A fabulous Rugby World Cup is over and the press has been full of reviews of how it went and what the future holds for the game in England. But I want to concentrate on how RWC 2015 has affected rugby clubs in the Eastern Counties.
When the venues were announced there were no games to be played in East Anglia, however there was a joint bid to host one of the teams put together by Cambridge University, Eastern Counties Rugby Union and the Cambridge based clubs. However this was ultimately unsuccessful due mainly to the lack of accommodation of the required standard.
Eastern Counties RU put on a couple of well-attended conferences in September 2013 and May 2014 designed to encourage rugby clubs in its area to start to plan for the forthcoming World Cup and how they could take advantage of the increased interest in the game that it would generate. That was followed up with thirty clubs getting a bumper pack of RWC resources, ten provided by NatWest RugbyForce and twenty by Eastern Counties, for them to dress up their clubhouses and attract the local community to come and watch the World Cup games at clubhouses.
The World Cup Trophy visited the area in August with good numbers from both within the game and from those new to rugby, travelling to see the cup at Lowestoft, Ipswich, Colchester and Cambridge (click for report and pictures). Local radio and TV covered the cup’s journey and it certainly raised the profile of rugby in the area.
The RFU Facilities team were busy spending £10m on improving social spaces in clubs making them more attractive. In the Eastern Counties eight clubs benefitted with Crusaders in Norfolk using the grant to transform their clubhouse interior from something resembling a scout hut to a modern, bright facility with a much better atmosphere to socialise in.
The Area 4 Legacy Group which covers Eastern Counties did a great job in raising £200k to be distributed amongst clubs in its area in the form of grants. Locally half a dozen or so projects have been funded and the money has been used to subsidise goalposts and pitch flags, plus every club will be receiving six balls over the next few weeks.
The All Schools Project has received a lot of publicity with its aim of 400 schools nationally introducing rugby onto the curriculum for the first time. This is where there is likely to be most success and it will take time to bear fruit, but it is a little disingenuous to link it to the Rugby World Cup. The Project has been running for four years in Eastern Counties with schools all around the area linking up with clubs with varying results, but exposing children to our game and its values is the way forward.
During the tournament itself there were nearly 100 volunteers from Eastern Counties involved and I met some of them when I went to a couple of matches at the Olympic Stadium, the most convenient venue for most people in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire with Stratford’s excellent transport links. About 20 of these were people who said that they were not actively involved with a rugby club and there is an on-going project to get them into the rugby family.
There was some success in getting people to watch the games at clubs but it was by no means universal. Those clubs that did get club members in for the England matches reported that there was a sprinkling of new people turning up but after England lost to Australia, interest in their final game against Uruguay dropped off with only a handful of clubs bothering to screen the game. You can’t help but wonder how busy clubs would have been if England had reached the knock-out stages.
Although England’s early exit didn’t detract from the tournament itself, the worry is that all the preparation to welcome new players may have been for nothing if people aren’t inspired to take up or return to the game. It is only now and in the coming weeks that we will know if this most important part of the legacy programme has a chance of being successful. There are generally more children turning up on a Sunday morning at clubs but nothing like the deluge experienced in 2003. However, clubs are better equipped this time around to hang on to them unlike 12 years when 90% of the new intake stopped playing after a year, due in part to a lack of qualified coaches, referees and decent facilities.
Ultimately, success will be measured by the number of people playing adult rugby at the weekend and instinctively it feels to me that more rugby is being played. Although there have been call offs early in the season, this has been put down to players from lower teams wanting to watch the World Cup games and being unavailable for the clubs. However, looking at the Eastern Counties Leagues there are fewer call offs than last season, particularly in Eastern Counties Four North where last year more games were cancelled than played. This season, thanks in part to a couple of tweaks to the competition structure, most games are being completed even if some teams arrive short.
There are new teams in the leagues this season; Colchester are fielding a regular fifth team for the first time in over ten years, and Sudbury have a 3rd XV in the leagues when it wasn’t long ago when they struggled to field a 2nd XV. There are similar stories around Eastern Counties with Lowestoft & Yarmouth playing a 3rd XV again and Norwich Union their seconds, something they rarely did last season. A survey of 30 Eastern Counties clubs has produced some very promising results although they are yet to be verified. They show that after subtracting players that have left or stopped playing, 219 new people joined, an average of seven per club. These are a mixture of those who have joined from other clubs, those who have come back to rugby after a break and those new to the game.
There is no doubt that the 2015 Rugby World Cup was the most successful ever in terms of tickets sold, money generated and exposure around the world. Whether it turns out to be the most successful in terms of legacy we can only judge in a year or so from now when we see how many of these new people have stayed in the game.