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

Christian Mayo Roar Guru

By Christian Mayo, Christian Mayo is a Roar Guru New author!


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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

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    The Crowd Says (79)

    • September 14th 2017 @ 3:38am
      Scrumpoacher said | September 14th 2017 @ 3:38am | ! Report

      Shute Shield is grassroots if you ask Pappy…

    • September 14th 2017 @ 4:10am
      anopinion said | September 14th 2017 @ 4:10am | ! Report


      You may find the ARU, NSWRU and QRU have left school age development to the schools. The schools do a wonderful job. However the there are many schools without rugby programs or with limited resources who would love to have your extra help. At my school if we want to fill a void we call the AFL and they send some development officers out. We have tried to start rugby and are met with QRU laziness.

      • Roar Pro

        September 14th 2017 @ 11:30am
        Crazy Horse said | September 14th 2017 @ 11:30am | ! Report

        In WA junior rugby is based around the clubs with schools competitions secondary. It seems to work much better that the schools emphasis in NSW.

        • September 15th 2017 @ 7:44am
          anopinion said | September 15th 2017 @ 7:44am | ! Report

          The schools in QLD and NSW do a wonderful job as do the clubs. This rugby program has the potential to fill in the blanks, such as non rugby schools and after school care programs. Kids just want to play, they don’t care about the shape of the ball.

          The success Of PlayRugbyUSA is staggering because American Football and other sports to some degree have focused on success and performance thus leaving many kids sidelined with nothing to do and many schools and institutions underfunded to compete. Rugby had the potential to allow participation and social interaction instead of elite level competition and in this way PlayRugby was able to enact social change and increase participation levels. The same can be done here. As youth participation in Rugby and League decline opportunities to redefine a child’s level of commitment or participation expectations can create a new generation (that mirrors a bygone era) where children join rugby to play and have fun rather than to succeed and make representative level teams. Where children look up to those who coach them and care for them rather than the Wallabies.

    • September 14th 2017 @ 6:25am
      Onside said | September 14th 2017 @ 6:25am | ! Report

      Grass roots = amateur rugby.

      • September 14th 2017 @ 6:34am
        Taylorman said | September 14th 2017 @ 6:34am | ! Report

        Really? Gosh…hope we never get to that stage.

        • September 14th 2017 @ 7:13am
          Onside said | September 14th 2017 @ 7:13am | ! Report

          Apart from full time professional rugby, all other rugby is amateur, regardless of age group.

          • September 15th 2017 @ 6:30am
            BeastieBoy said | September 15th 2017 @ 6:30am | ! Report

            i don’t think a couple of those GPS programs are amateur.

      • September 14th 2017 @ 8:17am
        rock86 said | September 14th 2017 @ 8:17am | ! Report


        Grassroots = Juniors.

        It’s really pretty simple.

        • Roar Guru

          September 14th 2017 @ 11:18am
          Train Without A Station said | September 14th 2017 @ 11:18am | ! Report

          I’d agree with that.

          Maybe subbies and country rugby also.

        • September 14th 2017 @ 11:47am
          rebel said | September 14th 2017 @ 11:47am | ! Report

          Juniors is right. Get them going and the rest will fall into place.

          • Roar Guru

            September 14th 2017 @ 12:18pm
            Train Without A Station said | September 14th 2017 @ 12:18pm | ! Report

            It’s very hard to hard that more kids does not equal more adults down the line.

            • September 15th 2017 @ 6:47am
              mania said | September 15th 2017 @ 6:47am | ! Report

              nice; another excuse not to attempt grassroots and stick with the status quo

        • Roar Guru

          September 15th 2017 @ 3:23pm
          John R said | September 15th 2017 @ 3:23pm | ! Report

          For sure.

          But they can feed into each other.

          My first experience with rugby was running the oranges for the Coogee Seahorses when my brother was playing for them, Coogee (along with Clovelly etc) feeding into Randwick in the Shute Shield of course.

          Hence the link there.

    • September 14th 2017 @ 6:29am
      peeeko said | September 14th 2017 @ 6:29am | ! Report

      good question.
      as a side note most people have quoted the Shute Shield crowd as 15,000

    • September 14th 2017 @ 6:33am
      Taylorman said | September 14th 2017 @ 6:33am | ! Report

      Grass roots is the key to the success of the game at the top. Thats the primary reason its so strong in NZ. Schools, clubs are often the very heart of the local community.

      Thats why those that rely on pay and play for their top teams successes have to keep doing so. Eg the Saracens. Wonder what their grass roots are like? Hmmm… How many schools and clubs are linked in there? Would love to know…

      • September 14th 2017 @ 9:09am
        Bakkies said | September 14th 2017 @ 9:09am | ! Report

        Saracens like most of the London clubs have a whole mini and amateur section. They also are responsible for a catchment where they recruit players from schools and clubs in their area to go in to their academy. This has worked as most of the English players that they have brought in to their set up are from their local area.

        The French clubs have mini and youth sections that go in to Espoirs (colts) and their own academy. Joe Schmidt’s son Tim and Trevor Brennan’s son Daniel have been involvement in the Toulouse under age teams.

        • September 16th 2017 @ 12:13pm
          Taylorman said | September 16th 2017 @ 12:13pm | ! Report

          Thats great, hopefully one day they wont have to order from the overseas sweat shops then.

          • September 16th 2017 @ 3:37pm
            Bakkies said | September 16th 2017 @ 3:37pm | ! Report

            Are you stuck in you the 60s? People will still move to other parts of their country or overseas to play Rugby.

    • September 14th 2017 @ 6:39am
      peeeko said | September 14th 2017 @ 6:39am | ! Report

      i would also argue that the SHute shield has experienced a tick up in interest as people dont want to watch super rugby anymore