Spirit of Rugby is a partnership between Spirit of 2012 and the Rugby Football Union (RFU), inspired by the England 2015 Rugby World Cup and the 2016 adoption of Rugby 7s as an Olympic Sport in Rio. The project aims to empower young people between the ages of 16 and 24 and get them involved in Rugby Union as players, volunteers, coaches, event managers or indeed anything else.

Manchester is one of the fifteen Spirit of Rugby locations and I recently went to the newly built Manchester Metropolitan University Students’ Union to meet Mike Hawkes, the Spirit of Rugby North of England project co-ordinator, and four young people involved in the project based at the university: Campbell and Owen, both studying Sports Management, Business Management student Louise, and Ashlea – who is specialising in film and media. They are all hugely enthusiastic about the Spirit of Rugby project, and all very involved themselves. I detected a healthy competiveness amongst the four of them – both Ashlea and Louise play on the uni women’s team, which has recently been promoted in the university league tables, while Owen and Campbell have seen their own men’s side relegated.

That is one of the motivations for their Spirit of Rugby vision – as Ashlea put it, “We want to raise awareness of Rugby in a football mad city and ultimately attract more talented players as well as more volunteers and social players.” 

So how are they setting about doing that?  A recent landmark event was their Super Saturday Rugby event at the Union, where free food and drinks for £1.00 were laid on for those who came to watch the games on big screens.  The day attracted fifty new potential players whose details they have taken down. The next step is to try to engage these in Pitch-up-and-Play and other training sessions to turn those half formed resolutions into a firm commitments.

When I asked the group what they most enjoyed about their Spirit of Rugby project, Louise said it was the scope that it gave them be creative. For example, Rugby Raves is an idea Owen is incubating, which would ride the wave of the current trend for UV sports, and get people involved in a fun way – more like a night club than a rugby club and a million miles from the blazers and muddy pitches associated with the game.

Campbell agrees that the scope to think outside the box in this way is something he is enjoying, all of which has the bonus of supporting his sports management studies.  His previous extensive involvement in the games has all been on or around the pitch, as a player, volunteer and coach. Spirit of Rugby is empowering him by challenging him to think ahead, plan and manage both events and a longer term strategy. These are all elements that he hopes will be part of his future career in sport and in the short term these experiences are providing him with case studies for his university coursework.

One of the many obstacles they face is the lack of exposure – when you go down to the Union and the TV is showing sport, it is almost always football – the same is true in the local pubs around the university.  And the problem is even worse for women’s Rugby.  How can they tackle this? I mentioned that the RFU recently announced Maggie Alphonsi, as the Spirit of Rugby ambassador, and Mike said that the Spirit of Rugby volunteers will have the chance to meet her at the NEC Sports Show in July.  Alphonsi is not just a great player, and one of the world-beating squad who lifted the Women’s Rugby World Cup for England in 2014, she is also a great champion of the grass roots game and its development.  How they might use the Maggie Alphonsi stardust to promote their vision for Rugby in Manchester is something Campbell, Ashlea, Lousie and Owen, with Mike’s help, are keen to explore.

What next for the four of them?  As the Rugby playing season draws to a close, they are starting to think about recruiting players for next year via special Pitch up and Play and coaching sessions during the summer and something very special for Fresher’s Week – imagine a Rugby flash mob event!

Also planned for Fresher’s Week is a specially commissioned film – This is a Rugby Woman (provisional title) – which will challenge and transform traditional perceptions of girls and women who play the game.  They hope that Manchester’s hosting of the Under 20s Rugby World Cup will force this ‘football mad city’ to take a fresh look at this exciting and increasingly inclusive sport.  There is no doubting the love and belief that Campbell, Ashlea, Louise and Owen have for Rugby – they are great advocates for a great game.

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