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)

    • Roar Guru

      September 14th 2017 @ 6:52am
      Shop said | September 14th 2017 @ 6:52am | ! Report

      Fantastic read Chris. The work done at junior level is where the majority of investment should be. Programs like yours should be the cornerstone of rebuilding rugby. While I applaud Shute Shield for getting their act together they aren’t “grass roots” clubs unless they they are also involved in developing juniors, which of course some are.

      • September 14th 2017 @ 8:20am
        rock86 said | September 14th 2017 @ 8:20am | ! Report

        “The work done at junior level is where the majority of investment should be. Programs like yours should be the cornerstone of rebuilding rugby.”


        People ask why the AFL is going ahead in leaps and bounds, just have a look at the money they are pouring into AFL Auskick, it’s massive and growing – this is where the major investment needs to be made if you want rugby to have any presence in the future.

        • Roar Guru

          September 14th 2017 @ 11:19am
          Train Without A Station said | September 14th 2017 @ 11:19am | ! Report

          That’s why the ARU want to use Game On as their vehicle to grow the game. Specifically target primary aged children I think.

          • September 14th 2017 @ 2:21pm
            Marlins Tragic said | September 14th 2017 @ 2:21pm | ! Report

            Train, here is a comment from the Eastwood GM regarding the ARU schools programs:

            The major issue we all have with the ARU’s programs like Viva Sevens and Game On is that there isn’t a connection from the initial program to the local rugby club. If a kid doesn’t have a team to go play for on a Saturday morning or doesn’t want to go and play, then what is the point of spending the money on the schools program?


            • Roar Guru

              September 14th 2017 @ 2:45pm
              Train Without A Station said | September 14th 2017 @ 2:45pm | ! Report

              I get your point but if you are focusing on the clubs, you are focusing on the people that are already playing.

              If this generates interest in rugby, they will seek out a club.

              That’s why that age bracket saw an increase in 2016.

            • September 17th 2017 @ 4:54pm
              Sterling said | September 17th 2017 @ 4:54pm | ! Report

              Because a lot of them will.

      • Roar Guru

        September 14th 2017 @ 11:26am
        PeterK said | September 14th 2017 @ 11:26am | ! Report

        shop totally agree.

        Chris Mayo – You have made a great initiative, what you are doing is the real grassroots, with juniors, and schools.
        I hope the ARU provide more support in your type of endeavour.

        Shute shield is not grassroots that is an elite club comp.

        • September 16th 2017 @ 11:56am
          double agent said | September 16th 2017 @ 11:56am | ! Report

          Shute Shield is the competition for 1st Grade level of the District Rugby Clubs. There are loads more players than just them. U/6 players running around in their local comp have the badge of their District club on their jerseys.

    • Roar Guru

      September 14th 2017 @ 8:43am
      gatesy said | September 14th 2017 @ 8:43am | ! Report

      Good on you, Chris. A fine effort from a fine Shoreman.

      To me “grassroots” means everything from the littlies on up. A defined pathway for your Rugby “life” hopefully culminating in a fine Wallabies career. But we should not see the Wallabies as the aiming point. Not everyone makes it.

      The aiming point is the person you want to be and what you can contribute to life and our great game, wherever your playing days lead.

      As we journey through our individual pathway, we work out where we need to jump off the “player bus” and change to the “helping out” bus, or just the “informed spectator” or “intelligent parent” bus, or whatever bus we choose. We get those values by being a part of the process.

      The articles that I have written recently all talk about those pathways being defined so that we have a top down structure that is totally uniform across every state, with every organisation, certainly including yours being integrated in a consistent and coherent way.

      Keep up the great work, mate. Someone has to spread the word, if the ARU or the state unions won’t.

    • September 14th 2017 @ 9:01am
      Bakkies said | September 14th 2017 @ 9:01am | ! Report

      This is what Connacht Rugby describes as Grassroots in their Grassroots to Green Shirts program

    • September 14th 2017 @ 9:47am
      Stu B said | September 14th 2017 @ 9:47am | ! Report

      Good positive article Christian,this is exactly where our lead body needs to aim and support. Buying so called league stars and pretty much ignoring the rugby base has proven a disaster a waste of precious funds.ONeil trying to buy a John Alomu like figure started this slippery slope.Kiwi kids for generations have played school weekday comp and club comp weekends, amazing to see and may just be a major factor why their super and test teams are dominate.We need national cohesion in this area not just one state having a go this is essential for rugby to flourish.

    • September 14th 2017 @ 9:55am
      cowcorner said | September 14th 2017 @ 9:55am | ! Report

      Well done Christian –great work. Problems are best solved from the ground up. Enthusiastic kids coming into rugby will help a lot!

    • September 14th 2017 @ 11:16am
      The Sheriff said | September 14th 2017 @ 11:16am | ! Report

      Christian is the first one on the site to nail ‘grass roots’.
      The Shute Shield and the Brisbane Premiership certainly are not.
      Juniors and rural rugby can claim the title, Subbies perhaps.
      Now, the next questions is:
      If you were putting money into ‘grass roots’ rugby, including OOSH , what would you expect it to be spent on?
      For mine, it would be on providing coaches and coaching.
      It is clear that even the kids who come from the so-called ‘nurseries’ of rugby, the private schools are not very well coached. It shows up in grade and further up the chain!