Crunch time for North West rugby union

By Marcus Chippindale

When you think about sport in the North-West, what’s the first team that comes to mind?

If it isn’t one of the Manchester clubs slugging it out for the Premier League title, Liverpool or a Super League giant then I’d be relatively impressed.

Extra kudos though if you thought Sale Sharks, or maybe even Manchester Rugby Club or Fylde, where England World Cup winner Jason Robinson now plies his trade, because that is exactly what an ever-growing group of men, and women, are trying to achieve.

The Lancashire County Rugby Development Project is just one of several ways rugby union officials and coaches are trying to raise the quality and appeal of the game in the region.

Launched in the summer and managed by Fylde Head Coach Mark Nelson, the project is being administered through centres at Sedgley Park, Liverpool St. Helens and Nelson’s own club, working with community clubs and schools to ensure more people play the game and keep playing it.

“The project was born out of the harsh realisation of where we actually stand stood,” said Nelson. “Whilst some counties have a good number of teams through all the top leagues, here in Lancashire we don’t, so we needed to look at how to re-establish the development of rugby as clubs needed some urgent support.”

With Sale Sharks the only union club in the North-West in the top two tiers of the game, it is clear improvements need to be made, but surrounded by the heavyweights of football and rugby league it is no easy task convincing young players union is the way forward.

Nelson admits engaging younger athletes is one of the main challenges of his role.

“The problem is the retention of players, because a lot of kids are playing until they are 18 but then the drop-off after is massive,” he said. “We are finding it very difficult to compete with the big rugby league sides that are all on our doorstep and we are doing a lot of work behind the scenes to try to engage the rugby league fraternity.”

To tackle the problem of so many of the Aviva Premiership’s sides living south of the Watford Gap, officials have set their sights on three key areas to bring up standards in the North-West: coaching, youth development, and improving links between top clubs (or club in this region’s case) and those lower down.

One man who Nelson has asked to help out on the coaching side is former England Head Coach Brian Ashton, who is working as a Coaching Consultant at Fylde.

Nelson asked the man who coached England to the World Cup final in 2007 to help out with a series of practical and theory-based coaching workshops, and having spent much of his playing career in the region, including alongside Bill Beaumont at Fylde, Ashton was happy to oblige.

But even as a man who has pushed teams beyond their expected potential, Ashton realises a complete regeneration of North-West rugby is a significant task.

He said: “What we have got to do is make sure the product we produce is as exciting as possible. From a rugby union point of view it would be really good if we can attract some of the good younger players across from rugby league, but it is a big job to do because there are some fantastic sides in the south Manchester corridor and to drag players away is a massive effort.

“If you really want to have an impact then you need as much help as you can get from people higher up the food chain than you, like the RFU and the Premiership.”

For the North-West this help can only come from one club for now, Sale Sharks, but luckily there are plenty of faces there willing to help out, including Chief Executive Mick Hogan, Academy Manager Ray Unsworth and temporary club captain Neil Briggs.

The Sharks are having a tough time in the league at the moment, having lost five of their last six games and sitting third-bottom in the table, but this doesn’t mean they are neglecting their responsibility to the community.

The club organises between 700 and 800 player visits and events with the community each year, including schools coaching and rugby camps, and are about to launch their Community Foundation, all with the aim of raising the quality of rugby union in the area.

“The work that we do with the community is absolutely essential,” said Chief Executive Hogan. “We feel that it is our responsibility to do it.

“We can have an impact by getting involved at the grass roots level and encouraging young guys to play. It is about giving people the best opportunities possible and all we want is for those involved to enjoy what they are doing.

“It is a two-way street, in that if we give a lot to the local community then we will get something back. If club rugby in the area gets stronger then hopefully it will benefit us in the long-run as young players develop.

“By having strong links with the community it will help us pick up the talent in the area. What we want is to get more high quality kids into our academy and hopefully some of them will one day play for the first team.”

And in Briggs, who took over the Sharks captaincy for the rest of the season following an ankle injury to James Gaskell in October, Hogan has the perfect role model to develop links with the local community and drive the changes needed.

The hooker joined the coaching staff at National League 2 North side Manchester for the 2010/11 season to help rebuild one of the oldest rugby clubs in the world alongside Director of Rugby Elaine Vassie.

The Cheadle-based team have fallen dramatically from grace in recent years and find themselves rooted to the bottom of the league with no points from 13 games, but Briggs is confident they can become a force once again and in doing so benefit the whole region.

“If you look at Manchester as a whole club, there are some strong foundations and the only thing struggling is the senior team,” said Briggs. “We have got to start by keeping young players round long enough to develop into good players, and if we can develop them into the senior side then they can move on to Macclesfield and Sale. It is really important to have a development path like that, because we want people to stay with us.”

On this point virtually everyone involved in North-West rugby is in agreement, as without support from the RFU and good links between all the clubs, progress will not be made.

Briggs said: “It’s massively important to have this progression of boys, so somewhere along the lines there has to be a structured pathway for people to get there. We shouldn’t be looking to buy people from abroad, it should all be home-grown. That’s what builds your ethos at the club, and your feeling and culture.

“It has to start from within, and that starts with your local boys who have got a lot of passion for the club, the boys who come and watch on a Saturday afternoon, they’re the ones that you want in your team 10 or 15 years down the line.

“Everyone wants more money for these things but you have to work with the resources you have got and there are a lot of people in Lancashire that give up their time and effort for free to make the North-West a better rugby playing region and get more people involved.”

The RFU says they are monitoring the situation closely, and are strongly behind projects such as that being run by Nelson, but whilst they can throw more capital at the problem, certain influences will remain beyond their control, such as the strength and appeal of rugby league.

Yet despite figures such as Nelson, Ashton and the Chairman of the Lancashire Rugby Development Partnership Rob Briers saying league is a problem for the development of North-West union, Briggs is adamant the two forms of the game can co-exist successfully.

“When you look at the area we’re in, we’ve got pretty much the whole of the North-West,” he said. “There are plenty of kids around there you can bring in to play union. There’s enough to play both, and I think whether a guy is playing rugby union or rugby league, it’s good for the sport.”

It is the story of a club like Manchester, which Briggs knows too well, that highlights the troubles facing clubs in the region, with players drifting away from the game.

Projects like the Lancashire County Rugby Development Project can no doubt help raise standards, but the message for long-term success if clear: the RFU must step its game up in the North-West, otherwise the stereotype of it being a southern game will become all too much of a reality.

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