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Reconnecting with grassroots rugby

Roar Guru
3rd September, 2012
36

A recurring theme among Roarers and the rugby community at large is a need to reconnect with grassroots rugby.

The grassroots is the lifeblood of any sport; the entry point for future champions. You can be complacent about the grassroots only at the peril of the well-being of your sport.

David Campese recently targeted the grassroots as an area requiring immediate attention in a series of Roar articles on ‘rugby solutions’, while fellow Roarer Tumble Hill also wrote passionately about the grassroots back home in New Zealand.

Despite their words to the contrary, it must be disconcerting for the ARU, NSWRU and other unions that however well they believe they are interacting with our juniors and their parents and volunteers, the feeling is not being reciprocated.

Across the width and breadth of Australia there appears to be a distinct disconnect between fans and young players and the major unions. Many fans feel disenfranchised; ignored.

The question begs, what are the ARU, NSWRU and other unions going to do about this disconnect? But more of this later.

Allow me to share with you my rugby journey, which I trust you will find both interesting and enjoyable. I have nothing but the most wonderful memories of my youth, playing rugby at high school, then Colts, then Subbies.

I consider myself exceedingly fortunate to have lived in the time I did. It was entirely amateur rugby back then in the ’70s and ’80s, but we had more social freedom, and it was the best of times.

My grassroots journey began later than most. I was born and raised in Papua New Guinea at a time when it was run by Australia, and my father was employed by the Australian government.

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Although we holidayed in Australia for three months every two years, there was no TV in PNG, and obviously no internet back then. Our only significant communication with the outside world was Radio Australia.

So it wasn’t until I arrived at boarding school in Sydney at Waverley College in 1969 that I was first introduced to rugby union. I fell in love with the game immediately. I loved the physicality and camaraderie of rugby.

As budding teenagers we looked forward eagerly to each Saturday game day. I remember my school coaches fondly. Their coaching competency ranged from adequate to excellent, but you couldn’t fault either their dedication or enthusiasm. Each one of them, in their different ways, added to our knowledge, skills and growing enjoyment of rugby.

Interestingly, we never discriminated between union and league. We played union for the school but most of us also followed league avidly.

Waverley has produced heroes in both codes. Back in the 1930s, each code had a famous ex-student international centre – Cyril Towers for the Wallabies and Randwick and Dave Brown for the Kangaroos and Easts. In the ’60s winger Mike Cleary represented the Wallabies and Randwick before moving to the Kangaroos and Souths. The were many other examples.

It wasn’t at all unusual while while watching the first XV play, for example, to have one ear pinned to the ‘trannie’ listening to Frank Hyde’s broadcast of the match of the day at the SCG.

With PNG gaining independence in 1975, my family relocated to permanently to Sydney and I found myself down at Woolhara Oval playing for Easts Colts in the next stage of my development. Here I was quickly and surely introduced to further ‘customs and lores’ of rugby culture.

Mixing with the opposition after the game was considered essential. Here the basic philosophy was developed – you trained hard, you played hard, and you partied hard (basically).

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Foes on the field became friends off the field. When playing at home, you hosted your visitors at the bar, usually shouting them the first round of drinks. When you played away, the favour was returned.

It was considered an insult not to visit the home team’s bar for post-match drinks (prior commitments otherwise). By patronising each club in turn, you were helping to put money across their bar and into that club’s funds. It was all part of a sense of belonging to the “rugby family”.

It was at Colts that I had the opportunity to play against a handful of future Wallabies. Two who I had the opportunity to meet, even fleetingly, were 1984 Grand Slam backrowers David Codey and Bill Calcraft. At the time Codey played for Norths and Calcraft for Manly.

I remember my Colts coach Brian ‘Buddy’ Travers, who had been a first-grade centre with Easts in his prime. Buddy was a bit of an eccentric, whose bark was worse than his bite. He was a coach from the David Brockhoff mould, all fire and brimstone and supposedly inspirational exhortations.

Whenever we lost he would have this pained expression on his face as if we had lost deliberately just to upset him! Of course, this wasn’t the case at all, and looking back it was quite amusing. Buddy had a heart of gold and I recall his memory fondly.

After Colts I made perhaps an unusual decision to move to Subbies rather than try out for first-grade. About nine of my former schoolmates eventually played first-grade and I’m sure I would have also. But as anyone knows, there is a huge difference between “thinking” and “knowing”.

Perhaps I set my bar too low. Having always played A’s through first XV and CAS rep at school, and first Colts at Easts, I felt I had nothing further to prove, least of all to myself. It does, however, remain one of my regrets.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my eight years of Subbies, split between Old Waverlians (1977-78, 1981-84) and Bondi-Bronte SLSCs (1979-80). I even managed in 1978, to sneakily play about three to four games with Norths third-grade.

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Having been persuaded to play with Norths by some Uni acquaintances, I would rush from wherever Norths third-grade game finished to wherever the OWs first-grade would be commencing. On one occasion I did cut it very fine. Back then traffic congestion on a Saturday afternoon in Sydney wasn’t what it is today.

However, all good things must come to an end. My days at Norths ended abruptly when the OWs president discovered my dual playing life and demanded I make a choice, and I chose OWs. In a way I was glad, because while playing twice on a Saturday wasn’t a problem for a young, fit guy, having to attend training three nights a week between the two clubs had quickly become a real drag.

There were lessons to be drawn from my days in Subbies with OWs and B-B, which today might be termed ‘politically incorrect’. This was the culture of social drinking as the centre-piece of team bonding.

I guess you could say the drinking was the fuel, but the real purpose of the exercise was to draw everyone closer together through the sharing of life experiences, and everyone exposing a part of their inner soul with their mates. It was often in this environment that qualities such as the twin pillars of respect and trust were forged.

Andrew Logan, in an eloquent article for The Roar several years ago, described the long bus trips from one country town to another to play rugby, and whereby all teammates were expected to join in the ‘singalong’.

It’s shared experiences like this that build the respect and trust. Often in the split second decision making on the field, it is these intangible moments that come flashing back to you, and tell you that you can trust the guy next to you to do his job.

During my time at OWs, our home ground was at Queens Park (which we shared alternately with Waverley College) and the pretty hillside pavillion was our home bar. Unfortunately, we took the “bonding” sessions of amateur rugby too far. After repeated warnings from the school over many years about the disreputable state we would leave the pavilion in, they gave us our marching orders!

In the late ’80s I helped a female friend teacher with coaching a bunch of 11 year olds from Waverley Junior School. I was conscious of the philosophies of coaching young kids – help them enjoy the game and develop their basic skills. This is precisely how I approached my coaching, and I hope i had some success with their futures.

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While enjoyment is paramount, you must also give kids the skills that might help give them an edge, because let’s face it, winning is just that much more fun than losing!

Looking at the Wallabies today, there might not be much difference between them and the All Blacks in terms of natural ability, but there is an enormous difference in basic skills sets.

Because the ABs have superior basic skills, which in turn gives them greater self-confidence, they are better able to impose their will on the Wallas than vice-versa.

And what is my experience of grassroots today? My nephew plays for the South Coogee Red devils JRUFC. There are just nine junior clubs in the Randwick and Easts districts combined, which must surely be a huge concern for the NSWRU.

These kids play their Saturday matches at Nagle Park Maroubra. My brother tells me that the annual fee is $80, which covers medical insurance, jersey, shorts and sox. Boots and mouthguard (mandatory) are supplied by the parents.

There is all clubs rugby edict – “no mouthguard, no play”. Headgear is also considered desirable but is not compulsory. My brother is very happy with the coaching provided by the volunteer dads.

My brother further tells me that officials and players from both Randwick and Easts rugby clubs have attended coaching clinics for the kids. So the experience of both my brother and nephew up to this point in time has been positive.

However, this brings us back to the unevenness of experiences among different regions of the country. Rickety Knees recently wrote an impassioned article in which he criticised the NSWRU for their supposed inactivity in his area of the Central Coast.

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Nicki Drinkwater, the Media and Communications Manager of Waratahs Rugby and NSWRU, replied with quite a strident riposte, providing examples of how the NSWRU and Waratahs players were out and about conducting clinics throughout the state.

Curiously, Nicki’s response probably raised more questions than it answered. While it appears quite true that the NSWRU is pro-active among the junior clubs around the state, the experience varies from place to place.

Perhaps fellow Roarers, whether in NSW or some other state or territory, can share their own experiences in this regard.

Which now brings me to how Australian rugby can be improved upon. When I look at Australian rugby today, it saddens me that we are like an owner and builder who spend too much time arguing about the types of materials required, ignoring all the while the core issue – the foundation upon which the house is built.

This segment is worth an article all by itself, so I will simply provide the skeleton of my ideas here, and flesh out the ideas at another time.

I am also conscious of the fact that while Australian rugby has a rich history of outstanding individuals, we are rather poorer when it comes to outstanding teams. This is another fact that must be addressed.

Looking at the state of play, I advocate these five following points:

1. Cultivate the grassroots. Not enough emphasis can be placed on the grassroots. ‘Cultivate’ means much more than leading players/officials turning up here or there occasionally. There has to be continual follow-up action.

The junior clubs, along with their kids and parents and volunteers, need to know that the senior clubs and unions genuinely care about them, and it is not merely paying lip-service.

2. Increase player participation rates. What’s the saying about, “increase your opportunities, increase your score”. More overall players gives rugby the opportunity to find and develop more quality players.

Neither the ARU nor provinces might have the resources at present to send an army of development officers out into the field. But this shouldn’t stop them from trying. At least show some “visibility”.

3. Provide better progression path structures. Sadly, Sydney Shute Shield and Brisbane Hospitals Cup premier rugby comps are no longer an adequate bridge to Super Rugby and the Wallabies.

While the premier rugby clubs still have a role to play, another tier is required to funnel the developing talent into a tighter, more competitive comp of 8-10 teams.

4. Invest in quality coaching – both amateur and professional – at all levels. This issue cannot be understated.

As illustrated earlier, while the Wallabies may have as much natural ability as their All Blacks counterparts, there is a significant difference in basic skills levels which allows the ABs to impose themselves better on their opponents. Investing in quality coaching is an absolute.

5. Play a compelling brand of rugby to attract a greater fan base, sponsors, media interest and ultimately, revenue streams. Not to mention more player participants.

If you want an illustration of ‘compelling’ rugby, simply watch the Kiwis at any level, be it the ABs, Super Rugby, province or club – there’s your answer. If we had an APC/ARC that played like the ITM Cup, it would quickly rival the NR.

For me, point five above is the critical issue right now. Earlier this year John O’Neill called on the Australian provinces to follow the Reds’ lead of 2011, and play attractive and winning rugby. His call went unheeded.

Money is tight.

The quickest way for Australian rugby to move forward and fulfill its potential, is for our six major entities – Wallabies, Waratahs, Reds, Brumbies, Force and Rebels – to go out on the rugby fields and play a more compelling brand of rugby. Will they heed the call?

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