The inspiration for this post came from a conversation with London Welsh captain Tom May about how successive England coaches continued to overlook James Simpson-Daniel. Tom then made the point that whilst JSD may not have received the international recognition his talent so clearly deserved, he has at least had the opportunity to play for club and country unlike so many others.
This raises the extremely valid point of just how many men (and women) have missed out on a successful (and potentially lucrative) career in rugby for whatever reason. This notion is further substantiated by the relatively late emergence of players such as Nick Easter and Ben Morgan who only made it onto the professional scene at a relatively late age. For every Morgan or Easter, how many players slip just under the radar or aren’t given the tools and environment to develop properly?
Now like every walk in life luck plays a huge part in both ambition and the success it breeds. There are only a few seats at the top table in any industry, and as such only a select few ever get to dine with the big boys. The opportunity to rise to the top in industries traditionally run by ‘old boys clubs’ (of which rugby is still one) is even more limited. Just on this basis alone how many players have failed to make the grade simply because their parents lived in the wrong post code and such they weren’t in the right catchment area for a ‘rugby school’.
Unlike football which dominates almost every school in the country, rugby is prioritised in only a handful of schools. This limits the opportunity for players to really develop or make a name for themselves in major youth tournaments like The Natwest (Daily Mail) Cup unless they are turning out for one of the stronger teams.
Whilst as a sport we may be unable to compete with the wages in Wendyball that are astronomical enough to make a small African nation wince we can at least try to increase the appeal of rugby at a fundamental level. I’m all for kids showing ambition and fighting hard to develop a career in the sport they love but if their opportunities to partake and compete in rugby with a view to establishing themselves in their age group are all but minuscule then it is easy to see why they may be dissuaded and choose to focus their energies elsewhere.
Although I myself was fortunate enough to attend a school that prioritised rugby over football I had a number of friends at nearby schools who found their opportunities restricted to the occasional after school club if the teacher could be arsed to turn up – hardly inspiring for a group of young teens!
Despite my attendance at a rugby playing school though I still struggled to take to the game at first – the main reason for this? – archaic teaching beliefs. Having trialled for the school team and been promoted to the first team squad I was demoted almost as rapidly. Why? The failure to attend the first game of the season as a result of attending a pre-arranged family holiday.
Now I’m not suggesting for a second that had it not been for that teachers short-sightedness that I would be turning out for England in a couple of weeks time (far from it in fact), I am simply pointing out that one teachers failure saw me fall out of love with a sport. After this initial disappointment I opted to drop out of the entire school rugby set-up and as such barely touched a rugby ball again until I got to university.
This makes me wonder just how many young boys and girls have been turned off by our sport as the result of one bad experience, whether it be a bad knock, a bollocking from a teacher or something much less obvious. Whatever the reason, with opportunities in the sport already so limited teachers, coaches and the wider rugby community have a duty to be doing everything they can to encourage participation at all age-grades, no matter a child’s background.
Whilst the onus has to be on the youth coaches and teachers to do everything in their power to encourage kids to stick with the sport, they need to be supported from the top down. The Unions in rugby can often be far too short-sighted in only focussing on the elite level teams and their results. There are obviously structures in place that are helping to bring young talent through – just look at England’s current strength in depth. However, what there does seem to be is a failure to promote the sport at a grass-roots level to children outside of traditional rugby hotbeds.
The Rugby World Cup in 2015 seemed to be the ideal opportunity to expand the game into unheralded rugby territories (particularly in the North). Instead what did we get? 1 game in Manchester throughout the whole tournament. The biggest draw in Union as a sport is the international game and the spectacle that it creates, unfortunately it is unobtainable for many. Regular visits to Twickenham are expensive and lack appeal for borderline fans who instead opt to attend one of several more accessible options.
This is the reason that kids around cities such as Manchester want to be the next Wayne Rooney rather than Jonny Wilkinson. What’s stopping one or two games each year being played in cities outside of London? Maybe one Six Nations game and one Autumn International to allow kids to experience the thrills of rugby at the very top level.
Once we inspire these kids the RFU can then provide the schools, teachers and coaches with the tools to properly develop and nurture the young talent available and ensure the next big sports star chooses rugby over any other sport.
My apologies that this turned into a bit of a rant, it was planned as a bit of a discussion piece but the more I delved into the subject the more I began to realise that there is so much more that could be getting done from the bottom up in rugby.