Formed 2004 ... Herts 7s U14 Runners-up 2005 ... North Herts U14 team, Herts Youth Games 2005 runners-up (coached by Letchworth)... Herts Superteams U14 Runners-up 2005 ... Herts SuperTeams "Fairplay" winners 2006 ... Rochford 10s U17 Champions 2006 ... East Midlands 10s U17 Runners-up 2007 ... East Midlands 10s U17 "Fairplay" winners 2007 ... National 10s U17 5th place and "Fairplay" winners 2007 ... Herts 7s U17 Plate runners-up 2007 ... National 7s U17 Plate winners 2007 ... RFU "President's XV" Award winners 2007 ... Herts Superteams winners 2007 ... Midlands 10s U18 Runners-up 2008 ... National 10s U18 4th place 2008 ... North Herts U11 team, Herts Youth Games 2008 runners-up (coached by Letchworth girls) ... London and SE 7s U18 Plate runners-up 2008 ... Herts 7s U18s runners-up 2008 ... National 7s U18s quarter-finalists 2008 ... Gloucester City 10s U18 Bowl runner-up (6th) 2009 ... Worthing 10s U18 Plate runner-up 2009 ... National 7s U18 Plate winners 2009... Worthing 10s U15 Plate winners 2010... Worthing 10s U18 Shield winners 2010... Herts 7s U15 and U18 Bowl runners-up 2010... National 7s U18 Plate runners-up 2010...

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Another light goes out...

Far be it for me to publish unsubstantiated rumour (who said "like you do anything else"?) but it was a great pity to hear that our good friends at Westcliff may not be playing next year. We knew that, with no U15s to reinforce their U18 squad, that they would probably have to fold after 2008/9, but to hear that they may have to end things a season early is a great shame.

They are not, unfortunately, alone and in all honesty unless we can attract in a good half-dozen new faces next season we too may have similar problems come 2009/10 (though it is always worth remembering that we started in September 2004 with fewer players than we know we will have September 2009 so there is reason to be optimistic). It is therefore maybe worth asking where its all gone wrong (I say "wrong" because the collapse in the number of teams playing regular fixtures over the past 2-3 years is hardly indicative of something going "right").

Let's begin with a a list of teams we have played but who have now disppeared, at least as independent entities. Off the top of my head...
  • Milton Keynes (now part of Bucks Jesters)
  • Aylesbury (ditto)
  • Hemel Hempsted
  • Bishops Stortford
  • Stevenage (revivals announced annually, but nothing ever seems to happen)
  • Cheshunt
  • Fullerians
  • Uttlesford
  • Rochford/Basildon (obviously clustered now, but no longer independent entities)
  • Paviours (now in a cluster)

Thats ten teams we could have had fixtures with in 2004 or 2005 who we cannot now play, replaced with - at best - three cluster teams, so a net loss of seven. And as all of them had full teams at at least one age band that is also a net loss of at least eighty players (12 x 7). With Westcliff added the loss become eight sides and approaching 100 girls out of the game.

The remaining clubs are indeed stronger teams - Basford are a better side than either Basildon or Rochford were, Bucks Jesters are probably stronger than Milton Keynes or Aylebury - but is that the point of club rugby? Surely the purpose at this level is participation not elitism? That should be what the county or regional system is for.

In fact what we are getting close to are clubs that are in fact county sides in everything but name. Bucks Jesters presumably is Bucks, and with 19 players in the squad Reading is Berkshire. Where will Essex get girls next year except from Basford? How many non-Saracens play for Middlesex? Or non-Leos play for Yorkshire? I could go on - Hertfordshire maybe the one major exception because it has significant contributions from more than one club!

A few strong teams do not make a strong game. Without a local club, where will girls at Hemel or Uttlesford, Milton Keynes or Cheshunt learn the game - or even know that it is an option? Furthermore in 2004 you could learn - you could pick games against sides of different strengths. In 2004 we began with three games against MK, Hemel and Stevenage before we took on the might of Welwyn. Would we be here today if Welwyn had been the first, and indeed only, side we could have played in the county? What is it like now when your first "club" game sees you up against a county team (or stronger!) wearing club shirts? No trainer pool like in 2004 - its sink or swim!

Whose fault is this? I'm not sure that that matters. You could say that RFUW were not prepared for the explosion in interest after the World Cup, and were too slow to adapt their structures to support the growth, but in reality that is unfair because they are a tiny organisation with minicule funding that have to worry about the game at all levels, right up to and including internationals. They did what they could with the resources they had, but it was a tidal wave they faced.

I will say, though, that I am not sure that clustering works - at least in the sense of growing the game or forestalling its contraction. It gets current girls games, yes, but the "cluster" seems to inevitably become the "club", risking its links with the communities from the smaller participants or clubs where the cluster does not play. And once the girls in that cluster leave the age band..? It will be interesting to see how Vincent's Suffolk "all-stars" avoid this problem next season. I am also not sure what the alternative is, within the current system anyway.

Because while the RFU and RFUW remain separate bodies, and while the RFU remain responsible for all U12 rugby, I cannot see anything changing. There is no incentive whatsoever for any club that does not have a girls section (ie. over 90% of them) to do anything to recruit girls, or do anything to adapt their coaching practices to retain those that may come along (even simple stuff like not calling the team "boys", let alone the more subtle differences and understanding required) because ultimately the RFU and the clubs in its membership (and, from what one hears, many CBs) are only responsbile for and interested in boys' and men's rugby. And you cannot blame them - why pour your resources into a talented girl who cannot play for you after she is 12, let alone play for your colts or adult sides?

One thought though. On the continent - indeed across most of the world - the main game is not 15-a-side rugby, but sevens. The former is obviously preferable, but I wonder if we had more opportunities for clubs to play in small-sided competitions like sevens spread throughout the season (say one every four-six weeks or so rather than packed all together in April and May) we might be able to keep more clubs playing as clubs? Do we have to be honest, grasp the nettle, and see the world as it is rather than how we might want it to be? Better to have a girl playing sevens than not playing at all...


  1. John,

    Obviously you have far more experience in the girls game than we do over this corner of the world but we have seen 4 clubs in Norfolk picking up the mantle this year, us, Holt, Fakenham and more lately Thetford. Together with these clubs there are handfuls of girls at other clubs on the county who want to play but the infrastructure currently doesn't exist at their club.
    Clustering seems to be working for both training and matches albeit inter club (clustered) matches. The challenge is to grow this like you say with the politics of 'this is my club / cluster' being avoided.
    I hope that we can continue to grow the game but it will take hard work and PR, together with bl**dy hard work from volunteers such as yourself and the other coaches and people who make things happen across the region.

  2. I think my main concern is that clustering sounds a good idea - girls train locally at their clubs then come together for games.

    Trouble is that I suspect that the next step is to come together for training as well, at the larger or more central club perhaps. That risk breaking the local link with the cluster can drift into being club in its own right.

    I am not saying that there is a better way that I can think of, more that clustering is not risk free. There do seem to be downsides.

  3. Don't disagree with that, it's the path of least effort perhaps as there is a ready squad instead of having to do the recruitment stuff.
    However, if you approach clustering and recruitment hand in hand then it should be a short term solution as part of a longer plan. Hopefully this isn't just 'youthful hopefullness' on my part and time will tell I suppose.

  4. Anonymous9:09 AM

    I would like to think that progress is being made overall...More girls are getting opportunities at representative level,after all Basford are only providing half of the U-15 East REGION squad for the festival at Lichfield this season,or is it that they only have 12 fit players?

  5. Vincent9:28 AM

    There seem to be two kinds of cluster:
    1. The 'how do we give these girls regular games?' cluster - a defensive problem solving approach. This is the starting point for U18 provision in Suffolk next season (and NO, it's not 'my' team!) BUT - there has not ever been a junior team in Suffolk which could field a full team consistently, and had a full fixture card - so there is every possibility that growth will follow.
    2. The 'make things grow faster' cluster. This requires an ongoing and very clear focus by each club which contributes recruiting more players, and thus moving towards independence. This is what the clubs to which Spike refers are trying to do.

    Any team needs a really strong group of volunteers to run it. The biggest battle we need to win is to convince more clubs and CBs to throw their (often considerable) resources and enthusiasm behind making rugby a sport for all, regardless of gender. This will bring more volunteers at team level, and more skilled administrators backing them up.

    ......which leads on to the question of 'what kind of game should we focus on?' - no question. 15s. 10s and 7s are fun, but the core of Rugby Union is 15s, and if we aspire to anything less, we simply give the dinosaurs excuses to claim that rugby is not for girls.

  6. I think there is no denying that in theory culsterig should work and I also grant that it is currently the only game in town BUT...

    I just look around at the culsters I know of and I see that the effect seems to be to reduce the number of teams around and therefore, by extension, playing chances for girls (in the long run).

    It is arguably early days, but I can only think of one cluster that has unclusters and returned to club level, and that was last year's Saracens/Fullers cluster. All the others remain, some in their second years. And even the S/F cluster has not resulted in a return to two teams - where has Fullers gone? Either its girls have stopped playing, or (I suspect) have moved to Saracens. If the aim was to keep Fullers playing it failed (I accept thismay be an oversimplification of something I do not know the full details of).

    The problem is - as I see it - that a cluster will almost inevitably be stronger than the individual clubs that make it up. So unclustering will be difficult, if not impossible. Who will want to break up a successful team to form two weaker sides? Players, parents and coaches in the end want to win and even if a division is forced through it is quite probable that ambitious players will move to the stronger of the two former cluster clubs.

    Unless there is some prenuptual agreement to divide after a given period clusters will become clubs.

    There seem more examples of that. Last season's TV clusters seem to have become de facto clubs - Bucks Jesters replacing Milton Keynes Aylesbury and (I think) Chesham, for example.

    I will - as I say - agree that there is actually not much of an alternative at the moment, but what is being sold as a universal panacea is - IMHO - a poisoned chalice. Drink from it with extreme care.

    And hopefully I am wrong.


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