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Category Archives: Unity Project

Grand Prix Sevens at Exeter

DSC02380Last weekend I travelled to Exeter for the second round of the Rugby Europe Grand Prix Sevens.  I am a great fan of sevens for its speed and unpredictability and I have travelled to tournaments in England, Europe and Africa, but the reason I went to the West Country was to meet up with my Belgian friend Jan Coupé.  One of Jan’s sons was playing for Belgium in the tournament although both his boys have represented their country in the past.

Jan is a former President of the Belgian Rugby Union and has recently been re-elected to the Board, so I saw this as an opportunity to talk about the Unity Project where Eastern Counties is working with Belgium to help grow the game.  Things have stalled since our last visit to Brussels in March.

It was my first visit to Sandy Park and I was impressed by the facilities.  It has a capacity of 12,500 and I would say that between 3,000 and 4,000 came to watch on each day of the two-day tournament.  This was a higher number than the previous season and a huge improvement on the year before when the English leg was held at Sale’s ground in Manchester.  There the crowd was in the hundreds rather than thousands.  There were a number of Rugby Europe committee men at Exeter and they were happy that the spectators numbers were growing.

DSCF6001An extra attraction was that this was one of the trial tournaments for the GB Sevens Olympic squad and there were two teams entered, GB Lions and GB Royals, taking the places of the England and Wales teams.  It was difficult to say whether one team was meant to be stronger than the other with England playmakers Tom Mitchell and Dan Bibby with speedsters Dan Norton and Marcus Watson (Anthony’s brother) in the Lions side, but the hugely important James Rodwell was in the Royals squad along with Welshmen Luke Morgan and Luke Treharne.

12 teams were taking part split into three groups of four, so on Day One each team played three games to decide their ranking for the knockout stages.  Both GB sides won all their matches to comfortably reach the quarter finals. Between games I was networking and socialising in equal measure, both activities accompanied by several pints of the very good Otter Bitter which is brewed only a few miles away.

On Day Two I arrived a bit earlier to have a look around the stadium which was well served for bars and had a very well stocked shop with all sorts of paraphernalia with Exeter Chiefs logos.  No doubt this was the reason for the Wild West theme at the Sevens with a number of cowboys and Indians in the crowd and music such as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Cotton Eye Joe being played between games.

The main opposition for the GB teams was expected to come from France and Spain, both of whom had qualified as one of 12 countries in the Olympic competition, but it was Russia that proved to be the biggest stumbling block.  The Lions met the Bears in their quarter final and although they had plenty of possession, GP made too many uncharacteristic mistakes and went down 5-7.  This put the Lions in the Plate competition which they won with comfortable victories over Georgia in the semi-final and Germany in the final.

DSC02468The Royals had the reverse fixtures to the Kings playing first Georgia in the quarters before coming up again Russia in the semis.  This was an equally close match but once they had taken the lead, GB closed out the game to win 12-10.   This meant facing France in the final in what proved to be the match of the tournament.  France took an early 12-0 lead but the inspirational Rodwell led the comeback and GP ran out 33-17 winners.

GB coach Simon Amor will have one more tournament next weekend in Gdansk, Poland before he announces the squad that will compete in Rio.

Report from EnglandRugby.com

Pictures from the weekend

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The other meeting in Brussels

WP_20160220_14_54_42_Raw[1]While David Cameron was busy with his European colleagues in Brussels, I was also in the city for another meeting; that between Belgium and Holland in Division 1B of the European Nations Cup.  I had planned this trip for a while as part of the Unity project where Eastern Counties, along with Notts, Lincs and Derby, are linked with the Belgian Rugby Union to help them develop rugby in the country. We had intended to run a volunteer workshop on the morning of the game but for one reason or another it was postponed until later in the season.

Nevertheless, I decided to carry on with the trip so I could catch up with friends I had made since the project began, make some new contacts within the Belgian Union, and I would get to watch some international rugby at a different level to to the Six Nations.

We took the Eurostar on Friday afternoon and had dinner with former BRU President Jan Coupé.  We spent the evening talking about the fortunes of Belgian and English rugby and the deal that Cameron was trying to reach with Europe, followed by a coffee and a Ricard in a bar before retiring to our hotel.

WP_20160220_16_16_14_Raw[1]On Saturday we were met by Raf Renders who would take us to the game at the Heysel Stadium.  Not the Heysel itself but a much smaller stadium in its shadow called the Petit Heysel.  The Belgian Union is making a big effort to raise awareness of rugby in the wake of the World Cup so they had put up a hospitality marquee with beer supplied by the Union’s sponsor Bofferding, which ironically is brewed in Luxembourg.  By the time the game was about to start the tent was doing a roaring trade but the tent soon emptied and the 4000 to 5000 spectators filled the stands of the stadium. 

Belgium lay 29th in the World Rankings and Holland 33rd, but everyone I spoke to was confident of a Belgian win although you can never be quite sure with a local derby.  As the game was not being played on an official international weekend, French clubs were not obliged to release any of their international players which meant that Belgium were without three of their best players.

WP_20160220_13_07_24_Raw[1]However, it was Belgium that started the better, despite the constant rain, and two first half tries and a penalty saw them go into half time with a 17-3 lead.  After the break Holland had their best spell scoring a try to reduce the deficit to 17-8, but Belgium soon took control of the game and through their very useful back line scored two more tries, securing a vital bonus point, to record a 32-8 win and go top of the Division 1B table.

After the game is was back to hospitality to discuss the game and do some networking.  I said hello to various people  I had met as part of the Unity project as well as a lot of new people that had got involved with Rugby in Belgium.  There were a number of British people living in Belgium that were helping out but I was surprised to find out that the European Parliament has a rugby team and it may be worth putting them in touch with Commons & Lords RFC for arrange a game, assuming we remain in Europe that is!

WP_20160220_16_53_58_Raw[1]As people started to drift away we went back to the hotel for something to eat then a nightcap before bed.  I am writing this on the homeward bound Eurostar on Sunday where I can reflect that wherever you are in the world the five Core Values of Rugby remain (Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship), but I would like to add a sixth: Friendship.

Unity Project and Social Media

imageRugby representatives from across Europe on descended on Twickenham on Friday and Saturday for the first ever Unity Project Conference.

WP_20150724_19_11_11_Raw 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.

WP_20150724_10_33_19_RawDay 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.

WP_20150724_19_19_44_Raw 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.

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