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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The National Cup - what is it for, exactly?

[Dear Reader. It is possible that some people of a nervous disposition may become agitated by that which follows, or read into it all sorts of slights which are not there. If that is the case could I first please direct your attention to this note, and secondly suggest that you direct you wrath to a more constructive end by engaging in the discussion via the comments link at the end. Open debate is a wonderful concept - its how we improve things].

With the first ever RFUW Junior 10s this weekend, it was interesting that last weekend the “other” club competition was still an the object of discussion among several people I spoke to at Rugby. Apparently some even have heard that the National Cup is being reviewed – I do not know if that is so, but if it is it is so its not a moment too soon and is a debate that everyone who cares about the club game should be involved in.

After all, The National Cup is – or should be - the premier club rugby competition for girls teams. A competition that everyone aspires to, thinks about, dreams about even. But it isn’t.

In fact over large swathes of the game its an irrelevance, ignored by the vast majority of clubs. Out of the whole south-eastern quarter of England (containing half of the population of the country) only four teams took part this season. FOUR. And three of them were from Herts. Other areas barely did better than that - over the whole country the number of entrants just about staggered into double figures.

The reason for this indifference is simple. To be remotely competitive you not only need to be able to field a full XV (difficult enough for many clubs), but you also need a pretty full subs bench too as opposition player numbers are not reduced if you suffer injuries.

In the real world the number of clubs capable of pulling together the 20-25 girls needed directly from their own membership can be counted on the fingers of one hand. With fingers to spare. As a result sides combine forces - as we did this season (and would do next) – or otherwise field “guests” from other clubs.

This means that the vast majority of entrants end up being, in effect, artificial combinations created for the sole purpose of entering the cup. When even superpowers like Welwyn feel the need to reinforce their squad with a few "guests" alarm bells should start ringing, and when you hear that the winning team featured players from five different clubs, resulting in a team with a remarkable five TDGs in it (more than most regional sides can manage!), you do not need to be told that something isn’t quite right.

The trouble is that is anyone ever dares to question this or even mumble “erm… just a minute here” the world falls in. “None of these girls could have played otherwise because their own clubs are not big enough” you are told, and “how dare you suggest that anything underhand was going on – no-one is breaking any rules”. You even get threatened with being thrown out of the competition.

So please do not think that I am not remotely attempting to have a go or criticise anyone or any club for using the rules to their advantage. I am not – good luck to them. They are not at fault - its the rules.

Because fact is that it would be quite stratospherically difficult to break the rules on player selection as, to put it bluntly, there aren’t any. The players do not have to be members of, or registered with, or have previously played for, the club they turn out for.

Indeed you do not even have to go to the pretence of entering under the name of an affiliated club at all! There is absolutely nothing to stop Hertfordshire - or even East Region - entering the Cup next year AS Hertfordshire (or East)! Indeed there is nothing to stop someone signing up a complete squad of TDG girls from across the land if they wanted to.

So what is the point? What is the RFUW expending all this time, effort – and money – to achieve? Because it clearly isn’t a “club competition” – certainly not one for ordinary rugby clubs representing ordinary communities (unless you define your “community” as an area in excess of 1,000 square miles). It is, in effect, an event for invitational teams – with the winner being potentially less the “best club” as the club with the “best contacts" or the “biggest phone book” – and what does the game gain from that?

As a result it is small wonder that most clubs vote with their feet and that consequently winning it carries little glory. I know who won this year as someone told me, but I challenge anyone to tell me who won in 2005/6 as even the RFUW website seems silent on the issue!

So why is the RFUW persisting with a format that most clubs do not care about, that generates more ill-feeling than anything else, that forces clubs into something close to a player arms-race, and which has – moreover - been largely abandoned at senior level?After all, its not as if there aren’t alternatives.

One idea I have heard suggested is that - if a 15-a-side event is sacrosanct - then eliminate the temptation to cherry-pick superstars and make it an event for “ordinary” club players by simply running the tournament on TDG training weekends.

It’s a nice idea – after all the RFUW does damn all for the ordinary player most of the time, other than maybe killing off their season between Christmas and Easter by allowing the regional programme to wipe out every other weekend (or three weekends in four, if the latest draft for 2007/8 goes ahead). But in practice it would require even more combining to go on, and there are plenty of “well-known” girls on the fringe of the TDGs who would become the next targets.

So why not regularise the inter-club mixtures by making it a County Cup? After all the RFUW currently does nothing at all for the county game and at least a county-based competition would result in a proper definition of who could, and who could not, play for a given team. RFU have a tried and tested set of rules based on years of experience.

Trouble is that, in practice, neither of these solutions help clubs - real, local, individual clubs - the bedrock of the game. What is needed are competitions that even relatively small – but genuine - club sides can reasonably enter on their own.

Which brings us to this weekend, and Regional/National 10s. The entry for this wasn't great this season - but stuck at the fag end of the year on hard grounds and clashing with major exams it was hardly set up for success. However fact is that 10s tournaments in the main season work well - look at the Rochford 10s, or Worthing, or Exeter, or... well, many others.

Okay some clubs might still be tempted to get in a few, well, "ringers", and in the end that is difficult to legislate against (there is a bit of a contretemps going on in the US over a similar issue), but it would be far more blatant in a 10s so most clubs would not have the brass neck to do it. Well, one lives in hope.

Moving the 10s to the main season would also give more space to the evolving "7s circuit" (Dorking, Herts, Nationals) – another format that “real” clubs can enter. It may not be the "proper game", but at least it gets girls playing a form of rugby that is accessible to even the smallest team.

So what do you think? Do you agree? Am I barking up the wrong tree? Am I talking nonsense? Do you care?

If you do have a view, why not leave a few comments? And while you are about it, why not write to RFUW as well? Regardless of your views – whether you are in favour of the status quo or not – the centre needs to know. They do not have a monopoly on wisdom at Twickenham.

Its your game.


  1. John

    I may not always agree with you, but on this issue I do feel that you have a point. We were not even aware of the Cup this season, thats how much it is publicised.
    As you say teams could bend the rules or field regional sides under an alias.
    not sure what the solution is, but the bottom line is that an emphasis has to be put on getting the girls out on to a pitch for competative games.Training is all well and good but there comes that point where you need to put it into practice..
    The big problem is also recruitment and retention, it seemed easy this season to get girls interested by running schools programmes, but now that we are entering the "Competition stage of the season" we are losing girls to Exams /Homework etc.....
    Maybe moving this to an early part of the season when teams have more chance of retaining squad members is a way forward.
    Plus by now, many girls are getting bored with the repetitiveness week in week out as it is a long season for them.
    Who knows what the solution is, but it is one that needs addressing urgently.


  2. Sarah Batley6:48 PM


    I was very intriged whilst reading this blog. I agree with a lot of the things you have said here especially with the point about the regional programme taking over most of the club season. But as a player of the Leonidas side that won the Nat Cup and a TDG player, i don't think you're looking at it from a players view(you may disagree). I seem to think that all this has been aim at our team although i know othe teams are mentioned.

    Rugby at club and county level is there for getting girls and women into the game of rugby and getting regular time on the field.

    Now in a lot of places girls rugby isnt promoted or as popular as it is in others so in order for all girls who are passionate about the game and want to be successful have to travel to join other clubs. For myself and the other girls in our team who are involved in the TDG are basically here because we want regular games and to be part of something big. If we hadnt have joined the Leo's team then we probably wouldnt have even played any games this season apart from county and regional because girls rugby is so scarse in Yorkshire. And most of the girls would have probably given the sport up because of this.

    I actually admire what you have here for your girls and the support they have. Your a very lucky side especially to have more girls who are from more locals areas in your team.

    Last years winners were worcester.

    Also i dont agree with the idea of putting TDG training on weekends because thats basically preventing those girls from developing their rugby on the pitch and it is not fair on us. So why should we suffer because of this? we only want to develop our rugby like everyone else. Furthermore you would be losing one of you're own players to the tdg training sessions as well and ive heard that shes(Sasha?) played a very big part in the team, tormenting defences and what not.

    Anyway putting this a side, I wish you and your club the very best for the coming season. Hopefully we may see you in the Nat Cup next season or in some other competition or friendly fixture.
    I look forward to seeing more blogs about this subject.

    Best Wishes

    Sarah Batley

  3. haha tormenting the defence, i like that!! thanks sarah! =]
    Bam Bam (aka Sasha) x

  4. Thank you for the reply, Sarah.

    The purpose of this is not to single out any team. Leos did nothing wrong, certainly not within the context of the competition. But what happened, and the annoyance (not to say disillusion) it has caused is a symptom of an underlying problem which we can either ignore, or do something about.

    For the main problem is that what should be the "FA Cup" of girls rugby is fundamentally flawed. It claims to be a club competition. It isn't - hardly any ordinary clubs can enter it in their own right. You were playing in a club shirt, but really you were not playing club rugby.

    Incidentally the idea of limiting the participation of TDGs was not my own but something someone else suggested. It has its merits and so is worth examining, but as you point out (and, for different reasons, I agree with you) it is not in the end a viable solution.

    If the National Cup were replaced, as I do suggest, with a county cup you would not lose out (as pretty much all of you are in the county team) and we would have a level playing field. It would also free up several weekends thus allowing for some of the end of season competitions to be played at a more sensible time.

  5. Vincent Acheson8:03 AM

    The problem is not 'is this a true club cup?'. it is as 'true' a club cup as you will get when our game is as small as it is.

    In various parts of the country, there are clubs which are the ONLY choice for the very talented and ambitious. Leos seem to be one, Worcester are another (I recently met a father who drives his TDG daughter 90 minutes each way every week for training there, Welwyn and Basildon are two in our part of the world which attract either long distance commuters, or the very talented, or both.

    Even after the game has doubled in size, such clubs will continue to play a vital role in the game as a whole.

    Changing from a club to a county cup is, to me, an irrelevance. The only solution is the difficult long term solution - grow the game - advertise, recruit, blog like crazy, attract good coaches, have full fixture lists, party hard, tour, and make the game so attractive that girls are drawn towards rugby more, and soccer, netball and hockey less.

    The Cup isn't an FA Cup - we're not ready for that. It plays a role in the overall mix of the game, and does so OK. Don't forget that Wimborne - a small town rural team with no guests or long distance commuters - and very few regional players - made it to the final. (NB Leos: Please don't think that remark is aimed at you - it is praise for an outstanding achievement by Wimborne!) That means that other clubs can do the same, and over time, I am sure they will.

  6. Well, with my sporting historian's hat on, I would have to say that the game is quite capable of having an FA Cup - after all the size of first entry in 1870/71 was not dissimilar to that of the National Cup this season (there are aso more girls clubs today than there were FA members in 1870). And I will not begin to go into what I see as the parallels between the respective winners...

    The danger of the Leo example (and we all know the whys, that is not the issue) is that the tournament will simply evolve into another event for elite players in invitational teams, when surely the aim of the competition is to encouarge the development of real clubs (well, I hope it is).

    After all the National Cup takes up two or even three of the already rather limited number of club weekends and is the only event that the RFUW runs for clubs in the main season so one rather hopes that is the aim.

    If it is - and if most clubs are not big enough to enter it alone - then the answer is to change format of the competiton to match the circumstances of the clubs, NOT force the clubs to bend to match the requirements of the competition.

    And to my mind the format that currently works best at club level is 10s.

    Incidentaly I wonder if something may already be emerging in this debate alreday - a disconnect between the aim to develop players (especially talented players), and the need to develop clubs? I may return to that later.

  7. Vincent1:00 PM

    Incidentaly I wonder if something may already be emerging in this debate alreday - a disconnect between the aim to develop players (especially talented players), and the need to develop clubs? I may return to that later.

    We can never get away from the need to develop both - simultaneously. Each has the same right as the other to play at the appropriate level - often.

    Clubs need, over time, to recruit big enough squads to play 15s (or 13s). Wimborne have shown that it can be done, so we can too.

    Vincent Acheson

  8. Vincent,
    absolutely spot on, but how to ensure recruitment is effective is the crux.
    We regularly run after school sessions and attend various school fetes etc to do demo's etc.
    the problem a lot of the time is not getting the girls on board but more, getting parents to buy in.
    the age groups we need obviously cannot drive and are therefore totally reliant on parents.
    we have some girls who are in our squad who have struggled for 2 years because their parents are not supportive.
    If they have a sport background it is easier but asking them to drive all over the south of England every week soon puts them off.

  9. Anonymous9:55 PM

    Surely National Cups and the like are irrelevent.
    The RFUW and the county development officers need to start pulling their weight and getting 12 year old girls into the game. The game is losing girls who play mixed rugby until they are 12 and then have nowhere to go.
    It's very well focussing on the supposed 'elite' TDG girls, but we can't forget about the grassroots level.
    Surely we should be more concerned about the fact that the London & South-East section of the U.17 10s Tournament only recruited 2 TEAMS?!
    The RFUW shouldn't just be concentrating on the elite; in order for the game to grow we need links with local schools and the like..which is not happening here at the moment!

  10. Vincent10:55 PM

    Hi Anonymous

    I agree that National Cups are largely irrelevant, and will be for a while to come. I agree that 12 year-olds are the key.

    Recruitment is not 'their' responsibility - it is OUR responsibility. Come out from under your rock, say who you are, and then get stuck in.

    Effective links with schools are just as much of a headache for the boys game as for us (at least in Eastern Counties).

    If you are from outside East Region, do you have a girls rep on your CBRDP? If you are within East Region, do you know who that person is? Are you supporting that person? Are you trying to identify a teacher who also coaches who might help get the message round schools? If you know of such a coach and they haven't woken up to girls rugby yet, educate them! Are you trying to identify somebody with publishing skills to do an attractive newsletter? Are you trying to get the message across to your daughter's school (assuming you have such a person in your family).

    If you know of minis, are you trying to get the clubs where they play to think about a pathway for them, even if it means sending them on to another club. Are you trying to get a U12 county team together? (We're looking at this for a 'one-off' at some point next season)

    The RFUW is not perfect, but please do not blame them for the fact that they have too much to do and very, very scare resources. Volunteers have grown the boys' game over the last 20 years or so - now it is our turn, and we've got to accept the fact that we have several years' hard graft in front of us.

    Vincent Acheson


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