All posts by Daniel Racheter

Premier League ‘will have safe standing by summer 2018’

Safe standing areas could be installed at Premier League grounds as early as next summer, despite ongoing government concerns, according to expert Jon Darch.

The founder of the Safe Standing Roadshow predicts that a system known as rail seating is on the horizon for the English football’s top flight, and said: “My gut feeling is that we are heading for its introduction in August 2018.”

Premier League clubs have discussed the possibility of using rail seating, formally adopted in Germany in the 1998/99 season.

Currently, their stadia have to be all-seater because of legislation implemented after the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 in which 96 Liverpool fans were killed.

Celtic introduced a 2,600-capacity section of rail seating at Celtic Park in last year, and it has been widely hailed as a success.

Despite this, the UK government recently stated that it remains “unconvinced” by safe standing but says it will continue to “monitor the situation”.

Crushing

However, Darch told me that Celtic’s rail seating ‘trial’ has put safe standing firmly on the agenda of both politicians and football’s administrators.

“Celtic don’t like to use the word ‘trial’ when talking about their rail seating section. As far as they are concerned, it’s here to stay, but they call it a ‘trial’ to keep  Glasgow city council happy,” he said.

Celtic's safe standing section
Safe standing at Celtic Park

England’s top-flight grounds have been all-seater since the 1994-95 season for safety reasons.

But fans continue to rise to their feet during games, and away fans often stand throughout a match.

Many supporters have called for the introduction of rail seating, which allows standing but prevents the kind of dangerous crushing that was once common on the terraces.

Since 2011, Darch has been on a mission to enhance the credibility of rail seating by touring a roadshow around the UK to give people a real taste of the benefits of a system which has worked so successfully in other countries, most notably Germany.

“Most big German grounds were once almost two-thirds standing, and the reason they invented rail seats was because Uefa said games in its competitions in the future had to be played in all-seater stadia.

“That was a problem for German clubs because they had these big terraces. Also, they were member-controlled,  their members were fans, and the fans wanted to carry on standing.”

On the agenda

Although Darch is pleased at the progress he still can’t quite understand why it has taken until now for the Premier League to explore the idea. In a TalkSPORT poll, just over 90% of fans questioned said they supported the introduction of safe standing.

“I think it’s very likely that the clubs will mandate [Premier League executive chairman] Richard Scudamore to explore further the possibilities with the government, and my gut feeling is that we are heading for the introduction of rail seating in August 2018,” he said.

John Darch
Darch (top right) in Hanover’s safe standing area

“It’s strange that the Premier League has never discussed it with their clubs, and the clubs have never sat down together to discuss the topic until now.

“But the main thing is that it’s on the agenda and the government will listen to Scudamore a lot more than they do to clubs and especially fans on the matter.

“With the power the Premier League has, it can certainly make it happen.”

Darch stressed that comparisons between traditional open terraces and modern safe standing/rail seating sections are “daft and irrelevant”.

Poor management

“People fall very easily into the trap that conventional terraces were unsafe,” he said.

“Yes, the design of safe standing is different and, yes, there is far less possibility of movement in a rail seating area. But well-maintained and well-managed terraces like they have at Burton Albion’s ground are completely safe.

“What caused Hillsborough, and what causes nearly every major every disaster at sports stadia or other large public assemblies of people is poor management of a moving crowd.

“It happened at Ellis Park in South Africa in 2001 – 43 people lost their lives, and if you read the judge’s views of that disaster, it read nearly exactly the same as Lord Justice Taylor’s on Hillsborough.

“That stadium was and is an all-seater ground and a top five-star Fifa stadium. It’s a good stadium, but because there was a failure of management of a moving crowd at the point of entry, people died.”

Safe standing economics

Some cite the cost of introducing safe standing as the main reasons for clubs’ hesitation to progress with the idea.

The Safe Standing Roadshow website gives an example of how it could impact on a club’s matchday revenue:

Stadium A

Current capacity: 35,000

Two-tier stand behind each goal

Lower tier of the home end (3,500 seats) converted to safe standing

A section of the away end (1,750) converted to safe standing

Total seat spaces converted: 5,250 (15% of capacity)

Total standing spaces created: 9,450 (5,250 x 1.8)

Revised total capacity: 39,200 (+4,200, i.e. +12%)

Example seat price: £25

Example standing price: £18

Total gate receipt potential before: £875,000 per match / £17.5m per 20 games

Total gate receipt potential after: £913,850 per match / £18.25m per 20 games

Potential gate receipt increase per 20-game season: £750,000

Potential total extra revenue (incl. fans’  spend on catering etc.): £1.4m

Source: The Safe Standing Roadshow.

‘Huge potential’

Darch said: “Rail seating has huge potential to bring the price of tickets down, with more space created by the system. There is a £30 cap now on away tickets in the Premier League [thanks to] protests by fans.

“We can make more progress on this in the future and if and when rail seating is introduced.

If the rules and regulations in this country permit more than one spectator per space – there’s room to do that- then clubs could reduce their ticket prices for that area and still make the same amount of money or even more.”

Darch predicts fans to have a big say on prices, as they did at Liverpool earlier this season when fans staged a walkout protest after the club’s owners proposed a hike in certain tickets.

“Liverpool fans are the perfect example of the amount of power spectators hold,” he explained. “They made the clubs owners change their mind on the ticket increase idea and it typified that football is all about the fans. It was a great moment.”

“Outrageous insult”

Darch believes that the introduction of safe standing would be a fitting tribute to the victims of Hillsborough and their families, that the link between the disaster and the standing ban is built on a “falsehood”.

“It’s based on the idea that fans who like to stand are hooligans, and therefore it says the 96 were hooligans and implies indirectly that they were guilty of the disaster which unfolded that day”

“It is assumed that the standing ban was brought in because Lord Justice Taylor decided that standing up at football was somehow dangerous and the only way to watch it was to be sit down. That isn’t the truth.

“The truth is: the standing ban was brought in because the Thatcher government saw it as a means of countering hooliganism in the same way that they saw the idea of a national ID card scheme as a means of countering hooliganism.

“Before April 15th 1989, Thatcher’s government were already moving towards all-seater stadia and the national ID card scheme.

“In many ways, the disaster at Hillsborough gave them an excuse to bring in a piece of legislation which they probably wouldn’t have been able to bring in due to the opposition they would had faced had there not been that disaster.

“If the Hillsborough families who still oppose standing think about that, the reality is that the standing ban is actually a huge outrageous insult to the good names of their loved ones.

“It’s based on the idea that football fans who like to stand are hooligans, and therefore it says the 96 were hooligans and implies indirectly that they were guilty of the disaster which unfolded that day.”

Views changing on Merseyside

Liverpool have in the past made it known that they do not wish to contribute or engage to the debate on safe-standing out of respect for the Hillsborough families who oppose the idea. But Darch believes it is a view which is changing.

“Every single member in that room at the spirit of Shankly AGM were in favour of rail seating” – John Darch

Liverpool Echo journalist James Pearce says Liverpool and the Hillsborough families should be deeply involved in any discussion which takes place on the topic, but Darch feels it shouldn’t be dismissed if they choose not to.

“It would be nice to have them heavily involved, not only the families but the fans as well. But if they don’t wish to engage in the discussion then it shouldn’t be held back,” he said.

In September 2016 Liverpool supporter group The Spirit of Shankly held a meeting on whether they should formally adopt a position of safe-standing and the reaction by the members was very positive.

Group chairman Jay McKenna told the Liverpool Echo: “As an organisation, we have always taken a step back from the conversation on ‘safe standing’ and never really joined in.”

In favour

But following the Hillsborough inquest last year, which ruled the fans were unlawfully killed, and the successful trial at Celtic, the group felt it was the right time to have a discussion on whether now is the time to formally adopt a position.

The supporters’ group decided to ask all their members online their views of rail-seating and the return of standing, and the results which came back were staggering.

“The first person who had to speak in the room was a man who had lost his brother at Hillsborough and Spirit of Shankly then widened that question to all their membership online,” said Darch.

“Every single member present at the at the Spirit of Shankly AGM who spoke were in favour of rail seating. Online, 93% came back saying ‘yes we should adopt a formal position of safe standing’ and now they have set out a long and very in-depth consultation time table.

That will take them through to late spring-early summer 2017 where they will announce their formal position on standing.”

Walking football? It’s no stroll in the park

Mention of walking football prompts recollections of that Barclays commercial in which Steve Rich enlists the bank’s help to promote the sport. 

With the help of a Barclays’ digital assistance, Rich set up the website Walking Football United to encourage and inspire people over the age of 50 to keep playing the beautiful game, albeit at a slower pace.

Walking football was initially founded in 2011 by the Chesterfield FC Community Trust, the scheme aims to get over 50s active in sport again and regularly exercising.

The Barclays advert brought it to the attention of football lovers across the nation who no longer thought they had what it takes to play as they did in their younger days, and since then, the sport has gone from strength to strength.

Walking Football United has recently just registered it’s 800th club as the strolling version of soccer continues to take the UK’s older generations by storm.

Enjoyment

I paid a visit to Colchester United’s Community Stadium where I met up with members of the club’s walking football team to find out more.

They were national finalists last season but unfortunately didn’t make it out of the group stages at the FA’s training base St George’s Park after losing 1-0 to eventual winners Blackpool.

THE RULES: Any player caught running concedes a free kick to the opposition. No player can head the ball and there is no slide tackling – a gentleman version of the game some might say…

As I stood under the floodlights and witnessed a hatful of fantastic goals during their training session, I was immediately impressed by the technical skills of the team as they switched the ball around with pinpoint control.

Player and assistant coach Terry Beeton was eager to point out that competitive nature of the sport and the overall quality of the team this season.

“The quality is so good, I’m finding it hard to get in the team!” Terry laughed.

“Lots of these guys play for different reasons, some for health benefits, some just to be part of a team, but most importantly, we all want the same thing: to win.”

Banter

The session was filled with smiles and laughter, and Mark Gooch, a Colchester United player back in the 1990s, was the loudest presence on the pitch as he rallied his side while dishing out some textbook banter.

Gooch, whose professional career was cut short at a young age by injury, doesn’t hesitate when asked what type of football he prefers.

“We have such a laugh and that’s what football is about at this age, having some banter, finishing the game and going for a beer”

“Without a doubt, walking football. I was never one for running anyway.

“There are less injuries playing this way and it’s very technical when you don’t run. It’s all about the ball, picking the right pass, the movement, I love it.

For the former U’s player, it presented the perfect route back into the game he loves after an old friend persuaded him to take part.

“Me and another player, Clarkey [Colin Clarke], played on the same five-a-side team. I saw on Facebook he was playing walking football, I admit I took the mickey for a while until he twisted my arm to come down and give it a try.

“It’s great to be back playing competitively. We train and work hard. We also have such a laugh and that’s what football is about at this age, having some banter, finishing the game and going for a beer.”

Disappointment 

Gooch’s competitive streak is still there for all to see as he discusses Colchester’s elimination from the national finals.

“I hate to say it, but three of our players were on holiday during the finals. If we had them three, we would have gone extremely close.

“We don’t just play for the fun, we go out onto the pitch to win and we fight to win every time”

“We only lost 1-0 to Blackpool, who went on to win it obviously, but the chances we had in that game… It just wasn’t our day unfortunately.

“Playing at St George’s Park was great, the atmosphere was brilliant and it really did get quite tasty with some teams, we gave all we had.

“It’s certainly motivation for this season and an experience which can only make us stronger as a team.”

Determination

Once a pro, always a pro, and Gooch still has that desire for victory, despite his claims about the importance of walking football’s social side.

“You can always tell the ones who have played football competitively before,” he tells me.

“Their movement is good, they know where to be at all times, and they find the transition, like I did, straightforward.”

He adds: “All we want to do is win, we don’t just play for the fun, we go out onto the pitch to win and we fight to win every time.”

As Colchester’s veterans aim for more success this season, it is clear that walking football will surely continue to grow in popularity – whether it’s among ex pros or those with little or no playing experience.

The beautiful game is not, and never has been, just for the young…

‘There’s more to beach volleyball than tight clothing’

This edition of ES TV sees reporter Daniel Racheter interview University of the Arts London’s women’s volleyball player Francisca L. Dias.

Francesca discusses her experience of beach volleyball and the stereotypes surrounding it

She also explains that although British volleyball faces uncertainty at international level, with its funding drastically cut, the spirit and competitiveness in the university game is high – although UAL’s recent results haven’t been great…

 Produced and edited by Daniel Racheter and Shan Gambling

Watch the full interview here:

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Women’s hockey on the rise after Olympic success

University of the Arts London’s women’s hockey president Dhalyn Warren discusses the rising participation in her sport after Team GB’s gold medal success at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Women’s hockey has seen a surge in interest since Britain beat favourites the Netherlands in the final in Rio, including plenty of interest at university level.

Warren also reflects on the university’s use of London 2012 Olympics venue Lee Valley, explains what her role entails, and the talks about the benefits hockey brings to players both on and off the field.

Produced and edited by Daniel Racheter and Shannon Gambling.

Watch the full interview here:

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In pole position for Olympic recognition?

Pole-dancing tends to be associated in many people’s minds with strip-club sleaze, but ‘pole’ is rapidly becoming a respectable sport with Olympic aspirations.

The International Pole Sport Federation (IPSF) is determined to tackle the negative stereotypes and promote it as a fiercely competitive pursuit with all sorts of health and fitness benefits.

To that end, it has got pole into the programme of events at the 2017 World Urban Games in Wrocław, Poland, next July, and is beginning a push for it to be added to the roster of Olympic sports.

A Pole World Cup event actually took place earlier this year in the host city for the 2016 Games, Rio de Janeiro, featuring 150 dancers from 36 countries and £20,000 in prize money on offer.

This year’s World Pole Dancing Championships was staged in Bucharest, Romania, and featured competitions for women, men and doubles combinations, with performers judged on their artistic flair, core strength and agility.

Health benefits

A survey conducted by The Pole Room, an organisation committed to raising and improving the profile of pole dancing in Australia, found that all participants are taking part for the health benefits such as endurance, upper-body strength and mental well-being.

Nearly 80% of respondents said the got a real sense of achievement from pole.

“I’d heard pole-dancing was a fantastic way to keep fit, but with every photo I saw of friends doing it on Facebook or YouTube videos, it looked sexual to me”

Kaisha Windred from Harwich is a member of the JC Pole Fit Club in Colchester and says she took up the sport for health reasons, which have benefitted her greatly, as well as the fun of participating.

“I find pole a lot more enjoyable than working out in the gym” she said.

“Pole works every muscle in your body without you realising because you’re having too much fun.

“The main benefits for me have been increased upper-body strength, weight loss, increased muscle mass and general emotional well-being.”

The 24-year old has been taking part in pole for two years after she saw an advert for a free trial, and admits she didn’t take it seriously at first.

“I’d heard pole-dancing was a fantastic way to keep fit, but with every photo I saw of friends doing it on Facebook or YouTube videos, it looked sexual to me.

“This didn’t bother me though as I am comfortable in my own skin, and my aims are and have always been to take part to keep fit. My perspective of pole soon changed.”

Senior star

Greta Pontarelli
Greta Pontarelli

Pole is not just for the young, either, as the over-50s category at this year’s World Championships proves.

The undoubted star of the senior category is 65-year-old Greta Pontarelli, who was diagnosed with bone disease osteoporosis and turned to strenuous exercise to combat it at the age of 59.

This year, the Californian captured her fourth world title, and is a prime example of the health benefits of pole which turned her life around.

She now seeks to inspire others through her success.

“I want to be living proof that nothing is impossible. I want to help and inspire women to prove that no matter what age you are, anything is possible.”

Ignorance

But with public perceptions of pole still heavily linked to exotic/erotic dance, seedy clubs and the sex industry, much work still needs to be done to reshape its image.

Windred believes there are many different versions of pole and it is just ignorance that leads to the typical stereotypes of the sport.

“You can make it as glamorous, sexy or sleazy as you like,” she explained.

“When I first started out I got a lot of compliments about my body strength and shape, which was a huge confidence boost, but I also got a lot of ignorance towards me. Some people couldn’t quite understand and thought I was a stripper.

“They should come to one of my classes and they will realise it is not as glamorous as it looks. It’s quite painful but it is so worth it.”

Controversy

In 2013, Swansea University’s Student Union banned its members from taking part in pole-dancing fitness classes as they believed it was ‘inextricably linked to sex industry’.

A statement read: “Activities such as pole fitness contributes to an atmosphere where women are viewed as sexual objects and where violence against them is acceptable.

“All the stereotyping around pole-dancing is just people with small minds”

“Evidence shows that young women aged 16 to 24 are the group who experience the most domestic and sexual violence.”

The Pole Fitness Society was due to hold twice-weekly sessions before the union intervened and pulled the plug after a large number of women had already signed up to take part.

Club president Beth Morris hit back at the claims, by stating: “Lap dancing occurs in gentlemen’s clubs.

“Pole fitness is strictly for fitness. Since the classes are purely for that purpose, there is no link between it and the sex industry.”

Participation

However, pole-dancing has become established at other universities including Manchester, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Surrey and Huddersfield.

Manchester University student Natalie Baker attends pole-dancing classes and said it is great fun and also very competitive.

“Us girls have so much fun during classes and it gets quite competitive with who can pull off the best moves,” she said.

“I have no interest in denying where pole came from. There will always be exotic pole, but also pole art and pole sports”

“We are always aiming to learn new tricks and we embrace it as a way of expressing ourselves. All the stereotyping around pole-dancing is just people with small minds.”

KT Coates, president of the IPSF, is keen to stress that rules on clothing and how the competitors present themselves is key to building an acceptable image.

“Competitors aren’t allowed to show cleavage but you have to show some skin or you stick to the pole,” he said.

“The clothes they wear are very glamorous and in no way not appropriate.”

He admitted the sport’s origins are an obstacle to gaining acceptance, but insisted his organisation’s work was a different matter altogether.

“I have no interest in denying where pole came from. There will always be exotic pole, but also pole art and pole sports. We’re creating something new for family viewing.”

Recognition

Pole’s invitation to be part of the 2017 World Urban Games alongside established sports such as basketball and cycling suggests its Olympic dream may still be alive.

A few days after its 2013 World Championships in Spain, the IPSF was officially recognised as the governing body of pole by the Federation of International Gymnastics and by Sport Accord, the umbrella organisation for both Olympic and non-Olympic international sports federations.

Much to the dislike of the cynics, pole is knocking on the Olympic door and one day soon, someone may be forced to answer.

Feature image courtesy of Your Mildura via Flikr Creative Commons. Greta Pontarelli image courtesy of www.midwestpoledancing.com

Spurs supporters urged to honour young fan

Tottenham fans are being asked to mark the death of a young footballer during their match against West Ham this weekend.

Jack Atkinson, 18, suffered a suspected cardiac arrest whilst playing for his local team, Holland FC, at a tournament in Clacton, Essex, and died the following day.

Friends and family of the teenager described as a ‘gentle giant’ are now campaigning on social media for a 60 seconds of applause on the 18th minute at Saturday’s game at White Hart Lane.

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-11-57-33Tyler Rose, Atkinson’s best friend, has been leading the efforts to ensure the tribute goes ahead.

“Jack was so caring, so relaxed – I never once saw him lose it at anyone when playing” he said.

“He was a massive Spurs fan and loved football like the rest of us. He was so well-liked by everybody.

“I loved playing with him, especially when we won every game together last season, he was a great player with a very promising future.”

Support

Jack’s parents gave an interview to BBC Essex as they try to deal with the shock, with his father stating that he “died doing what he loved”.

“Words can’t explain, but it’s so nice to know how popular and well-loved he was,” he said.

“The doctors said he wasn’t in any pain which is a blessing, but he died over there doing what he loved.

“He was nice, so, so nice. Everyone has a bad bone in their body, but you would struggle to find Jack’s, he was so amazing, he really was.”

Shane Spacey, another close friend of Atkinson, has set up a GoFundMe page to help support his family. So far, it has raised nearly £6,000 of its £8,000 target.

“We knew each other since we started secondary school at the age of 11, and he really was the nicest guy you could ever meet, a great friend.

“I can’t even begin to imagine what his family are going through. Jack was loved by everybody, and if you look at his donation page it speaks volumes. Everybody has given what they can.”

Missed

screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-11-57-33Rose tweeted on Monday evening, calling on all Spurs fans to honour Jack this Saturday.

Since then, the tweet has generated huge recognition with over a thousand retweets, one of those being by ex-Spurs player David Ginola.

BBC News Essex reported this week that Tottenham are aware of the planned applause this Saturday and have been in contact with Jack’s family to offer their condolences to his family during this difficult time.

Mark Sorrell, chairman of Holland FC said: “Jack was a nice boy, always very polite and conscientious.

“He was not disliked by anybody and he really was a great kid, a very promising footballer. He’ll be missed by all of us.”

Local League Two club Colchester United also offered their condolences via social media.

The U’s tweeted: “The thoughts of everyone at ‪#ColU are with ‪@MightyHolland and the family of Jack Atkinson after the sad news at the weekend. Rest in peace.”

If you would like to donate via the crowd funding page, click here.

‘I decided to text my coach and quit. It was my lowest point’

Ryan Crouch admits he came close to giving up the sport he loves last year, having grown frustrated as health problems took their toll on his confidence and abilities.

The two-time cerebral palsy world swimming champion recalls: “In December 2014, I had health setbacks that forced me out of the pool. After a few months not training, I decided to text my coach that I would be quitting. It was the lowest point of my life.”

But after taking a break and clearing his head, the Essex-born Paralympian realised he needed to be back in the water and doing what he’s does best.

“In April 2015, after a few other issues outside of the pool and health aside, I decided I missed swimming too much. Added to this, I was asked to compete at the Cerebral Palsy World Games and it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t refuse.

“For the first time in a while I really had something to focus on, and just four months later I found myself in the England cerebral palsy team and took two golds in Nottingham.”

Missed out

Fast forward to this summer, and Crouch found himself lining up in the 50m freestyle final in his classification (S9) at the 2016 Paralympics, having won his heat.

He finished down in eighth place, but just getting to Rio has fuelled his desire to compete again on disabled sport’s biggest stage in Tokyo 2020.

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Crouch wins his heat in Rio

“Rio was like something I have never seen before, the Brazilian fans were incredible, so loud and so passionate. My parents being there and watching me take on the world was so important for me.

“They have always been so supportive of my dreams and ambitions as a swimmer.”

The only sour note in his Paralympic experience came when the 22-year-old missed out on selection for the relay team.

“It was a big blow not being selected for something I’ve always wanted to be a part of,” he says about what is still clearly a subject that rankles with him.

“The most important thing for me is I was happy with my individual 50m and 100m freestyle performances in Rio, and it has given me a taste for more international success.”

Hero

As well as the family and friends who have backed him all the way, another person who Crouch hopes will cheering him on towards the 2020 Games is his hero James Hickman.

“The disappointment of missing out on my home games added fuel to the fire for Rio”

He’s never forgotten how the five-time world champion took time out to offer him some encouragement when he met him as a boy.

“I was just 11 years old at the time,” he told me. “I was training at Harwich & Parkeston Swimming Club, which was my club at the time, and he came to have a talk with us.

“I remember him sitting me down individually and giving me the most inspiring chat about his experiences and his journey.

“But the most important thing I learnt from James was to maintain the love for swimming.

“He gave me a motivational CD to play in the car too, and it really did all start from there. That is when my Olympic dream started.”

Tattoo

Having missed out on the London 2012 Paralympics, Crouch, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, celebrated his Rio adventure with an Olympic rings tattoo – a permanent reminder of his call-up to compete on the global stage.

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Crouch’s tattoo

“The disappointment of missing out on my home games added fuel to the fire for Rio, and it’s a tattoo I said I would always get if I ever made it there.

“It’s the biggest and best achievement of my life so far, and one I want to remember forever – the tattoo is the perfect way to depict it.

“My other tattoo ‘Forever Young’ is dedicated to my late cousin and grandad who supported my dream so much and were sadly taken too early.

“Every time I step into the pool, it’s for them and they are always so close to my heart.”

Coaching

Crouch dedicates a lot of his time to coaching others, and believes it is a major part of his progression as a swimmer.

“When I look back to before I started coaching, I was very young and didn’t understand the sport like I do now,” he explained. “These last five years of coaching has really opened my eyes to it all.

“Swimming can be a very lonely sport, like any individual sport, so the high points are something I cherish a lot”

“I love helping to improve and inspire others, it’s what gets me up in the morning, knowing that I am making a difference, and I definitely see my future in coaching in the long term.”

Having sampled one Paralympics, however, he’s hoping he’s got plenty more to offer as a competitor at the highest level.

“Of course I am aiming to compete at the next Games but for me, it’s about breaking down my aims into the short term,” he said.

“That includes maintaining my love for swimming and to go to the World Championships qualifiers in July next year and consequently make the team for Mexico.

“Keeping that burning desire for swimming deep inside of me is so important for me and any swimmer. Swimming can be a very lonely sport, like any individual sport, so the high points are something I cherish a lot.”

England success boosts women’s rugby union

It’s just over two years since England’s women’s rugby team celebrated an emphatic 21-9 World Cup final victory over Canada – and the Red Roses have ensured that they have made their moment in the spotlight. 

Since that win, there has been a remarkable 70% rise in women’s active participation in rugby from grass roots levels, to universities, colleges and schools.

In 2014 there were 15,000 registered participants playing every week – two years later, that figure has risen by 11,000 as the Rugby Football Union’s four-year development plan bears fruit.

From the outset, the RFU’s director of rugby development Steve Grainger had a clear vision: to take the team’s achievements and use them as a foundation to build success through at grassroots level, making sure that being future success becomes the norm for women’s rugby.

And thanks to funding and continuous support from Sport England, they are achieving that – and more.

“We set ourselves an ambitious target when launching our strategy in 2014,” Grainger said.

“We have created more playing opportunities in schools, clubs and universities, increased investment in facilities and strengthened our coaching base. We are also grateful to Sport England, whose financial support has contributed significantly to this growth.”

Inspiration

Rebecca Freeman arrived at the University of Essex in 2014 having never even picked up a rugby ball before. Now in the third year of her studies, she is one of the most established players in the university’s first-team squad.

When asked what had attracted her in the first place, one of the first things she points out is the feeling of togetherness.

“At one of the first come and try sessions, there were about 50-60 girls there, playing the sport for the first time, I was stunned.”

“Every year the team is always so tight-knit. When everyone’s so committed and wants us to do well, it just happens naturally,” she explained.

“We socialise together weekly, we train twice a week and play once a week, we’ve always got each other’s backs and that’s something I love more than anything, the passion and the will to do well.

“We currently have one women’s rugby team so I think that plays a massive part of the togetherness between us all, but with current interest in playing we are exploring the possibility of maybe expanding to a second team and who knows, even a third.”

Looking back to 2014, she says the post-World Cup buzz generated a recruitment drive for newcomers to be part of a new era for the sport.

“At one of the first come and try sessions, there were about 50-60 girls there, playing the sport for the first time, I was stunned,” she said.

“It was such a great atmosphere because of the number of girls that had never played before and we all just clicked, which is something that has happened during freshers’ week every year since I have been here.

“The interest is ever-growing and now we have 45-50 girls who are fully signed up with memberships for our team.”

O2 Touch

Even before the success of 2014, one year earlier the RFU had launched an initiative to get as many men and women as possible playing touch rugby without the commitment of the physical side in the game.

O2 Touch launch with Flavia Cacace and England Rugby Players Mike Brown, Brad Barritt andFreeman says it is a very positive move by the RFU, and one which Essex University has recently launched, to an enthusiastic reaction.

“This year rugby at Essex is RFU accredited, which means more opportunities for the sport here. We have just launched O2 Touch which is especially for those who want to play weekly without the commitment of training, or don’t want to take part in contact,” she said.

“The RFU have played a great part in the development during freshers’ week – we had a development day where two coaches came down to help us develop our skills and learn the basics. Their guidance and experience is priceless to use girls wanting to learn all the time.”

There are currently eight O2 Touch regional centres across the country, with the RFU looking to expand even more over the next couple of years, if the participation rate continues.

The Future

With the future of women’s rugby looking stronger than ever, Rebecca says she expects her involvement in the sport to continue beyond her graduation next year.

“I basically live for rugby and I will continue to, for sure.”

“I’ve fallen in love with Rugby, my team, we are a family,” she explained.

“These last three years would definitely not have been the same without it and it’s made me grow and mature as a person and has 100% improved my confidence, I basically live for rugby and I will continue to, for sure.”

Go back a few years, and Rebecca was the one being encouraged to play – now she is the one doing the encouraging each season to inspire women to get involved.

Her responsibilities with the university team are to make the new players feel welcome and use her own experience to help convince them that rugby could be their sport.

“This year has been lots of fun for me as the team’s web and communications officer – in the run-up to freshers’ week I’ve been posting endlessly trying to recruit as many new players as possible. We managed to sign up around 120 girls for try-outs and taster sessions.

“One thing we did this year to encourage new people to join besides taster sessions was through social media. I posted quotes from exec girls saying what the club means to them, which was really nice, as it’s not always about the sport but the friends you make doing it.”

It’s clear that women’s rugby is built around passion, commitment and hard work and – unsurprisingly – togetherness.

The success of the Red Roses has inspired women of all ages to take part in rugby, in a variety of ways and on many different levels.

For more derails about the O2 Touch initiative, click here. Feature image courtesy of EO1 via Flikr Creative Commons.