It was towards the middle of August when The RPA asked me if I’d be interested in writing for the Players’ Room magazine. I was initially very keen on the idea and delighted to have been asked, but like many extra-curricular activities it was soon put on the to do list. Then it was at the bottom of the to do list. Then I think I pretty much forgot about it altogether. Understandable you might say given as the dawn of a new Aviva Premiership season was on the immediate horizon.
The new season coupled with being a fresh face at my new club, Bath Rugby, I was keen to just get my head down and concentrate on my rugby. Then the nemesis of every sportsman reared its ugly head. Injury struck. Or, more accurately in my case refused to go away! Timing is everything as they say.
I began to think about how I was going to approach my rehab. What worked last time, not a lot I concluded, and what I could do differently? I wanted to get the balance right and not let the rehab go stale. I thought back to my old flat mate Tom Rees and how he used his spare time to learn to play the guitar and conquer some faraway lands on the Xbox. Well I don’t have musical bone in my body and aliens aren’t really my thing.
What is my thing is rugby! It’s what I’ve always done, what I’ve always enjoyed. I couldn’t just simply switch my enthusiasm for the game off and become a rehabbing drone. So I decided I would go back to what first led me to where I am now.
Long before I was lucky enough to earn a crust from this game I was first and foremost a fan. As a junior at Pocklington RUFC in East Yorkshire I remember the Sunday afternoons after a gruelling triangular fixture on the back pitch, coming into the club house with still muddy knees to pie and peas and a bottle of Bass Shandy to watch that afternoons Premiership rugby on the TV.
Watching the greats on TV on those winter afternoons with my young peers is what inspired me to want to become a rugby player myself. Seeing the Wilkinson’s, Dallaglio’s, and Leonard’s of this world going hammer and tong in front of packed stadiums was truly great stuff!
So I thought more about the idea of ‘inspiration’. With the Olympics and Paralympics just nicely put to bed the hope of inspiring the next generation is a fairly hot topic at the moment. The notion of legacies have been branded about left right and center. But that is surely a good thing. Isn’t that part of why we do what we do? At some point the baton has to be handed over, whether it is the gnarled figure of the everpresent Wasp Tim Payne or Bath’s tiny dancer Kyle Eastmond, someone somewhere will watch them and think, ‘Yeah I want a bit of that!’
Now the cold reality of it is that this only happens when young kids get to see these guys in action. Reading a newspaper article doesn’t really cut it in my book. They need to see it! They need to see just how destructive a pumped up Leicester pack can be. They need to see how the never say die work rate of the Exeter chiefs can suffocate teams. I could go on…
So how can we get more kids watching premiership rugby? How do we jump on the bandwagon of Olympic inspiration? I don’t for a second think there isn’t thousands of rugby mad children out there regularly glued to the TV crazily cheering on their teams. But what’s to stop them flicking over the channel and watching a bit of round ball and deciding that football is more them?
It was at this point when I thought about the dreaded notion of the player appearance!! Now some players out there genuinely love this aspect of the game, my old teammate Dave Walder definitely fell into this category. At my new home of Bath Ben Skirving is the shining light in this department, winning last year’s RPA Aviva Player Development Award.
What I’m trying to say is that some guys enjoy getting out there into the schools and clubs and trying to make a difference wherever they can. But I’m going to hazard a guess that a solid 90% of us (myself included) secretly dread being told it’s your turn to do an appearance. Perhaps reasonably so, you have a crucial premiership match at the weekend and the last thing you need or want is to be out in the pouring rain on a Thursday evening on a poorly floodlit pitch talking about running lines! But just stop for a second and think what it means to the youngsters you are talking to. I for one know I’d be pretty giddy if Usain Bolt suddenly turned up at training and started teaching me how to run faster than my current top speed of a slow trundle.
That face to face contact with a real life premiership player has a huge effect on rugby crazy kids. It’s what inspires them to nag their dads to take them to the next game or more importantly inspiring them to keep playing the game. It inspires them to keep giving up their Sunday mornings and working hard to hopefully become the next Brad Barritt or Chris Robshaw.
You will of course undoubtedly know that the next major sporting event that this country will host is the Rugby World Cup in 2015, so I urge us all as a collective to hijack the Olympics idea of a legacy and beat them to it by striking whilst the iron is hot and set the ball rolling. Embrace the player appearances, not only will it lead to fuller stadiums and the financial rewards that go with that but it might just unearth the next generation of players to take over the reins once our boots are well and truly hung up!