glad that I had opted to stay in the dry. However I wasn’t prepared for quite how intensive the workshops sessions were to be. We had an hour each on Club structure and governance, Volunteer recruitment and retention, and how to foster school/club clinks with a focus on the All Schools project. At the end of it we were all suffering from information overload and we were glad to get back on the coach and return to Twickenham.
Twickenham was also hosting the the Annual Congress of Rugby Europe, the governing body of European Rugby formerly known as FRA, so it had been arranged for the delegates of both conferences to have a pitch-side barbeque. Unfortunately the weather put paid to that idea but we enjoyed a drinks reception in the players tunnel with the chance to look around the England changing room which, although I had been around it a couple of times before, never fails to impress. Dinner was in the President’s Suite overlooking the pitch and it was an ideal opportunity to network with rugby people from countries all over Europe. It was particularly useful for me, Tracey and Raf as we bumped into the Belgian RFU President and Secretary and arranged to have a breakfast meeting to see how we could get our part of the Unity Project back on track.
I wisely left for bed comparatively early and when I arrived for our 8am meeting there were a number of bleary- eyed delegates staring into their morning porridge. It was a very productive meeting however and the reasons for the lack of communication from the French league were explained, it all coming down to one person not passing on messages effectively. We found time as part of the conference to go through and revise our development plan and we now feel that we will be able to make a difference in the coming season.
Day Two was primarily spent look at the Core Values of the game in England and what their equivalents are in the different European countries, then looking at how social media could be used to promote those values within their countries. For this we had the help of members of the RFU National Youth Council, a group of 16 to 24 years old players and volunteers brought together to help the RFU to form its strategies for recruiting and retaining young people in rugby. The organisers had learnt their lesson from Day One and the sessions were shorter so the conference ended early with the now inevitable group selfie, but not before we received Rugby World Cup update from Director of Operation Neil Snowball
All in all a worthwhile conference that allowed the smaller European Unions to learn from each other and for the English counties to strengthen their links with them and revisit their development plans. I am sure another will be planned for next year when we can judge id social media has had a significant impact on the game in Europe.