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...

Friday, August 08, 2008

The regional programme and "grassroots"

A month or so back an article on the tens resulted in a fair amount of interest, and a couple of responses - initially one from Anne Bebbington from Taunton RFC. A particularly heartfelt part of Anne's contribution was not directly about the 10s but instead dealt with regional rugby and in particular:

"the dire state of grass roots female rugby and the detrimental effect on it of the Regional programme".

This resulted in a reply asking:

"how it [regional rugby] has had a detrimental effect on grassroots? It's a genuine enquiry...what was the effect, also, what aspects of the program caused it? Could I also ask, would you have a proposal that might be better?"

Rather than continue that discussion hidden away in the responses I promised to pull it out into the open so as to give it a greater prominence. Since then one or two other things have come up, but now there seems a small gap in the schedule - here goes...

The relative strength of girls' club rugby in some (but, I grant, not yet all) areas of England is surprisingly new. Most of the club tournaments that we take as permanent fixtures in the calendar - Rochford, Dorking, Herts 7s, Beckenham, Worthing, etc - are, in fact, less than five or six years old. "Long established" girls clubs are rarely any older.

Prior to around 2003 the world was a different place and regional programme was an essential developmental tool - the only means for many girls to play 15-a-side rugby. In many regions (including East) barely enough girls turned up at regional trials to make up a squad, so any competent players could realistically expect get a chance to play for their regional team. Thus the programme kept girls in the game, and made a valuable contribution to the development of both the game, and individual girl's, rugby.

Today - in many areas - things have changed. Most girls do not play regional rugby - indeed pre-selection at county level means that most will never even attend a regional trial. Regional rugby (still theoretically a "developmental" programme) is, in practice, an exclusive and elite activity and, for the majority of players - the grassroots - it is irrelevant to their personal development.

At best this means the programme can only have a neutral affect upon grassroots players - you cannot, after all, benefit from something you do not take part in. The question is whether it its effect is a negative.

I would agree with Anne that it now is. An initiative that used to provide the only means most girls had of playing the "full" game today, in practice, stops most girls playing. Although the regional programme only includes a minority of players, it does pull around 600 girls out of club rugby each weekend. We are not yet a big sport and that is a significant proportion of the games playing strength. Even the biggest clubs have, in practice, only just enough girls to field a full side the loss of one or two girls is normally enough to prevent them (and if not them then their opponents) fielding a team.

Even if that were not the case, the sheer uncertainty about who or how many girls will be selected (regional squads not being announced until February) prevents any effective forward planning at club level. No fixtures can be made, no tournaments planned, until clubs know who is picked and who isn't.

This is not just theoretical. Changes to the regional programme last season, and last minute extensions such as Super League, were enough to halve the number of entries at the Herts Sevens, turn the end of at least one club league into a bad tempered farce, and impact on entries to the regional 10s (a fact that was then used as an excuse to cancel the event this season!). None of these could remotely be classed as "neutral" leave alone beneficial!

All this is compounded by the rather obvious fact that the players taken away by region are the best players - the players who are often the centre-pieces around which teams are built, the players who have most to offer. Rugby is a team game, and a successful team is more than the sum of its parts. Their loss for such a large proportion of the post-Christmas season is therefore out of all proportion to their numerical absence.

Admittedly those that take part do gain from the programme (well, most of them - I know that one or two of our girls would dispute that). The programme itself is an important part of the player development pathway that leads to the England team. Without it England would perhaps not be as successful, and a successful sport attracts players*. Furthermore Sport England grants are largely dependent on international performance (it is a curious fact that participation counts for less when the money is handed round) - and that is the pressure that headquarters probably feels most.

But do these positives felt by the minority balance out the negatives felt by the majority? I do not believe that they do - and for one important reason. The best players in the world have to start from somewhere - they have to be discovered somehow, given their first chance to play by somebody. And those "somebodies" are the clubs - the grassroots. A programme that impacts negatively on clubs will, in the long run, impact negatively on England too.

Incidentally, I know that there are all sorts of initiatives planned by many counties this season to counter the effect of the regional programme on those not selected, and the effort put in by those who run these programmes is brilliant... but in a way it merely confirms the fact that the regional programme is damaging. Counties would not need to have to rush in and rescue the game if regional rugby were anything else.

"Its easy to criticise - would you have a proposal that might be better?"

Yes, actually... but we'll leave that for another day.

*Actually, in truth I am being quite generous here. Fact is that the U20s are the main route into the England team, and they are still run from open trials with no actual requirement to have played regional rugby in order to attend (though it is recommended). It would be interesting to know how many England players (U20, A or full team) have been "discovered" or "developed" by regions who would not otherwise have made the grade. Some have played region and gone onto greater things, but in all cases I know of their talent was already well known - Emily Scarratt, for instance.

Indeed in the case of Emily I always got the impression that here was a player who was clearly too good for regional rugby - she never seemed fully engaged by it, almost seemed bored at times, turning on the genius when needed but otherwise proceeding on automatic. She (and other U19/U20 girls at region) often looked to me like someone who needed something much more exacting and testing.

I might even go so far as to say that regional rugby not only fails the grassroots players by being too elitist, but also the future England players by not being elitist enough!

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