Making the Case for volunteer-based grass roots rugby
As we quickly head towards the fourth month of lockdown restrictions, bringing with it longer night and warmer weather, the mind naturally reminisces to better times before and those to come as we are eventually free!
Now that we are into June, we are less than two weeks away from what would have been the start of the Euro 2020 competition which would have seen the competition travel the continent before a final at Wembley stadium. Such competitions in the summer bring back memories of pub gardens and huge screens to capture millions of eyes for two hours as only live sport can.
One such highlight before the lockdown was the Rugby World Cup final and England's rather surprising appearance. Although eventually ending in disappointment, as with a lot of televised sporting successes, grass roots clubs stand to win the most from the home nations going deep into the competition.
"We were only just starting to feel the effects of the World Cup towards the end of the season" Mark Casey, Chairman of Slough Rugby Club says with an air of frustration. "We saw more people returning to rugby, more players coming down who haven't played since school or some older players, who had given up a bit too early and we were heading towards a charity game that was scuppered."
Coronavirus has been described a few times as a great leveller, demonstrated the world over with sporting competitions and events cancelled or at the least disrupted for over two months.
In line with government and the RFU's advise, Slough RFC has been empty since mid March. All matches in the 2019/2020 season have been cancelled with Slough's first XV finishing the season in 5th after eight wins in the Wadworth 6X Berks, Bucks and Oxon Premier division.
"My personal opinion is that, for grass roots rugby, we couldn't have gone back to playing games in August and then try to start the season again in September.
"There were a couple of teams in our league that were really knocking it out of the park this year and deserve their position.
"I couldn't see any way that those games could be competitively played because all the players in all the clubs in Slough and the surrounding areas, will not be in great physical shape now.
"You can run a bit, if you've got a home gym, that's nice, but not everyone has access to gym equipment, so the conditioning of the players will have been well off. My opinion is that if those teams were top of the table when the league ended, they won."
Alongside a first XV, Slough has a second XV, an "occasional" veterans team alongside a mini and junior section of the club who all had fixtures cancelled due to Covid-19 however Casey describes the status of the club as "secure" thanks to the different direction he thought Slough RFC should take in running the club.
"We took the decision a couple of seasons ago to put the club back into a volunteer only setup so the only people who are paid at the club are the coach, the person who supports us with meals and the occasional grand groundsman, no one else. In fact, it's against the rules the RFU to pay players our level as well."
The Slough Chairman added that the change has left them insulated from the effects of the current lockdown and also allows the club to take advantage of its facilities as well as membership fees.
"We have an excellent Treasurer and as a club we have very tight financial controls on the revenue we get from the club, which includes revenue from hospitality, the bar, and obviously all the subscriptions for the players and our non-playing members.
"We're also really good at applying for grants from local council, from the RFU and we regularly apply for grants from NatWest. They do a lot to support grassroots rugby, and they're really good with it. So we look out for those opportunities and we won't pass them up because they help us improve the club."
But that's not to say that Slough isn't missing some of the income it would have otherwise made this year. As with other grass roots clubs up and down the country, Slough RFC holds events to raise funds that have have been cancelled this year.
"We would have definitely had some form of a summer barbecue, Slough Council use the club as the basis for fun runs and there was the big Slough 5K, which would have been taking place this month.
"In the last 15 years we've had about 13 7s tournaments so, if you add the money the barbecue and the bar would raise, we'd raise between five and seven thousand pounds. So we've lost a large number of opportunities to raise money for the club."
Through all the turbulence caused by Covid-19, Casey said the rugby club is trying to give back to their members as much as they can and that the Slough RFC community has stuck together during this difficult time. "We are being deeply affected, but we're doing everything we can to help our members. We're doing a bar sale of sealed drinks, everything from bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale through to cans of Coke, that'll eventually expire in the next couple of months and we're offering that to the members.
"One of the more heartwarming things that's come out this crisis at Slough is the Facebook and other social media channels that are dedicated to Slough RFC are very busy, very active, lots of people talking, having fun.
"We get regular updates from Bucks RFU and we get regular updates from the main RFU from Twickenham as well. So financially, because of the decision we took to turn it back to an almost entirely volunteer based club we are reasonably secure.
"The pitches have been well maintained, the club looks good, it's all sealed up and we're in good shape and looking forward to when we're allowed to go back out on the pitches again."