Tag Archives: Esher RFC

Change not for the better at rugby union’s grassroots

Having been inspired by England’s 2003 World Cup success, I was started playing tag rugby that winter.

Aged six or seven, I joined my local club, Esher, and played through its age-group teams for the next 11 years.

Grassroots rugby is something that has been important to me ever since. Those roots are precious and need nurturing.

A big part of that is the valuable life lessons the sport teaches its youngsters. These include respect for the referee, and it’s always been a virtuous circle.

Young players grow up respecting match officials and carry this through to adulthood, where they act as role models for the next generation.

Evidence

Compare that to the dissent and disrespect that’s become part and parcel of football.

Players at the highest levels harass and harangue referees while their managers abuse fourth officials on the touchline.

The risk is that young players will emulate this behaviour, but could this become a rugby problem as well?

There is evidence that the game’s long-cherished culture of respect is changing.

Steve Grainger, rugby development director at the Rugby Football Union, believes that an influx of new players and their parents is having an effect.

Success

These youngsters, encouraged by their families, are inspired – just like I was 14 years ago – by England’s recent success, but also by the increasingly lucrative rewards available in the professional ranks.

“The stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it”

Grainger believes verbal abuse from parents and coaches on the sidelines in the amateur game is a bigger problem than player dissent.

“We are starting to see some challenges in touchline behaviour,” Grainger told BBC Radio 5 live.

“Traditionally, a lot of kids that have come into the sport because their parents have been involved in it, so you have a culture there,” he said.

“As we broaden that, we are bringing in parents who themselves have had no exposure to rugby.”

Influx

Unfortunately, and without wishing to negatively stereotype, the behaviour Grainger is referring to has been around in football for many years.

Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Football Association is preparing to to relaunch its Respect campaign as the verbal and physical abuse towards match officials at grassroots level increases.

Maybe it is because the stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it – if you are good enough.

Average annual salaries in the Aviva Premiership are now around £100,000 – more for ‘marquee’ signings and experienced players – and gaining international recognition can massively boost that figure.

The top 10 earners in the Premiership all earn in excess of £290,000 a year. No.1 is Manu Tuilagi at Leicester Tigers on £425,000.

Semi-pro woes

Esher RFC has always prided itself on being a successful semi-professional club. This culminated in 2008, when the club took on Northampton Saints in the National League 1 – now called the Championship.

“A club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially”

When they played the Saints that season, the opposition included players such as future England captain Dylan Hartley.

A club of Esher’s size and resources, however, was never going to be able to survive in the long-term at such a high level, and they currently play in National League One – rugby union’s equivalent of football’s League One third tier.

They’ve still managed to attract quality players in recent years including Fiji’s Nicky Little, plus brothers Steffon and Bevon Armitage. The former now plays at Toulon.

Lured away

But living strictly within its means, while other teams have continued to embrace professionalism, means many of Esher’s best young prospects – including some I used to play with as a teenager – are lured away to bigger clubs.

In some instances it proved divisive as players have flitted around different teams, trying to work out which one offers them the best chance of making it big.

However, Esher’s achievements have also accrued benefits, and Premiership clubs often send younger players there on loan. Esher helped to hone the talent of George Lowe of Harlequins, and he is now regular starter for Quins.

But a club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially.

Justify

In March last year year, Esher told director of rugby Mike Schmidt that that his contract would not be renewed after 11 years.

mike-schmid (Credit: Get Surrey)
Esher had to part with Mike Schmidt

Esher’s chairman of rugby, TV presenter John Inverdale, said the decision was entirely down to financial reasons.

“It’s getting harder and harder to justify the expenditure at the second and third levels of the English game,” he explained.

Given Schmidt’s key role in Esher’s rise to the heights of playing in the second tier, it was a sad way for that relationship to end – but such are the realities of an increasingly professional game.

As modern rugby evolves, clubs like Esher, who are the lifeblood of the game, are struggling to keep up with its demands.

The England national team’s record-breaking run should be inspiring a feel-good factor in the sport.

But unless the grassroots game at clubs like Esher is taking into account, rugby’s future may not be quite so healthy and secure after all.

Confusion reigns over rugby union’s high tackle laws

Concussions have increasingly become an issue for concern in elite rugby union. In recent years, the number of these potentially serious head injuries have soared by 59% in the Premiership.

Players are bigger, fitter, faster and stronger, the hits are harder, so it’s no surprise that a re-think of the rules around tackling has happened.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly” – Jonathan Davies

Several high-profile incidents have fuelled calls for more to done to protect the health and safety of those on the pitch.

Northampton Saints were heavily criticised after letting their Wales and Lions international winger George North play on after seemingly lost consciousness (see image at top) following a collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone.

North was cleared to return to the game, but BT Sport pundit Ugo Monye said at the time: “I don’t think George North should [still] be on the pitch; it’s a simple as that.”

Long-term effects

The England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, published in collaboration with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, showed that although the rate of injuries remained stable during the 2013-14 season, their severity continues to rise in the professional game.

The Rugby Football Union has recruited former England internationals to pioneer a study into the long-term effects of playing rugby.

World Rugby have also issued a revision to its laws which came into effect on the January 3rd.

It has increased the severity of the punishment for reckless tackles, with a minimum sanction of yellow card and a red where deemed appropriate.

It has also encouraged an increase in any accompanying bans, but the changes have confused coaches, players and spectators alike.

Fallen foul

Ex-Wales star Jonathan Davies, now a BBC pundit, said: “Inexperienced referees have gone berserk in imposing yellow cards.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly. They’ve gone to the letter of the law, and it’s gone crazy.”

“Wayne Barnes admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them”

Davies argued that referees need to use common sense about what can be considered a ‘high shot’ and is a ‘cheap’ one.

A player who has fallen foul of this recently is England international Brad Barritt.

The Saracens centre was banned for three weeks after a high tackle on international team-mate Geoff Parling during the match against Exeter.

Originally, Sarries prop Richard Barrington received a red card for his part in the tackle.

However, an RFU disciplinary panel found that ref Ian Tempest had punished the wrong individual. You can see the tackle in question here and make up your own mind.

‘No massive change’

Leading international referee Wayne Barnes told BBC 5 Live recently that the laws themselves have not changed, only how officials are being told to interpret them.

Barnes insisted: “[There’s been] no massive chance, we’ve carried on doing what we’ve done for a while now.”

He admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them.

But what do people involved in grass-roots rugby union think of the situation?

I visited my local team, Esher RFC, to watch them play against Fylde, and talked to spectators about the high-tackle controversy.

Overall, there was general support for the ‘new’ laws and a recognition that something needed to be done.

‘Protection needed’

James Sharman, a former Surrey county youth player, said a more rigorous approach to high tackling is the best way forward.

“It’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us”

“Having looked at the [injury] statistics, it was evident that it was only going to end up this way,” he said.

“These players are putting their bodies on the line week in, week out. They need modernised ways to protect them.”

Joel Keefe, who plays at amateur level, said the changes have been made at the right time.

“Being someone that plays rugby, it’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us,” he said.

“Now all that needs to happen is to make sure that the referees judge their decisions diligently and correctly. The worst thing that could happen is if the rules were made a mockery.”

Committed

Clearly, this fresh interpretation of rules around high tackles is going to take some time to bed in.

With the 2017 Six Nations just around the corner, and the British & Irish Lions touring New Zealand in the summer, all eyes will now turn to the international game to see how the laws are enforced at the very highest level.

There’s bound to more controversy along the way.

But ultimately, it is good to see rugby union’s governing bodies demonstrating that they are committed to protecting the players who week in, week out put their bodies on the line for club and country.