- England value the volunteer in more ways than one
- West Park visit is reward for North’s finest
Photo: RFU Archive
A verdant green square on an unbroken expanse of snow-covered Yorkshire fields provided a graphic and apt backdrop when the Rugby Football Union offered a special vote of thanks at West Park Leeds RFC to a group of specially selected volunteers.
The choice of the oasis on the outskirts of Leeds as the venue for England’s second training visit to Yorkshire underlines the fact that even at the elite, professional end of the business, the contribution of the grassroots supporter cannot be overestimated.
This is true under the regime of England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster, who has made connecting with the volunteers and the clubs a central tenet of his off-field strategy
The perfect condition of the pitch at West Park, Leeds was a credit to the input of host club members, Leeds University students and players from the Leeds Academy at Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley, who all put their shoulder to the wheel to provide for England’s needs.
Adding to the imagery which portrayed the value of volunteers so perfectly was a group of nine individuals from the six Northern counties who were invited to attend the closed England session in recognition of their work for the game in varying capacities.
While the gift of a lunch and a brief position of privilege may not seem a big deal, for the guests, the invitation alone was a major boost and the chance to chat with players and meet Lancaster was a special thrill.
Sarah Keast is a consistent driving force for the burgeoning youth section at Kirkby Lonsdale RFC. She is familiar with players from the elite end of the game having developed her club’s links with Sale Sharks, but that did not diminish the thrill of an England invite.
“It’s been marvellous, absolutely brilliant to get the opportunity to see the lads training,” she said. “It’s also been really good to meet other volunteers from around the North and swap ideas. And it’s nice to see that your efforts are appreciated.”
Sharing the experience were Harry Buxton, Club Development Coordinator for the Durham RFU, a Stockton RFC man who has arranged a number of events to benefit clubs, and Mark Bellanfante, a volunteer who was drawn into rugby when he son started playing the game at Bradford Grammar.
A taekwando coach before the rugby bug took hold, he not only involved himself in club rugby, but also took the sport to his rugby league dominated Calder High and now runs the sport at the school single handedly.
Another visitor who has experienced the good days and the not so good is Orrell RFC’s Keith Roberts, who has played a major part in the resurrection of the famous Edge Hall Road club. He said: “Today has been a fantastic bonus and the fact they have all the people coming tomorrow to see them is marvellous. We need this big connection with England in the North.”
Also from the junior end of the spectrum, but clearly well-schooled in the crucial fundraising side of the game is Old Thornensians RUFC’s Funding Officer Ann Pennington, who admits to keeping a low profile regarding the treat.
“I’m a new girl on the block as far as volunteering is concerned, although I’ve been involved since I was a teenager,” she says. “I know everyone is pleased about the invite and it’s been a super experience.”
Simon Markey was the driving force in establishing three new teams in two years at Bradford Salem, while for the past three years Russell Stead, who had to pass up the invitation because of illness, has chaired the Yorkshire District Mini and Junior group and is actively involved in the Referees Society.
Karen Gooch has launched a women’s team at Northwich, as well as handling the role of Mini and Junior Chair at the club, while another Cheshire guest was Sam Hillas, who is also improving standards and developing women’s rugby as Chairman of the Cheshire Women and Girls Development Committee.
As Mini and Junior Chairman for Colne and Nelson RUFC, Dalu Piliso has been instrumental in spreading the game into local schools. He has given countless hours coaching in local primary and secondary schools to introduce new participants to the game and recruit them into the clubs’ junior teams.
The votes of thanks conveyed afterwards to Carole Thelwall-Jones, who organised the visit, spoke variously of VIP treatment, the sharing of ideas leading to a new perspective, a very positive boost from a spot of recognition which will lift morale on a less buoyant day, the joy of sharing with like-minded rugby folk and the revelation of what life is like at the elite end of the game.