Post covid participation and mixed ability rugby
Ever since the UK’s first lockdown, the game of rugby has faced challenges like never before. Since 2020, we have seen our beloved sport cut off in its tracks, led dormant for months on end whilst we sat around making banana bread and watching old world cup matches in the home we had never spent so much time in.
As restrictions became more freeing, we saw our game restart in an altered fashion with new rules and empty stadiums. The sporting world adjusted to the new climate in a fashion that was new to us all, with masks being worn everywhere but the field.
The professional game kept the same face it always had, with hard-hitting scrums and some eye-watering fixtures. For the start at least, the lack of fans did nothing to stifle the extravagant playing styles of the likes of Bristol and Harlequins. Displaying some of the most exciting rugby the English premiership had ever seen, the Twickenham-based side went on to take victory in one of the greatest premiership finishes of all time. Undeterred by the lack of fans, the players boosted each other up in a way that defied any negativity.
As the months and years went on, the professional game started to see normality return, crowds bustling in through those front gates, into the ground without fear. The premiership was back and back with a bang.
The new sense of normality was shattered only when players would have to miss games due to contracting covid, or more shockingly, entire teams. As time has gone on, the frequency of these occasions has lessened, with the good old-fashioned injuries becoming more prevalent once again.
It was thought that we were out in the clear, with the new normal becoming stable and clubs able to move forward. That was until the ongoing debt crisis that has recently hit the English league, like a twenty-stone prop two metres from the line. There was of course very little income coming in over those months off, like any high street shop a rugby club is a business.
Worcester Warriors were the first to take a hit, with the club £25m in debt and due to enter administration, they were suspended from all competitions. Next up were Wasps, the former six-time premiership champions found themselves in the financial black hole due to a £35m bond debt that should have been repayable…if not for covid.
While elite-level rugby is up the creek with debt, there’s enough financial interest in these leagues and their teams that a solution can be found. Whether it will or not is a different matter. The point being, what about those teams that don’t have a fan base of thousands of people, and financial investors ready to go?
Well, that brings us to the grassroots game, a section of rugby that has seen more than its fair share of challenges along the way.
Grassroots clubs across the country were eager to get their players back out onto the field, and into the bar. The problem many of them faced was, like any business, they had bills to pay and a club to maintain. On the playing side, those enthusiastic enough to get back out there were getting used to the covid-variation rules which eliminated the all-important scrum from the game. Despite many of us spending the lockdowns doing Joe Wicks workouts and becoming health conscious, the new faster style game had us all blowing.
With this going on the clubhouses were still closed, so despite being in need of an orange squash or a beer after the game, players had no choice but to enjoy their post-match routine at home. Whilst this was saving players money, it was affecting the club’s turnovers massively.
As lockdowns were reintroduced, scrapped, and reintroduced again, there was some real uncertainty for rugby clubs around the country. The uncertainty came in many forms, “When can I play again?”, “Why can’t we play?”. But for many behind the scenes it was the same question; “How is my club going to survive”.
As the picture became clearer, and lockdowns were truly scrapped, there was finally reason for positivity in the rugby community. Players were back in training and the club bars were filling up once again. Despite the optimism and excitement over the return of local rugby, there did seem to be something missing.
A unanimous thought started to occur countrywide over the next few months, ‘Where is everyone?’. Now, it was true that many had returned and it was a terrific sight to see the grassroots leagues starting up again, but there were so many players missing.
Teams that were once proud to hold three/four senior teams and a whole youth setup were now scraping around to find enough players to make up their firsts and seconds. Information from Statista released in April 2022 highlighted that there was a reduction in participation in England of 87,800 people since 2019. The figures have been dropping year on year since 2016, but the drop from 224,400 in 2019 to 133,600 in 2021 is the largest by a country mile. These figures back up the hypothesis by many leading rugby experts that those previously in the game have chosen not to return. Many thought to have perhaps retired early due to covid, found a different hobby over lockdown, lost the love for the sport, and most commonly…got out of the habit.
It has been a challenging couple of years since rugby has restarted at the grassroots level, with clubs trying various different ways to get new players and existing players back into the setup. Anyone part of a rugby club will be aware of the various recruitment campaigns currently underway, whether that’s the trusty group chat suggesting names to get in contact with, or the social media campaigns calling for those to try a new sport.
Arguably the greatest invention that rugby has had to boost participation is the introduction of what’s called Mixed Ability Rugby. This new inclusive way of being a part of the game is exactly how it sounds, suitable for all. Mixed-ability rugby is designed to put enjoyment ahead of all else, with an emphasis on being inclusive and friendly to all those that join.
There are many out there that believe to play rugby, you need to have a certain mindset and a certain body type, which mixed ability dispels with gusto. Rugby is suddenly open to those who have never played a sport in their life, those who have retired from rugby, those with learning difficulties, and those who just want to play a bit of rugby for the enjoyment or health benefits of it.
Lockdown changed many mindsets for a large proportion of the population. For some, came a change in what they want their social and sporting life to look like. With the introduction of mixed-ability rugby, lives are continuing to change for the better.
RugbyPass have been fortunate enough to speak to two men right in the heart of mixed-ability rugby in the south west of England; Dan Hine from Bath Rugby Foundation, and Jeremy Flower from Melksham Rugby Club.
Dan Hine is the Delivery Lead at the Bath Rugby Foundation, responsible for the introduction and release of mixed-ability rugby in the surrounding area. When asked in his view how covid affected the game in terms of grassroots participation and how Bath Rugby Foundation have been helping rebuild participation, he had the following to say:
“So obviously rugby came to a halt for quite a few months. We’ve managed to get back to the grassroots game, but unfortunately a lot of players are sort of falling out of the game, whether that’s due to family commitments, picking up new hobbies that were available during covid, or just can’t actually commit to getting injured and risk of losing work in the future.
“Bath Foundation have been on a bit of a mission the last sort of five years with a program called Project Rugby, and it’s looking at underrepresented groups, those that are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, those that are from ethnically diverse backgrounds, and also those that are disabled. We’ve seen a big increase in participation, certainly post-covid, because we’re able to promote the game and offer different ways to get involved in rugby”
Delving deeper into the activities and the impact that Bath Rugby Foundation provides, Dan was able to share with us some important insights:
“Mixed ability offers participants of any ability to play the game, whether that’s disabled or non-disabled participants, and we’ve found that we’re now in the fifth team we’ve set up across the Southwest. Mixed ability is continuing to grow and we’re finding people from all different backgrounds, whether they’ve played before, never played before, have a fear of being injured, and now they have a game available to them that actually the risk of injury is probably a little lower than what it was previously.
“We work with lots of schools across the southwest, primary, secondary and special schools, and we also work with colleges as well.
“We go in, we promote rugby across six weeks, and we use a variety of different sports to do that. And then hopefully working with local grassroots clubs, we offer the familiar friendly face for those participants to transfer across.”
Whilst it is incredible how well this new approach has benefited the numbers now starting to participate in the sport, it’s interesting to hear how it has benefited those taking part externally:
“This achievement in participation really has been about what the sport has offered away from the field. Yes we’ve made the game accessible, which means there are more people playing it, but it’s more so coming out of covid that we’ve created friendship groups for people to connect again. They also have a sense of belonging with those rugby teams.
“They have a safe space for them and they’re having birthday parties, social events, and everyone feels a sense of community coming back together.”
Dan admits that the challenge is certainly still there when it comes to transitioning these new players over to their local clubs, but remains optimistic:
“Rugby isn’t for everybody, we’ve got to remember that. So although we’re working with up to 680 young people across the years to engage in the sport, we are actually transitioning about 10% of those across the local grassroots clubs. So that has been a challenge, but it’s thinking of new ways all the time.”
Dan went on to say that he has seen many examples of mixed-ability players growing in confidence and actually stepping in the grassroots senior sides off their own back, so as a result, helping to rebuild those clubs.
When it comes to transitioning over to those local sides, the idea is that by the time the six-week process is complete, there will be members of those clubs that are able to take up the mantle and provide support for the new players.
One such man that’s had great success running a mixed-ability setup, is Jeremy Flower, the Delivery Lead at Melksham Rugby Club. Since its introduction, Jeremy, alongside a committed group of volunteers, has been ensuring that the mixed-ability programme is able to provide an enjoyable experience for all that attend. When discussing how the mixed ability programme came to Melksham, he went into detail about the reasons he wanted to be a part of it:
“I had a conversation with Dan Hine back in August last year. He was looking at the time at setting up a mixed ability hub, which we jumped on with open arms because I knew that was something that was missing in our local community, the inclusion side of it. My wife works with respite and learning difficulty adults, and I know what a difference something like this could possibly make. In my wildest dreams I didn’t think it would be as inclusive and popular. What we’ve done here is brilliant, I can’t promote it enough.”
He went on to say:
“Mixed-ability rugby is exactly what it says on the tin. People have got, what we’re trying to change at the moment, an illusion that mixed-ability rugby is just for SEN [Special Educational Needs] and elderly players, but it’s not, it’s for everyone. The oldest player we’ve got is 67 years old, the youngest player is 18. We’ve got guys that have never played rugby before. They’re coming down having a run around, seeing what a laugh it is, we’re introducing them to the rugby ethos, the rugby family. Training numbers are 25/30, every Monday we train for an hour and we play every five weeks. So you haven’t got [to give] the commitment, both financially, time wise, and physically.”
Clearly a committed and emotionally invested member of the club, Jeremy went on to explain that mixed ability enabled him to play rugby with his own son on the Twickenham pitch during the premiership final halftime. From this conversation, more experiences started to come to light. One, in particular, was a young man that found himself too afraid to get the minibus to college, but after having been welcomed onto the club mini-bus by the mixed-ability team, he was able to get himself on that college bus from that day forward.
Another success story that no doubt will resonate with those around the world was that of a young man who could not bear to get dirty nor touch the ball. Within three months of playing mixed-ability under Jeremy’s tutelage, found himself able to make a tackle, and even went on to win the Rugby Ambassador of the Year award by Premiership Rugby.
It was during these stories that it became obvious to see how much Jeremy, and all the volunteers out there that provide these sessions, are the backbone and the engine of this grassroot resurgence.
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Hi Nick, as always a very high standard. I am really concerned about our breakdown and D as I see these as indispensable parts of a winning team. I suspect our coaches struggle to motivate the guys to perform consistently and this is compounded when, like the Tahs, there is a 'little to play for' attitude to be got over. What impact are the sports psychiatrists having at top level as I assume this must be their area of specialisation?Go to comments
Holy man, this is a powerful team and more than capable of knocking over Wales 1. Ravai 2. Ikanivere 3. Doge 4. Nasilasila 5. Yato 6. Tamani 7. Botia 8. Mata 9. Lomani 10. Volavola 11. Tuisova 12. Ravouvou 13. Radradra 14. Habosi 15. MasiGo to comments