Star Power

After Will Greenwood and Austin Healey trained with the Rugby Club last week, talks to the rugby legends and assesses the role that professional sportsmen can play at a grassroots level

Image: AEG Photos via flickr Creative Commons

Image: AEG Photos via flickr Creative Commons

Often people can be quite cynical of the work of sports stars outside their game. The public, particularly the British one at that, sometimes have this idea that professional sportsmen and women have to fulfil particular ‘duties’ outside their sport in order to increase their public image.

Charitable work can thus be used as a means to an end and be exploited, rather than carried out for the benevolent reasons that we ‘normal’ people would like to think we have to justify why we take part in any charitable work.

In some cases, this stereotype is probably fair but in the vast majority of cases, this generalisation couldn’t be further from the truth. Sport stars are of course committing to charitable work in masses in the modern age, but that doesn’t mean those who are joining in are only doing so for the sake of increasing their public image.

Roger Federer for instance has set up the “Roger Federer Foundation”, which seeks to provide education for under-privileged children in South Africa, Botswana and even his home country of Switzerland. Federer, who already has an incredibly healthy public image, does not necessarily need to do any charitable work, but he set up an organisation to commit to projects close to his heart – and, to be fair, they are getting some results.

Similarly, people are often equally cynical of sports stars going into grassroots work, such as coaching. However, it is incredibly important for our stars to be working at the very developmental stage that they came from before they became professionals themselves.

Last week I had the pleasure of watching rugby union legends Will Greenwood and Austin Healey coach UYRUFC for an evening on the 3G Pitch. Not only were these guys incredibly successful (both won over 50 caps for England and the British and Irish Lions in their careers), but they were also very good, down-to-earth coaches. As someone who has both played and coached in the past, I myself learnt a lot from them.

Greenwood and Healey are part of AEG’s current programme to try and encourage clubs and schools at grassroots level.

AEG has been running its campaign for three years, and this current rugby scheme isn’t a bad idea at all. The idea is that anyone in the country who is part of a club or school can apply for any one of a vast number of prizes. These range from coaching holidays, to training with the England Rugby team, to ‘kit and wash’ packages where AEG give the team a new kit and a washing machine. This is just one of many fantastic initiatives that are taking off across the world of sport.

Naturally, such great programmes only look better if they have household names behind them – who wouldn’t want to spend a day with David Beckham learning to score from a free kick like he did?

But they also need a perfect mixture of both encouragement and enthusiasm. Both Greenwood and Healey managed this balance perfectly with the boys from UYRUFC. Taking them through a number of drills, their message was clear – get the basics right.

I had the privilege of talking to them afterwards and their motives are clearly agreeable. “For us,” Greenwood said, “We just jump in the back of a car, turn up, bring some enthusiasm and energy. We want to use the power of sport to generate interest. It’s got a really fun side to it, and I can carry my boots and kit in the back of my car wherever I go.”

Sounds legitimate. Just two lads who want to go out and coach rugby because that’s what they enjoy doing.

But surely one could argue that sportsmen and women are (stereotypically) self-obsessed and just seeking to increase their band of little followers who idolise them in every way?

Not these boys. When quizzed on something of just this nature, Healey laughed. “I don’t want them to emulate me! Most people will see you as someone who is fun and enjoys yourself, but the more important message to get across is the amount of sacrifice that’s required.

“If you want to be a great individual sportsman and you’re in a team, you have to be a team member first. Especially as a student, when friends are going out on a Monday and a Wednesday and a Friday night, and then a Tuesday and a Thursday night; and maybe you had one night of the week when you might have gone out, but you didn’t drink.

“You think back to those sacrifices you made and you just realise how much it was worth it.”

Clearly these guys just want to share their experiences with the players.

Indeed, they speak highly of York’s players. “We saw some quality rugby players out there,” said Greenwood. “We saw three teams all here on time, ready to train (and) listen. You always talk on the rugby field how you’ve got to have the ability to not only be a rock, sort of really hard, nasty, aggressive and pointy; you’ve got to be a sponge as well, you’ve got to be able to stand, listen, absorb and put into practice. They’re an amazing bunch of lads.”

Greenwood was one of the team that won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 (remember Jonny and all that…), though sadly Healey’s chances were hampered by injury. But Greenwood doesn’t seem desperate to dwell on the glory.

“To me it’s not about capturing that one moment, it’s much more about looking back, and the friendships, banter, enjoyment, commitment, it really is more important. The cherry on top is nice, but rugby for me… it’s all about putting a smile on my face. Golf, I’m rubbish, but it puts a smile on my face. Just get out there and enjoy yourself.”

This appears to be the message behind this AEG grassroots campaign, getting out on there and enjoying playing sport.

Healey and Greenwood thus seem perfectly suited to being the face of this campaign and their work is clearly bearing fruit. UYRUFC’s press and publicity officer, Ian Packard, told Nouse that “this is the best turnout we’ve ever had” to a training session. Comments like these prove just how important it is to get stars such as Greenwood and Healey coaching at grassroots level.

I remember when I was at school and Lawrence Dallaglio and Josh Lewsey came and ran a training session in 2004.

They had just come off the back of winning the World Cup, and yet they took the time out of their busy lives (Dallaglio was now the captain of England, to make his life even busier) to come and coach a bunch of 11 year-olds for an afternoon. I remember finding it inspiring, and the majority of us attending wanted to become rugby players there and then.

Of course, that dream has never exactly come to fruition, but the fact that I am still mad about rugby, and still mad about sport, is testament to the great work that has been done at grassroots level to encourage enthusiasm and involvement in sport.

This is why cynicism is not the best approach when it comes to a sportsman and woman getting involved in coaching at grassroots level. Yes, there can be ulterior motives, but more often than not, these stars just want to share their passion with young potential sportsmen of the future.

It is therefore vital that sport’s big names get stuck in at grassroots level and coach in schools and clubs to inspire more and more young people to get into sport and get passionate about sport.

And maybe, just maybe, they can inspire them, to take up their sport professionally and drive themselves to the top of their game. After all, didn’t the star that is Rob Andrew visit Lord Wandsworth School where a young, fresh-faced Jonny Wilkinson, was doing his thing in the school first XV?

One comment

  1. What excellent reports from George Barrett

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