A Rugby Life

A Rugby Volunteer's Blog

Category Archives: RFU

Back on Home Ground

PerivaleIt’s been a couple of years since I left the RFU and Eastern Counties committees and I promised myself at least two seasons away from any kind of rugby administrative role.  My reasons for leaving centred around keeping an eye on my mother in London, as trying to juggle her needs, my work and my rugby commitments was proving too much and something had to give.

But there was more to it than that; I felt that I was no longer making a difference in the game, particularly at the RFU.  I remember in the winter of 2008 when I was addressing clubs in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk in my campaign to be elected the RFU representative for Eastern Counties, I said that I had made a difference at my club, at my county and at Eastern Counties, and that I wanted to make a difference at Twickenham.  I am confident that I have made a difference during my tenure but after the 2015 Rugby World Cup there were others that were better placed than me to take the community game forward.  Rather than hang on without making any significant contribution at a national level, I left the following season.

So I moved to London.  I live overlooking the Wasps FC ground in Twyford Avenue and although I stepped away from admin, my love of the grass-roots game is undiminished.  When the 2017/18 season started I went along to see what was happening at the ground and it was a hive of activity, being the home of a number of clubs in West London.  One of the teams playing a warm-up game was Old Priorians, the old boys team from my school St Benedict’s in Ealing.  Since then I have spent many Saturdays at the school ground of my youth watching OPs playing at Level 6, or if they were playing away in the further reaches of East Anglia, I would watch Colchester if they were playing in London.

Old Priorians is an amateur club with most of the players being old boys of the school and with few members over 40.  An exception is the President, Peter Halsall, who came to teach at St Benedict’s during my last year there.  If he couldn’t make a home game I would step in to meet and greet opposition committee and supporters, many of whom I knew from clubs such as North Walsham, Luton, Diss, Southend, Sudbury and of course Colchester.  Towards the end of last season I offered my help on the club committee and at the recent AGM I was duly elected as the RFU and NW Cluster rep.  It is a role that I hope my experience over the years will be of help to local clubs as well as OPs.

I intend to avoid falling into the trap of putting my hand up for too many jobs.  These past two seasons without a role have allowed me to just enjoy the game, and I know what it is like to be an overworked volunteer.  It will also give me an excuse to regularly contribute once again to this blog, something I have enjoyed, even though readers may not fell the same.  Maybe I will write about playing, watching and administering rugby in the capital compared to the game in rural East Anglia, mixed with reminiscences of good and not so good times serving on the Eastern Counties and RFU committees.

So check back every few weeks or so to see what ramblings I have committed to the web.

Will RFU Council Members bear their share of cuts?

img_07981235.jpgIt has been a while since I added anything to my blog but having read about the RFU’s financial problems over the last few months I thought it was time to add by two-penn’th.  The catalyst was the article in the Telegraph on 1 October where chief exec Steve Brown warned of £20m cuts over the next four years.

I’m not going to pretend that I know where cuts should be made in either the professional or community game, but having spent nine years as a Council Member at Twickenham I think I am better qualified than most to talk about where cuts can be made to Council running costs.

The most effective cut to the budget could be made by decreasing the size of Council.  When I joined in 2008/9 the big debate was about the report of the Constitutional Review Task Group (CRTG) which was looking at a number of areas including the composition of Council and who members represented.  There were proposals to remove representation from Oxford and Cambridge universities and the National Clubs Association, and to increase the minimum number of clubs for a CB to have representation to 20, forcing those with fewer to combine.

I had experienced how unwieldy a Council of 57 was and I enthusiastically voted in favour of reducing the number, but by colleagues had other ideas and the proposals were not carried.  Ironically, within a few years the number of RFU Council Members rose to 60!

Another attempt to reduce member numbers came with the Slaughter & May report in 2014, and although some of its recommendations were adopted, the most recent being a maximum term of nine years for Council Members, the size of Council remained the same.

So despite these attempts to slim down Council, my former colleagues have stubbornly refused to accept any change that may affect their seat at the table.  A cynic would point to complimentary tickets, travel and accommodation for England games at Twickenham and in Europe as powerful incentives to maintain the status quo.

I have heard that Council Members have been asked to consider paying for the tickets and meals for their wives and partners, currently part of their entitlement, to save a reported £30k a year, but again this has been turned down.

My proposal is much more radical but could save £300k a year from the approximate Council Services budget of £1½m.  I would revisit some of the recommendations of the CRTG and Slaughter & May reports and consider some serious pruning of Member numbers:

  • The Army, Navy and RAF each have a representative on Council.  Replace these three with one representative for the Services.
  • Both Oxford University and Cambridge University have a representative.  There is no good reason for this anachronism to continue.
  • There is a representative for Womens Rugby which was introduced comparatively recently.  It was an appropriate thing to do at the time but with the womens game so integrated in CBs and in an increasing number of clubs, it is no longer necessary.
  • The Schools Union and the Students Union each have two representatives on Council; they should be reduced to one each.
  • CBs with 60 or more voting clubs are entitled to two Council Members.  Seven CBs should have their have two representatives reduced to one; Gloucestershire, Lancashire, Middlesex, Notts, Lincs & Derbyshire (NLD), North Midlands, Surrey and Yorkshire,
  • The numbers of clubs in CBs varies enormously and I would propose a minimum of 30 voting clubs for a CB, with those with fewer clubs forced to combine.  Berkshire (13 clubs), Buckinghamshire (16) and Oxfordshire (18) would become one CB, while Cumbria (25), Northumberland (21) and Durham(18) would form another.
  • The National Clubs Association represents clubs at Level 3 and 4, but these are already represented by geographical CBs.  The NCA is primarily a competition organising committee and it can still represent clubs’ views without being on Council.

I am sure that there will be a degree of harrumphing at the idea of reducing the size of Council by 19 but it will still be the largest in international rugby.  Well organised CBs should be able to get opinions from clubs and feed them through to their representative on Council, which in a slimmed-down form would be more effective.

The RFU Council is not a popular body amongst grass-roots clubs, their players and supporters, with few understanding what they do and what it is for.  They have an opportunity to show they are not the self-serving body that many perceive them as.  What is important is that Council is seen to be doing something to contribute towards the £20m cuts over four years that the RFU is seeking; a reduction like this would see over £1m towards the target.

A Veteran player, young volunteers, leadership and an outdoor classroom: My Rugby Week

DSC02886It’s been another busy week for me in rugby terms so this article is a collection of my thoughts and observations over the past nine days.

I attended Dickie Jeeps’ funeral in his home village of Bottisham between Cambridge and Newmarket.  Well over 100 people came to pay their respects including a dozen or so England players from the 60s and 70s, four of whom bore Dickie’s coffin into the church.  This was no mean feat considering the age of the four, Budge Rogers, Derek Morgan, Malcom Philips and Bob Taylor, all former RFU Presidents, as was Dickie, and all who had played with him for England or Northampton.

John Spencer and Piggy Powell both spoke about Dickie’s wicked sense of humour and the practical jokes he played, frequently involving a raw egg, and his astonishing prowess as a player.  The Newmarket Journal printed a detailed obituary which is well worth a read; click here.

The next day was Saturday and I went to Southwold v Upminster.  At the pre-match lunch (a very good steak & mushroom pie accompanied by several pints of excellent Adnams) I chatted about the payment of players proposal and the possibility of the beach rugby tournament being resurrected, before going out to watch the game.  Those of you who have been to Southwold for a game will have memories of an icy wind coming in off the North Sea, fresh from the Russian Steppes, sometimes accompanied by horizontal rain.  But to everyone’s delight and surprise the sun shone and the temperature was high enough to discard many of the layers supporters had brought with them.

You can see pictures of the game with a short summary of the game by clicking here but Southwold were always likely to win with the experienced Des Brett in the front row.  After a long and distinguished career playing for Blackheath, the 43 year old has returned to his roots and at this level there are few if any props that can match him.

Stone LodgeOn Tuesday I left work early to get the Stone Lodge Academy in Ipswich.  This was following a request from Seamus Farrelly, chairman of the Wooden Spoon Society in Eastern Counties, to officially open one of their projects at the school.  Seamus works tirelessly as a volunteer raising money to help special needs schools in the area and I have attended events in Colchester and Clacton where Phil Vickery has opened a sensory room and Jason Leonard a trampoline designed for wheelchair users.  But this was the first time that I had been asked to do the honours and after a tour of the school we went outside to cut the ribbon to open an outdoor classroom; a new concept on me but a facility that I’m told will be well used.

After the opening it was off to Stowmarket for a Club Development committee meeting where amongst items discussed were a Club Volunteer Coordinator Conference to be held in February and what sort of Running Rugby Workshops we should be offering to clubs.

WP_20161102_21_06_10_RichWednesday saw me go straight from work to Corby for the launch of the East Midlands and Leicestershire Leadership Academy.  I was a candidate on the very first RFU Leadership Academy in 2005 and have been a mentor at Academies held in Eastern Counties, but this time I was delivering the content.  My co-deliverer, Rachel Brown is very experienced and her confidence rubbed off on me so I was comfortable with the sections I led on.  There were about a dozen candidates, including five women, who learnt about what the Academy is, what they can expect to do over the season and they were introduced to their mentors.  I will be working with them over the year and it is interesting to see them grow as individuals.  Eastern Counties will be hosting its next Leadership Academy in 2017/18 and we are already looking for likely candidates.

We finished at 9:30pm and I headed south to Twickenham where I arrived about midnight thanks to the M25 being down to one lane.  After some much needed sleep I sorted out a few bits of admin in the RFU office before the Club Development sub-committee meeting.  We had a lot to cover and received a presentation about the Natural Grass Pitch strategy.  There has been a lot of publicity about the 100 Artificial Grass Pitches that the RFU will be installing over the next four years, but with over 3000 natural grass rugby pitches in England this is where over 99% of the game is played.

We also discussed volunteer recruitment, volunteer rewards with Mitsubishi keen to be involved, plans for the CB Volunteers bar, club incorporation, funding for the game and many more items, so it was no surprise that the meeting took four hours.  The downside was that I left for home at the start of rush hour and with the vagaries of the North Circular and delays caused by an accident on the M25 it took me three hours to get home.

WP_20161105_11_40_53_ProAfter work on Friday I once again headed away from home to Birmingham for the Young Rugby Ambassadors conference the following day.  As part of the day the YRAs were to be put through an Apprentice style task and I was asked to play the Lord Sugar role.  My next blog article will talk about the conference in more detail but the day was great fun with the YRAs learning a lot about working under pressure, delegating tasks and teamwork.  I got home about 8pm, caught up with the local results and was delighted that the Irish had secured their first win over the All Blacks in Chicago.

Thankfully not all weeks are quite as busy as this one otherwise I would struggle to get any paid work done!  However, it was great fun and I regard it as a privilege to be allowed to get involved in the game at so many different levels and while I still enjoy it, I will continue to be a rugby volunteer.

Council Member Briefing–October 2016

Briefing picMy latest Council Member Briefing and associated documents can be downloaded in various formats by clicking the link below:

Council Member Briefing – October 2016

This edition includes some views from Eddie Jones and proposals about the payment of players in the community game

Old Priorians influencing Rugby Union in England

200_9579A couple of years ago I started writing an article about the fact that four people from the same school were on the RFU Council.  I couldn’t think of a suitable way of finishing off the piece so it sat in my draft folder until a Council colleague said that he knew a friend who would be interested in seeing what I had written and publishing it with some enhancements.

Below is the article that appeared in the September 2016 edition of The Independent Schools Magazine.


St Benedict’s School in Ealing, West London, has long been known as a strong rugby school, producing a number of youth internationals and the occasional full international, the latest being Wasps scrum-half Joe Simpson, and it has consistently done well in the National Daily Mail Schools Cup competition.

What is less well known is the growing influence the school has at the headquarters of England Rugby. The RFU Council is a body of 60 or so volunteers that agrees policy for the game, members being elected by clubs around the country and others representing educational establishments (Schools, Colleges and Universities) and the Armed Forces.

There are now four members of the RFU Council who were educated at St Benedict’s: Chris Cuthbertson left St Benedict’s in 1973 and was elected by clubs in Middlesex to represent them on the RFU Council in 2003. Damien Hopley (1986), who won 3 England caps before injury curtailed his playing career, has sat on the Council since 2007 representing professional Rugby players. Andrew Sarek (1979) joined a year later as the representative of clubs in Eastern Counties and these three were joined in 2012 by Commander Jon Cunningham (1981) who represents the Royal Navy.

The quartet sit on various committees at Twickenham covering the breadth of the game.  Jon Cunningham is a member of the Nominations Committee; Chris Cuthbertson is Chairman of the Laws Cub Committee, a member of the Governance Committee, the Audit & Riisk Committee; Damian Hopley is a member of the Professional Game Board, while Andrew Sarek sits on the Club Development Sub Committee

Chris Cuthbertson said: ”The first time that I went to Twickenham was in 1967 on a Middle School trip to the Varsity match.  That trip was the start of my love of the game.  Whilst never a good player, I have made many life-log friends and have enjoyed every minute of my involvement both on and off the field”.

Nikki Woodroffe, Director of Sport at St Benedict’s, said: “Historically, rugby has played an integral part of both the sporting and school community here at St Benedict’s School.  the students are supported by excellent and highly qualified  teachers and coaches.

“The future of rugby looks bright as we continue to attract a high level of talent and achieve county cup victories and national finals such as the Rosslyn Park Sevens Junior competition.

“Under the Director of Rugby, James Coles, we field A through to D teams and cater for the talented as well as providing inclusivity.  This results in great camaraderie and spirit within the school across all ages and abilities.  We are proud of the strong link between the school and Wasps Academy, as well as with local clubs, which provide a pathway to represent England.  I’m sure the high calibre and tradition of rugby will continue for many years to come.”

My first experience of Twickenham was also a Varsity match although I can’t remember in what year.  There are other notable Old Priorians (St Benedict’s Old Boys) which you can look up on Wikipedia, but rugby is where there is the most influence.

Is there a future for RFU Cup competitions?

It has been a busy few days and I have only just got round to looking at the results for last weekend in detail. This was a Cup weekend with only Clubs at Level 4 and above playing league games.  I was dismayed at the number of conceded games in the London & South East Division and even more so when I saw how many involved clubs from Eastern Counties.

This isn’t the first time I have written about the number of call offs in cup competitions (see previous article here)  but I think it is worth revisiting to see if anything has changed.  I should say that I am not aiming criticism at individual clubs, I am questioning if the RFU Cup competitions are seen as so important when compared to league rugby.

In the first rounds of the Intermediate Cup and Senior Vase and the Preliminary round of the Junior Vase, 31 games were due to be played and 8 were conceded, about one in four.  What surprised me was that it wasn’t necessarily teams that are struggling that conceded.  Diss and Ipswich lie first and fourth respectively in London 2 North East but despite their current good form, Diss conceded their game away to Welwyn who are second from bottom of London 2 NW and more perplexing, Ipswich conceded a home tie against Woodford who are several places below them in the league.

On the face of it, Diss would have been odds on to go through to the second round and Ipswich would at least have had a healthy bar take on the day with every chance of a win too.  Could it be that players saw a gap in the league programme and arranged to do something else?  If they were aware that there was a cup game did they decide that having a rest week was more important in the context of the whole season?

In the Senior Vase I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for Lowestoft & Yarmouth RFC.  Last season the club fell victim to league call-offs by Upminster in September and May & Baker in December, but L&Y duly honoured the return fixtures later in the season.

This season L&Y and Upminster are still in London 3 NE but Lowestoft are going through a difficult time on the pitch, suffering a couple of heavy defeats in September.  On 1 October the first team travelled down the A12 to Upminster who by all accounts were very appreciative that they had made the journey as there was a pre-match lunch with a lot of supporters on the day.  The home team won 85-0 and they gave due praise to L&Y for travelling albeit with a weakened side. However, when Upminster were due to make the return journey to the Suffolk Coast for a cup tie just two weeks later, they conceded the game, despite being almost certain to win (with apologies to L&Y members).  Again, this looks like an example of Cup games jut not being seen as important as league games.

I haven’t looked to see what the picture is like around the rest of the country but I wonder for how long these Cup competitions will continue when support for them seems to be diminishing.

Rugby’s biggest challenge?

Over the past year or so there have been a increasing number of stories and articles about the dangers of playing rugby and the injuries at professional and amateur level, in the adult and youth game.  Professor Allysson Pollock wrote an article for the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago called “Why NO mother should let her son play rugby” and was on BBC Breakfast explaining her view.  I put an article published in The Guardian on my Facebook page “Is Rugby too dangerous for children” which provoked a number of thoughtful comments from members of local clubs which you can read by clicking here, but the trend of highlighting our game as one that is likely to cause serious injury is worrying.

Personally, I see it as the biggest challenge to Rugby’s future that the game faces and I know that the RFU takes the threat very seriously.  Some high profile cases of concussed players staying on the field of play prompted the Headcase Campaign with advice on recognising and dealing with concussion and clear guidelines about how long players should rest for before playing again.

There is no point in denying that injuries will happen in a contact sport, but I’m not convinced that rugby has become more dangerous at community level, it’s just that people are much more aware of them.  And the way to deal with it isn’t to ridicule understandably worried parents for not accepting that injuries are going to happen; there has to be a game-wide initiative to make people understand that injuries happen in nearly every sport and that rugby deals with incidents in a safer way than almost any other.  Coaches receive injury and concussion awareness training, and players with the slightest sign of being concussed are removed from the game immediately and mandatory rest periods enforced.  The example shown by the professional game is very important, with players not allowed to play however important they are to their team.  Any parent, teacher or coach at any level not sticking to the guidelines does the player and the game serious harm.

Rugby’s most recognisable player, Jonny Wilkinson, is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that Rugby is not too dangerous and using high profile figures to spread the message is effective.  But ultimately it is for grass-roots clubs and schools to convince concerned parents that rugby is one of the best sports their child can play for its inclusiveness, there is a place for everyone in a rugby team, its camaraderie, you make friends for life through the game, and for its Core Values that are unique to rugby of Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship, values that prepare children for life.

Here is a link to a video where I talk about the dangers of concussion in the community game

The demise of RugbyFirst

RugbyFirst%20LogoEight years after it was launched as the way forward for the administration of the community game, RugbyFirst will be replaced by a new Game Management System or GMS for short.


RugbyFirst has never had a very good reputation, unfairly in my opinion, with too many people quick to decry its shortcomings and conveniently forgetting those parts of it that worked well and made a club administrator’s life much easier.

So what was RugbyFirst?  Put simply, it was a database that was created to replace a number of separate databases that held all sorts of important information about rugby in England; registrations, club officers, referee and coach data, disciplinary sanctions, fixtures & results, etc.  That database is largely remaining the same; what is changing is the interface that allows us to access the data. but such was the unpopularity of RugbyFirst amongst some of sectors of the game that politically it was better to be seen to be having a complete overhaul of the system.

But there were many facets of RugbyFirst that worked very well, such as the online Player Registration system that got rid of forms being put in the post to the Divisional Registrar and a letter being sent to a player’s previous club.  RFU leagues from the Premiership down to County level were accessible through RugbyFirst with Saturday’s results usually available by 6pm, a far cry from waiting for the Sunday papers to read the scores.  Merit Tables, County Cups, youth leagues were all able to be administered through the system with an archive of results going back over 15 years.

Possible the most useful feature of RugbyFirst was the abililty to send personalised bulk emails to club members, filtered by players or by teams or by roles.  At County level that facility was expanded to allow emails to be sent to every club in the area, and of course the RFU used it to send messages to the game in general.

There were some things that seemed a good idea at the time but never were never widely used, such as the Team Builder feature which allowed you to select your team and then send emails to let players know they were in the squad.  But this depended on every player and member keeping their contact details up to date which meant giving them all a username and password, and of course they would never log in meaning that an administrator had to try to keep all the details up to date himself; an impossible task given the transient nature of some rugby players moving between school, university and different employments.

The facility to build your own club website was used by a lot of clubs and counties to start with.  It was free and although a little clunky, fairly simple to use once the basics had been mastered, but to some extent it was a victim of its own success.  I sat on the RugbyFirst Project Board from 2006 as one of a number of users to advise on areas for improvement and development.  Increasingly, the development requests centred more on the the web-building facility and less on the core areas of RFU work such as player, referee, coach and volunteer development, club development and growing the game.  The new Game Management System will not have any website function so clubs will be encouraged to go to establshed free website building sites such as Pitchero.

But the biggest criticism of RugbyFirst was its inability to accurately count the number of people playing the game, one of the the key functions it was set up to do.  I well remember the Project Board meeting where the decision was made to go ahead and use RugbyFirst as the main system to count players despite the advice from users that this would not work.  The problem was that although administrators would dutifully put a player onto the database when they played a game for one of the lower teams, they would rarely if ever take them off again if they stopped playing or moved away.

The effect of these ‘ghost’ players was to dramatically increase the number of people that the RFU thought were playing the game.  If each club in England had just 10 recorded players that had in fact stopped playing, that would increase the perceived playing number by 12,000.  Sure enough, when Sport England compared the RFU’s figures with its own gleaned from surveys, there was a huge gap which resulted in a cut in funding.

This effectively signalled the death knell for RugbyFirst and work started on a completely new Customer Relationship Management system of the which the GMS is one part.  It is to be launched at the beginning of August along with a new EnglandRugby.com website and a personal area for each user called MyRugby.  Training dates are being set up and clubs will be invited to none of three to be held in Eastern Counties.

I will miss RugbyFirst despite its occasional foibles but I am looking forward to working with rather unimaginatively named GMS.


RFU Representative Annual Report 2013/14

This is the report I submitted for the Eastern Counties Annual Report delivered at its AGM on 6 June 2014


The Rugby Football Union has had a good year on and off the field and with the Rugby World Cup less than 500 days away England Rugby is looking in good shape to stage one of the best ever tournaments and to be one of the major contenders to win it.

Stuart Lancaster’s squad improved with every game during the season and although they couldn’t repeat the thrilling win of 2012 over the All Blacks and they were denied a Six Nations Grand Slam by the luck of the bounce in Paris, there is no doubt that there is more to come. There is strength in depth in nearly every position and the pride the players have in representing their country is part of an ethos than connects with the grass roots game.

Bill Beaumont has grown into the role of Chairman during his second year and it was his stature as a highly respected former player, along with the negotiating acumen of Chief Executive Ian Ritchie, that secured the agreement of all parties to allow a European Cup competition to go ahead next season when for a while it looked like there would be none.

At Twickenham I continue to sit on the Club Development sub-committee where I take a lead on Volunteering. This season has seen an increase in the number of opportunities available to thank and reward volunteers with match tickets, invitations to lunch at Twickenham or to watch the England squad train at St George’s or Pennyhill Park, etc. But the most important part for me is the recruitment of new volunteers and their development.

Next year’s Rugby World Cup will provide us with a once in a generation opportunity to grow the game in our communities in terms of players, coaches referees and volunteers but the work to recruit them starts now. I have been helping England Rugby 2015 with their Volunteer Recruitment strategy and there have been 18000 applicants for 6000 volunteer roles at the World Cup, with over 13000 applications coming from outside the game. Our job is to direct these people towards their local rugby clubs who need to welcome them and show them how rewarding it is to be a volunteer involved in rugby.

In all I have spent over 50 days on RFU business this season and I must thank my employers for allowing me to take the time off. However, my passion remains grass-roots rugby and I try to visit an Eastern Counties club to watch a game every spare Saturday during the season as well as taking in some Sunday and weekday evening games. In all, I have managed 29 visits to 23 clubs including three that I hadn’t been to before; Watton, Cottenham Renegades and Norwich Medics. I am pretty sure that I have now visited every single Eastern Counties club since I became a Council Member and I know that I have been to many of them more than a few times.

I have continued to communicate as much as I can with clubs with regular Council Member Briefings as well as through Twitter, Facebook and my blog at https://asarek.wordpress.com I have also organised meetings with clubs to discuss the RFU’s Adult Competitions Review, the replacement for RugbyFirst, and planning for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

It seems that the close season gets shorter and shorter every year but I hope you manage to get a break from rugby until the start of the 2014/15 season when I look forward to visiting your club.

RFU Council Member Briefing October 2013

My latest Council Member Briefing can be downloaded by clicking the link below

Council Member Briefing – October 2013

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