7th December 2020
“My uncle played rugby, and my dad played football, and they used to argue which game was the roughest – and everybody agreed rugby was. It’s a great team sport, and to be successful, every person has to play in the same level.’
Rugby in Covid times
For rugby fans, the big Covid news this weekend was that at the senior level, International and Premiership, fans would be allowed to attend matches – up to 2,000 at a time. Locally, this was exciting for London Irish fans as it was only their second home match in their new home, Brentford Community Stadium, shared with Brentford FC. With a capacity of 17,500 this is a significant move for London Irish as they hope coming closer to London (for the last twenty years they have played at Reading FC’s Madejski Stadium) will help their attempts to cement their position to the premiership. The new stadium, opened just a few short weeks ago, is getting good reviews though most of the reports I heard about Irish’s loss to Sale (13 – 21) on Sunday was more about how cold it was. On the same day, at International level England hosted France in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup. Again, under the government’s new rules Twickenham was allowed to admit 2,000 fans. The RFU gave 400 to NHS workers and allocated 600 to local clubs (not wanting to encourage travelling and, in any case, how do you apportion just a few hundred seats fairly for a stadium with a capacity of 82,000?). From what I heard it all felt pretty weird, even though the RFU reversed its original decision not to open any bars. In after match interviews the England coach, Jones and captain Farrell, claimed even this low number of fans created an atmosphere but if they did then the motivation went to France. For reasons only French Rugby will understand their clubs were not able to release the top players for their national team (they had played in the previous three matches but that was the agreed limit) and their side only had a total of 68 caps compared to over 850 for England. Yet, it was they who took the match to England, almost embarrassing their hosts who only scraped and scrapped a win 22 – 19 in the second half of a sudden death extra time.
So, as all the rugby news coverage is about the professional game, let me tell you how the unsung grass roots of community rugby are coping with the stop-start Covid rules and regulations. As I have mentioned in previous blogs I have the honour of being the Chairman of local Old Isleworthians RFC, the rugby section of Old Isleworthians Association. OI’s, as we call ourselves, include football (soccer or ‘kickyball’ to us rugby types) and cricket. I became Chairman just a year before the start of the pandemic, not suspecting that was meant to be a sinecure: “Honestly Tiny, (my school nickname) its just a meeting a month, hardly any work at all”, would become ……. Well, something altogether more complicated.
Managing at Grassroots Level.
Probably, out of all mainstream sports rugby is the most problematic with regard to Covid because of the level of contact. Key aspects of the game: scrums, lineouts, mauls, rucks and even tackling, all involve close physical contact. Contact is in the very DNA of rugby and, for many players, running into people is just what they love to do on a Saturday afternoon. What this meant was that during the summer, at the end of the first full Lock Down, rugby was the last sport that was allowed to resume any team based play. By the time the cricket and football sections of OI’s were able to start playing matches, rugby was still restricted. The RFU issued a “Return To Rugby” roadmap on a scale of A to F where A is single person fitness and E is back to full contact matches. Levels B and C reflect a move towards training with others but with no or very limited contact, D allowing what is effectively ‘Touch Rugby’ between clubs and E an adapted contact game with tackles but no rucks and mauls. England Rugby at community level is run more or less by volunteers at county level, and, prior to the second Lock Down, Middlesex RFU had organised a loose tournament of Touch Rugby under rules introduced by the RFU under the name ‘Ready4Rugby’. OI’s had started weekly training late in the summer when we were at B on the Roadmap, gradually progressing through the stages and the lads were up for this competition. The first match was slightly confusing as players and referee were all getting to understand what was really an entirely new game: a kind of rugby league with no tackling. OI’s actually won our first game, had a bye in the next ……… and then we went back into Lock Down and everything was back to square one.
An insight into the Front Row mafia
Now, a word about grassroots rugby for those that have not practised it. If your only experience of this sport is watching the super fit professional behemoths on your television, this is not the same game. Broadly speaking, grass roots players can be categorised into two sorts. There are the ‘backs’, who naively believe they resemble proper sportsmen with skills to do with genuinely playing with a ball (like catching, passing, kicking and the like) and who actually break into a sprint from time to time. These gentlemen are disparaged by the ‘forwards’ or the ‘pack’ who consider themselves Guardians of the true spirit of the game. For them the ball is only a side issue. The grizzled front row forward will go full matches, even whole seasons, without actually touching the ball. His enjoyment comes from much more esoteric pleasures – pleasures that onlookers rarely understand, referees are congenitally incapable of controlling and the games’ administrators are desperately trying to diminish in the mistaken belief that these dark arts do not constitute a good televisual (and therefore money earning) spectator sport. Few sports can be played by people whose waistlines exceed their inside leg measurements but grassroots rugby is one of them. Let me tell you, these boys are not particularly interested in ‘Ready4Rugby’ touch that involves ‘running’ and ‘ball skills’. Their delight is in scrummaging and rucking, preferably in the mud, and who measure success not in points but in the sound of air being forced out of their front row opponent loud enough to make a kind of squeaking noise. Having once been a member of ‘the front row union’ playing for OI’s 3rd and even 4th XV, back in the 80’s (sadly, these days most clubs at this level rarely able to put out a second XV) I participated in what can be called ‘course rugby’ and still have the bite marks to prove it. Much has changed but our club’s front row stalwarts ‘Banger’ and ‘Brooksy’ are still turning out despite having played with me all those years ago and, I can tell you, ‘touch’ does not meet their more saturnine requirements. They want to get back to bashing into people.
Coping in the Community
Anyway, to get back to community rugby’s painful move towards playing – when the government announced that London and therefore Middlesex rugby would be back to Tier 2 on December the 2nd we announced an immediate resumption of training. In fact, that very evening around 14 guys led by captain Stu and coaches Dan and Paul turned up on a rainy evening at the clubhouse even though, at that stage, we were not sure what kind of rugby would be allowed for the rest of the year. On the Monday November 30th Middlesex were able to confirm we were back at stage ‘D’ and that ‘Ready4Rugby’ matches would start again from that Saturday the 5th of December. That left little time to prepare but our opponents, Feltham RFC, were able to come over to us and we managed to arrange a team, a referee and the marking out of a new pitch to meet the new ‘Ready4Rugby’ rules. In fact, the wet weather during the week meant that it was not until the morning of the match that the groundsman was able to do it. Congratulations to Feltham for managing a narrow win.
However, life had been made more complicated when on the evening of Tuesday the 1st the RFU sent out an email saying that the government had agreed a return to limited contact and that from Friday 18th of December we would move to stage ‘E’ and that another new form of the sport would be sanctioned allowing tackling and line outs but no scrums, mauls and rucking. Within minutes the airwaves were full of conflicting responses. Clearly younger guys, desperate to get as close to a ‘proper game’ as they could, were enthusiastic. Gradually however, other voices questioned whether mothers and wives, and male partners of female players, would be overjoyed to see contact start just a week before potentially the first family meal with grandparents and vulnerable members since the start of the pandemic. Several clubs had actually even decided not to play the ‘touch’ version, often as a result of concerns raised by family members. Some of us questioned the RFU’s wisdom in choosing the last weekend before Christmas to start contact. In addition, it seemed a great deal of work to be done for one or possibly two matches before the inevitable Lock Down in January shuts all sport down again. I am sure, the RFU in Twickenham, as so many other ‘head offices’, underestimate the work that needs to be put in by volunteers and unpaid officials every time there is a new rule or ‘guideline’.
There are other considerations as well. Last week the RFU announced the rules concerning facilities for the return to contact and many of us find it hard to understand how most grassroots clubs will be able to comply. Changing rooms will need to be large enough and configured to ensure players are 2 metres apart all round, that corridors comply and that showers and toilets meet distancing and health requirements. Many clubhouses, including ours, were built in a different era and will struggle to conform. In addition, many, such as OI’s, share with football and other sports so will have to take into consideration their welfare and the views of other people who use the facilities. For the current touch version players turn up in tracksuits, already changed and simply go home to shower. Even partial contact with tackling and, one assumes, some inevitable rucking and general rolling about, will get players wetter, muddier and dirtier and not having shower or even washing facilities will be more of an issue. The after match pint, of course, is not so much of a tradition as a sine qua non for rugby. The current distancing and ‘substantial food’ regulations around alcoholic drinks make it very difficult for clubs to comply, so unfortunately the Old Isleworthians Club House bar is currently closed with all the loss of revenue that implies. In fact, the economic impact on many clubs of the closure of their bar is not far short of catastrophic. Fortunately the strong financial management of our Association and the support of our local business partners who rent the clubhouse and car park during the week mean we are solvent but many are struggling. For now Old isleworthians Rugby will be sticking to the ‘Ready4Rugby’ touch form of playing and will review the option to move to the limited contact version possibly in the New Year. We try to sound out our members and no doubt will have a management committee meeting over Zoom to decide.
Around the country there are hundreds, nay thousands of sports clubs, at grassroots level trying to do the best in the interests of their communities. It is vital for the mental health and well being, particularly of younger people, to be able to get out there and run about, kick a ball and generally let off steam. It is equally as important that they have a place to meet up afterwards, in a safe environment to have a beer or just hang out in these destabilising times. It maybe the professional sports that get all the headlines but it is the tens of thousands of unpaid, voluntary sports and community organisers who deserve the plaudits. It is these men and women working in their own time that allow grassroots sport to happen. I doff my cap.
Old Isleworthians RFC currently train at 7 pm on Wednesdays, are playing in the Middlesex ‘Ready4Rugby’ touch competition on Saturdays and manage the odd appropriately distanced and regulatory compliant beer afterwards. Once full competition rugby re-starts OI’s are in Middx Merit 3. If you are interested in playing or supporting please get in touch via my email, the usual social media or via our website https://www.oirfc.co.uk/index.php/team/old-isleworthians-rfc/
Finally, my musical ending this week is with a difference. When it comes to rugby I am a proud England supporter but I am old enough to experienced the glory of Welsh rugby fans singing at the old Cardiff Arms Park. No sport lover of any nationality could but feel the hairs on the back of the neck spring to attention at this level of support. This was when being a spectator was a whole different thing. This is the Welsh National Anthem in 1967. Enjoy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1T8UxXd5BoI
Obviously this Blog is my view and not that of any rugby or sporting group I am associated with. A version has already appeared on Chiswick Calendar.