Plucking the Red Rose

speaks to former England international and RFU Director of Professional Rugby Rob Andrew about the Rugby World Cup, grassroots participation and the importance of diversity to a growing sport

Photo: Suzy Harrison

Photo: Suzy Harrison

On a stunning October day, a squinting Rob Andrew ambles onto the 3G pitch at the York Sport Village. The midday sun sits, refulgent, above while in front of him, 20 students bob and weave their way through a game of touch rugby. Andrew is in York to present a Legacy Gold Standard award to the University for its O2 touch rugby programme.

Such sweetness and light may well be a welcome change for Andrew, director of professional rugby at the RFU these last nine years. The organisation is cast under a fast billowing cloud, borne of the England team’s exit from their home World Cup, just six days before his visit.

The timing is uncanny. In the lead up, the World Cup was said to be strictly off-limits, but Andrew plucks this thorny, Red Rose with some candour: “One of the main elements of hosting a good event is for the team to do well, which has obviously been a huge, huge disappointment.

“I think we are already seeing a new breed of English player, with great change in the age, the skill and the pace of them” he adds. “In the likes of Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, George Ford, Jack Nowell and Henry Slade we have raw quality, but they lack experience in international rugby.”

The 52 year-old sees in Australia, composed conquerors of the host nation, a resounding example of touch rugby come good: “Touch has always been a big thing in Australia, it is played as a summer sport out there.” He continues: “Lots of them play some Rugby League from a young age, as well. They have always been skilful as a result, and if they play like they did on Saturday they really are potential contenders to win the thing.”

The veteran of 71 internationals insists that the Rugby World Cup can act as a catalyst for growing the game of rugby at a grassroots level. Much myth surrounds the potential for elite-level tournaments to propel participation. Just recently, Tessa Jowell admitted that London 2012 had “failed to inspire a generation”. However, team sports have seen an incremental increase in involvement, an area in which rugby’s governing body have been taking the lead.

Andrew asserts: “We have spent two or three years preparing for a massive surge in participation, whether that’s through the work we’ve done with touch rugby, with facilities, club houses, pitches or coaching.

“Two and a half million tickets have been sold, and the level of interest is staggering and has never been higher.”

Somewhat powerfully, Rob draws upon the scene unfolding in front of his very eyes to elucidate his point: “This is legacy in action. These guys are really helping us to grow the sport and spread the word.

“They are the best ambassadors for rugby; the people who like rugby, play it and drag their mates along as well.”

“As a sport, we are in a great place in terms of participation,” he underlines. “It’s a brilliant sport to be involved in – to get fit, to use the skills you learn, to have fun and to make friends for life. We want players to get hold of people, to tell them about how great a sport it is and to bring people into the family.”

His familial frame of reference resonates in my mind. ‘Family’ was the word Ruth Whitehead, Women’s Rugby President, used to describe the tight-knit nature of her club’s members. Fittingly, Ruth, alongside Robert van Doornewaard, is one of the university’s O2 Touch Rugby activators.

The success of this scheme lies at their feet, and those of Sport Development Manager Emily Hearle, whose work on the ground has been instrumental.

Andrew’s alma mater is St John’s College, Cambridge. He is, and will always remain, an establishment figure. That said, the twice Cambridge blue and former first-class cricketer is unabashed by union’s privileged premise.

“We’ve always had a very strong private school and university base” he says. “This isn’t something we are concerned about, in fact, we are proud of our heritage.

“However, this is not an elitist sport.” Andrew affirms. “That’s sometimes how it is placed, but it simply isn’t the case. Rugby has grown out of this history and over the last ten or fifteen years, we have seen it become available to a much larger and more diverse audience.

“As another strand of our legacy venture, we have taken the game into 400 state schools in which no rugby had ever been played before. By 2019, we want to have this increased to 750.”

Rob has been involved in rugby at the top level for the best part of 30 years, and attests to the progress that has been made in its expansion, choosing to highlight in particular the prominence of the women’s game.

“Diversity is, and always has been hugely important to rugby. The two main areas of growth in the game that I’ve seen are touch rugby and the women’s game, which has simply gone through the roof.

“When I was at London Wasps, the women’s team were a very small part of the club.” he states.

“Now, we are the world champions, have several full-time professionals and are putting a GB Olympic team forward in Rio. This progress was unthinkable a few years ago and shows how far we have come.”

Andrew is a natural communicator. The former Newcastle Falcons Director of Rugby commands his arguments with a phlegmatic assurance and is convincing in the way he delivers them. Notably, in casual conversation, he affords equal concern for students as for university and local rugby dignitaries.

Rob conceives naturally of humour. He dismisses Jonny Wilkinson’s drop for glory as “really easy” compared to his “45-yard” effort in the 1995 World Cup quarter-final, which is cited as his career highlight. Being a native of Richmond, North Yorkshire allows him to joke congenially about the Yorkshire weather.

“We might have a World Cup final referee!” Rob chuckles, turning straight to a mock frown: “Perhaps not what we set out to achieve.” The silence that follows is potent, even to him.

The former fly-half was nicknamed ‘Squeaky’ for his personal hygiene, but this may easily serve for his pristine delivery and calculated countenance. Those in attendance were treated to the RFU’s Teflon man in full flow, even at this sensitive stage in the governing body’s existence.

The third highest test point scorer in England history has gained the moniker of a ‘great survivor’, riding out storms and retaining his influence at the beating heart of English rugby. Andrew, directly responsible for the appointment of Stuart Lancaster, will need every fibre of preservative power to ride out the furore that surely follows.

As Andrew himself pointed out, though, the survival of the game itself depends not on him, but on those on the ground, growing the game from the bottom up: “One of the most inspiring things in my job has been to see the growth of rugby, particularly among young people.

“The future of rugby is in your hands”. He says. “If you don’t pick it up, we won’t have a game.”

Perhaps, he hits the nail here; even though House of Lancaster has fallen, the game will go on, and grow. One game of touch rugby at a time.