Supporting Australian rugby starts at the grassroots, but what exactly is ‘grassroots’?

Christian Mayo Roar Guru

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    A lot has been said and written about Australian rugby of late, and very little of it has been positive.

    Suggestions the code is dying, headlines being dominated by the Western Force getting the bullet, and, of course, the Wallabies’ poor showing in the opening Bledisloe Cup match, are just a sample of the negative press that rugby has received recently.

    Thankfully though, there’s also been some rare optimism over the last few weeks.

    The Sydney Shute final was a wonderful display of rugby watched by an estimated 20,000-strong crowd at North Sydney Oval. The same day, the Wallabies bounced back from their lacklustre showing a week earlier with a truly gutsy performance against the All Blacks in Dunedin.

    Both events were enough to put some pride back into the rugby community, and Mark Twain couldn’t have said it better if he hollered that reports of the code’s death had been greatly exaggerated.

    If nothing else, it showed there are plenty of people in Australia who want rugby to not just survive, but thrive.

    When you talk to said people, almost all agree that the future success of the code lies in grassroots rugby, and that the lack of resources and support given to this part of the game is the biggest issue facing the game.

    It’s a nice soundbite, and undoubtedly true. Yet, what does ‘grassroots’ actually mean?

    Many will tell you that this refers to club rugby – possibly the Shute Shield in Sydney or Queensland Premier Rugby. Others believe it’s actually Colts (under-20s) or Australian schoolboys level. There is even often the suggestion that suburban rugby is the real grassroots of the game.

    Yet there is one organisation in Sydney that has been quietly piloting a unique, meaningful and year-round model that focuses on much younger individuals than those mentioned above. Specifically, primary school kids, during the critical out of school hours (OOSH) time period, on site, right before and immediately after classes.

    Play Rugby Australia partners with schools, OOSH centres and other youth after school organisations to use the game of flag rugby to teach kids positive life skills via a sports-based youth development approach.

    This particular model is a novel way to connect with children and is a truly grassroots strategy for elite sports. Yet from reports, it’s an area not being targeted and could complement the work being done by the NSWRU through the ‘Game On’ program.

    Around Australia, thousands and thousands of children attend OOSH programs every morning and afternoon. So, with the right structure, funding, training and execution, these kids could actually be playing rugby and developing important social skills. A dramatic increase in the number of children playing the game would unquestionably help rugby at every level, all the way up to the Wallabies.

    I’ve dedicated my life and a 20-year career to passing on my passion for sport – and love of teaching positive life skills – to children in three different countries.

    I also had a successful career as a halfback, playing first grade for Norths in Sydney, along with earning representative selections for NSW under-21s and Australian Universities.

    I closed out my career playing semi-professionally in the United States, captaining New York Athletic Club and leading them to two national championships. I also received an invitation to the USA A Eagles squad.

    While in New York, I met the founder of Play Rugby USA, Mark Griffin, who had launched a grassroots social change model – Rugby For Good – with a vision to create “A Better World Through Rugby”.

    We embarked on a journey in 2006 to grow rugby in the most unlikely of places. As of 2014, the program had reached 350 schools.

    This helped form a very successful collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, and the partnership positively impacted thousands of children’s lives, primarily in disadvantaged communities like the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn.

    From here, there was no turning back. We went on to start chapters in Los Angeles, Washington DC, and San Francisco.

    Last year, after hearing and reading about some of the challenges facing Australian rugby, I wondered if the business model could translate to Australia. So I returned home and began piloting the before/after school methodology in a number of schools in Sydney.

    The program and participation numbers have slowly grown, and after one year, I officially launched Play Rugby Australia.

    Though all levels of rugby in Australia need some attention and funding, one could argue that it’s at the level where Play Rugby Australia is active that the ARU could truly invest in.

    ‘Grassroots’ has become a catch-all phrase when people are talking about anything below the elite level, yet there is nothing more grassroots than primary school kids. Nurture at this level, and we’ll be able to watch the game thrive, not just survive.

    Sure, it’s a long-term strategy, not a quick fix. But maybe this approach could be just the answer to solving many of rugby’s hardships.

    Christian Mayo is the Founder of Play Rugby Australia. To read about the Rugby For Good program and the efforts of Play Rugby Australia, head to www.playrugbyaustralia.com.au.