- City of sport is fertile ground for rugby development
- Commonwealth Games legacy points way forward
The city of Manchester received an emphatic thumbs up from the Rugby Football Union executives who visited the city on a fact-finding tour last week.
RFU CEO Ian Ritchie, who knows the city well after working there with Granada Television for eight years in the Eighties, was joined by RFU Rugby Development Director Steve Grainger on a busy day-long programme which embraced clubs at the grassroots end of the spectrum - in Didsbury, North Manchester and Sandbach - and at the junior sector, with visits to the East Manchester Academy and Sandbach High School.
The object of the exercise was to give the RFU pair a hands-on feel for the issues being faced by clubs across the country and to liaise with the RFU professional rugby development staff who are working to assist clubs and schools and drive the game forward in the regions.
Ritchie has already visited Gloucestershire and the Midlands on his introductory tour and has been outlining his own personal views and hopes for the future to regional staff and club volunteers.
“What I want to do is try to enthuse everybody about playing rugby and making sure that everybody wants to participate in this great sport,” he said. “That’s at every level from the England team to mini rugby to women’s rugby to sevens. I’m openly trying to be an ambassador for the game throughout the country.
“I know from previous experience what a great sporting community Manchester is and being back in the city and meeting rugby people from clubs and schools. Sport-minded City Council officials like Mark Hackett confirmed that the proud tradition is still in place.”
The Manchester visit was the third undertaken so far in a series of excursions into the field, and generally the issues that were raised were much in line with the messages that had already come from trips to Gloucestershire and the Midlands.
“The programme is all about Ian and myself getting to meet people and getting a feel for some of the issues that clubs are facing,” said Grainger. “Generally, we had good, positive vibes. Clearly there are challenges, but there are good solutions being developed and I’m sure the game is in good hands.
“There are one or two local issues, maybe relating transport or travel times, but generally the topics raised are not dissimilar.
“One is how do we keep getting people involved from a playing perspective and how do we offer the best rugby opportunities to our members. The second challenge we face is how do we get more members of the community into our clubs and facilities to use them.
“At the end of the day the social side of the club, the bar-takings of the club and the financial viability of the club is driven by keeping people coming in.
“So, we have a set of on-field topics to deal with and a set of off-field challenges relating to financial sustainability, facility improvements and making sure that we have enough volunteers.”
The latter challenge was brought into sharp focus by the chats the RFU pair had with people as they moved through the day.
One area where Manchester brought a unique angle on sports development that is especially significant with the Rugby World Cup now on the horizon, was the impact on the city of the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
“A key element of the 2002 legacy is the number of volunteers who came on board to help make the Games a massive success,” said Grainger. “Any time I come to Manchester now I seem to find myself taking to people who were involved in the Games as volunteers and are still actively involved in sport.
“Manchester has developed a reputation for being able to stage major sporting events, for putting on a show. But we want to see beyond the basic staging of the events and to focus on the opportunity to develop sport across the city in the longer term.
“That’s what we’d be hoping for if we have any engagement with them around the World Cup. Their proven ability to support major events and to use that to drive participation has to be one of their selling points.
“And there is no doubt in my mind that the rugby fraternity in the city and more than ready, more than capable and more than prepared to deal with the influx of interest that might come their way. There’s clearly a strong rugby infrastructure in terms of volunteers and clubs that is well placed to deal with the increased demands that the World Cup would produce.”