Earlier this year, just before the country went into Lockdown, I caught up with Rob Agnew, Head of the Girls’ Ruby Section at Old Ruts Rugby, Merton Park.
Old Ruts is well known both locally and further afield; not just for its outstanding sports provision, but for being the “most social and inclusive community rugby club in Wimbledon” (Mike Stallard, Chairman at Old Ruts).
Part of the Old Rutlishians Association, with its active and successful Cricket, Rugby and Football sections, this much-loved club in the heart of Merton Park is a “community driven, family-oriented Rugby Club”, always on the lookout for new members to join their Seniors, Juniors or Kids First section. A true community asset, the club has managed to grow and develop its membership at all levels of the game by placing an emphasis on fun and inclusion for all.
More recently, the Association’s outgoing President and many other Old Ruts volunteers have been instrumental in establishing an amazing community response during the COVID-19 crisis, working in partnership with Dons Local Action Group and The Old Wimbledonians. This included the running of a Food Distribution Hub at the club house and the delivery of weekly food parcels to support vulnerable families and individuals in need of extra support.
As a local ‘rugby mum’ I feel extremely lucky to have Old Ruts at our doorstep with their excellent sports provision and the clubhouse and hall where we have celebrated many birthdays over the years. So I was not surprised to hear from Rob how enthusiastic and supportive the club has been with regards to developing the girls’ rugby section.
The girls’ section was set up two seasons ago, 2017/18, and as a teacher at a Primary School already involved in running girls’ tag rugby, I sent an email to all clubs in the area to establish whether they had a girls’ section. Old Ruts replied enthusiastically, and the girls’ parents asked me to ‘bring the players’, especially as they were so unfamiliar with girls’ rugby and didn’t know what to expect.
I had already taught the same class at school for three years and so was able to establish a good relationship with a few of the girls. Old Ruts in particular was very welcoming and invited the players to join them; they were actually surprised about how good they were. The girls, whom I had taught, wanted me to join them as their coach and I couldn’t say no!
Old Ruts has mixed teams, but at some point, when the players turn into juniors, they are no longer allowed to play mixed fixtures, is that correct? Is this why Old Ruts set up the girl’s rugby section?
Yes, there is no mixed rugby after age 12. Nowadays, it’s common for girls to play contact from the age of 9, 10 and 11. Most girls, in my experience, liked playing tag rugby in primary school. After a while of supporting the girls at Old Ruts, James Robertson (he was the one who set up the girls’ section originally, with his wife Karen, to ‘give his daughter a go’) asked if I would be interested in coaching the next season’s first ever contact rugby team for girls at Old Ruts. The team is called ‘Under 13s’, although we combine the U12s and U13s which is school years 7 and 8.
You mentioned your work at the school, is it a local school? Do you get many players who travel from further afield?
I work at Muschamp Primary in Carlshalton. It is nice to see that Old Ruts is attracting members from local areas and further afield. The girls I taught at school are not playing rugby anymore except for one. She had been fantastic at tag rugby at Primary School, one year older than her teammates, and when she finished Primary, we lost contact. She was very good and when her friends came to join the team, I asked them to find her and see if she is willing to return to rugby. I am so happy to report that she is now playing for the Surrey U15s!
The club seems to turn out some amazing rugby players, so it’s great to hear that this is the case in the girls’ section as well!
Yes, and of course for them, this is really exciting. For the adults even more so, because, you know, especially for the people who get involved with the girls’ rugby, when it’s the first ever representative player from the club, that’s fantastic. You are right, it’s usually the boys playing for Surrey, Harlequins and the like.
Old Ruts Rugby refers to itself as the ‘most friendly and inclusive rugby club in Wimbledon’, why do you think that is? What makes the club different?
First of all, the people are really friendly. I have coached at other clubs and didn’t always find that to be the case. The approach to community rugby has changed in recent years, and I am pleased to say that at Old Ruts we are fully on board with things like the half game policy. The RFU (Rugby and Football Union) says that every player should get to play half a game; meaning if a player actually shows up for the fixture, they should not just get 5 minutes playing time, they should play half a game as a minimum. Ruts coaches are extremely good at making sure this happens across all age groups.
When I went to Old Ruts I could see how welcoming they were to the girls, who, partially because of their background, were different to the usual people they had generally coming to rugby clubs.
It is a fairly small club in terms of number of pitches at the club, and I just had the sense that it reminded me of the rugby club that I went to when growing up in New Zealand. The culture is friendly and caring, parents/carers are always looking out for everyone. When a kid can’t find their parent, they know they can approach other parents who will be happy to help them such as by getting them a drink.
The Club has a great reputation not just in its local area but further afield. We have girls in the team who live and attend school outside the Borough. One family moved as far as Dorking but continue to bring their daughter and son to play with us. Girls often do not get the chance to play rugby at High school and the fact that they stick with Old Ruts is probably the best testament to its friendly and inclusive culture. We have an U18 team starting this season for the very first time with these players returning to continue their rugby journey.
Do the other sections (Cricket & Football) have girls only teams at Old Ruts? Having seen the success story of girls’ rugby there might be an appetite to follow suit?
Cricket has girls only teams, or they can play in mixed teams. I am not sure about football at this stage. To be honest, we still find it difficult to attract enough girls to sport in general post Primary school. Girls seem to have such a wide and varied range of interests. When my son was in that age bracket (12/13 years old) he pretty much did rugby as his sport. He might have engaged in one other activity. Whereas the girls seem to be busier and always engaged with lots of different things. One of my players told me that she is doing something every day of the week, including drama, music, volleyball, netball and now – rugby! This can lead to diary conflicts at times.
I assume there is still a perception that rugby is a boys’ sport and that it can be injury prone and risky to play contact?
Yes, although it’s not a big issue at the club, I hear the girls talk about how some of the boys in their school do not take the girls’ rugby seriously. This even happened to one of the players who is doing rugby as part of her Sports GCSE. Old Ruts has been very good and are very supportive in helping the girls section try to grow. We currently have up to 70 girls involved with the sport at Old Ruts and keep getting more interest each season.
There is the worry about injury with it being a contact sport but it probably worries the parents more! The players grow in confidence after attending training sessions. We take the health and safety of all players at the club very seriously of course. Each team has a number of trained First Aiders who attend a course put on by the club. These are all volunteers, parents normally, and a major part of helping the club keep going safely every week. We also provide regular refresher sessions and have one dedicated to administering First Aid within the COVID-19 world we are all now part of.
For parts of the game that have the higher risk of injuries (collision points such as tackles, the ruck and the scrum for example), the RFU provide ongoing training opportunities for coaches and volunteers. This is part of the RFU ‘Rugby Safe’ programme where the RFU continually investigates aspects of the game. Concussion awareness has been a massive, positive move in rugby over recent years. Coaches are required to pass the online ‘Headcase’ module which outlines what should be done when someone is suspected of having, or has been seen to have, a knock to the head for example. Last year, we made sure that the older girls teams also took the player module and had discussions about how we can try to prevent injuries in general and how to approach dealing with them if they do happen.
Can you tell us about the teams and progression to contact rugby for the girls?
At the younger age, girls have the option of playing mixed rugby but from the age of 12 they will move into the girls’ only team. We currently have U11s, U13s (school years 7/8) and U15s which has 12 members. This means we can’t presently play a full 15. Many clubs experience the same issue with numbers and consequently it’s common to play 7 a-side games. The U13s team has 15 members this year whereas last year we only had 10 players.
Some girls choose to play mixed rugby up to the age of 12, and some come through the girls only section where there is a girls’ tag rugby team. When the girls get to play at the club sometimes the other teams’ coaches and kids stay behind to ‘check out the girls’ rugby, see ‘what it is about’. This is how we get some of the girls join our teams, in addition to our engagement with local schools. James Roberston (who set up the girls section originally) has offered free after school rugby at two local Secondary Schools; Ursuline High School and Ricards Lodge High School. We have six players from Ursuline through James doing this. This will unfortunately be more difficult to do this autumn due to COVID-19.
Are there many other clubs in Merton who have a girls’ rugby section? How easy is it to arrange competitive fixtures?
Old Emanuel has an U15s team of similar size to us. Their U13s only had 3 players. Consequently, we have taken their U13 players on loan for this season. They still play in their jerseys, as the club colours are actually not too dissimilar. We have an agreement that we would not poach their players. If we did not give them this opportunity they might have stopped playing altogether. We are also exploring the option of clusters, something a lot of girls’ teams engage in. The way it works is that the clubs form a cluster and put 2-3 teams together to play 15 aside rugby if possible.
As for competitive fixtures; we play in the Surrey Waterfall Cup against other smaller squad teams, such as London Irish, Dorking, Old Emanuel and Battersea Ironsides. Everyone is willing to provide opportunities to get as many girls playing as possible. If you are in the network, you just need to send out a message to other clubs inviting them to come for a game.
Are there plans to take the girls on a rugby tour?
We don’t have any concrete plans as yet. There are some girls’ festivals, one based in Worthing, however timing is usually not great. Parents weren’t generally keen on festivals as they take place a week before school exams. It’s definitely something we are keen to develop for the future.
Do the girls get to train at the club; or do they train at one of the satellite training grounds used by Old Ruts?
Last year the whole girls’ section trained at Rutlish School (just a few hundred metres from the club). This was fabulous because the older girls sometimes joined in with the smaller ones for example on warm-ups, which is great in terms of inspiring younger players and building strong networks. We will be continuing this next season and aim to have the older girls helping out even more with the Kids First teams.
How often do the girls train?
They train twice a week, this season on a Wednesday and Sunday. The U13s and U15s train at the Hub in Mitcham. So many of the girls are involved in their school productions that we see numbers going down in the lead to Christmas, especially in the U15s. They are really keen to play games at that age, though, so one week before the Surrey Cup game they all, bar one, managed to get to the Wednesday training!
Sundays we train for 2 hours. The coaches are parents professional and semi-professional women, some have a history of playing the game, and the girls often start rugby later than boys and consequently still need to learn the technical aspects; catch, pass, tackle, make sure they are safe – that kind of thing. Training is of course hugely important, and we try hard to make it as competitive and fun as possible! 2 hours seems a long time, but it allows us to warm up, cool down, and cover a lot of ground during the session, which in turn makes games and fixtures so much easier.
There are some exciting developments at the Women’s World Rugby level, with a number of upcoming high profile competitions and England, ranked second only to New Zealand, doing really well? Do you find this helps in building an interest in women’s rugby amongst the younger players and their families?
Yes, definitely. I myself watch a lot of women’s rugby, the girls do now, too. They were not really aware that you can watch a lot of it for free, on YouTube and Facebook. Compared to men’s rugby there is not as much shown on Sky and BT Sports. It is the same game, but it is played slightly differently. Essentially, it is not as much about the big tackles you see in men’s rugby, it is much more about moving the ball around and evasion – yes, rugby is supposed to be an ‘evasion’ sport. If you watch the men’s rugby at the elite level, e.g. when England play Ireland, you see ‘big men looking for the collision’.
The constant collisions and tackles sometimes remind me of ‘big boys let loose on the playground’; whereas with Rugby 7s, for example, you see a lot more flow and movement? Is this the case with the women’s game?
Yes, play is more fluid and it seems perhaps less cynical. Even with the younger girls, I cannot remember anyone being sent off, there is no bad language, sure, you get some moments where you are pushing and shoving but nothing like what I remember when my son was playing at the same age.
So, the girls are watching the rugby more and more, especially with the older girls, we are using What’s App like most people nowadays to communicate with them and send them lots of clips and links. It makes our jobs so much easier and enables us to get updates and key messages across to the whole team; instantly. The coaches may see a picture or clip of a particular aspect in the game and send it straight away to the team which really helps with their development. It brings the theory to life. A recent example was a coach sharing a clip of a New Zealand player, someone who is at the top of her game, player of the year, and the girls were saying: “She is doing what you are telling us to do!”. To demonstrate that top players still practice the fundamental, core skills really motivates them to come to training and do the same.
Technology really plays a major part in our lives today, that’s why we developed our virtual community hub, Wimblecomm!
Yes, my partner who works as a nanny in Wimbledon, she and lots of her friends use your website to find out about community spaces and activities in the area, it’s a great resource for families. They all help you spread the word about Wimblecomm, too.
Wow, that’s nice to hear, and a big thanks to anyone spreading the word about Wimblecomm!
You mentioned the New Zealand elite player earlier. What was it like when Abbie Scott visited the club? I imagine the girls loved every minute of it?
Oh, the reaction amongst the girls, across all age groups, has been incredible! At the end of the day, this is what it’s all about, I think. To show them that someone, similar to them, starting out like them, has been Captain of the England Rugby Team. So, Abbie Scott came to meet the kids at the Club. They had jerseys to give away and other things, but the opportunity to actually meet her face to face, and ask questions, was really amazing. From the younger girls asking Abbie about what she had for breakfast; to the older girls asking more serious questions about how to make a career out of rugby… Abbie was very approachable, she was just like one of them. This is how I think it should be, the willingness to engage at the girls’ level, and to share her own experiences, training advice and other information, is without a doubt what will help the girls with their own approach to the sport.
Old Ruts have a lovely clubhouse/bar, BBQ area and hall for hire. They host a variety of community events throughout the year, including the much loved RutsFest, band, quiz, comedy, wine & cheese nights, food events and more.
I am intrigued about other initiatives at the club which are specifically aimed at supporting families and children, on and off the pitch, such as the Mental Health First Aider training.
Absolutely! Luckily, I was one of the first people who participated in the course and got certified as a Mental Health First Aider. This is happening at the club and organised by the Old Rutlishian Foundation.
The training and associated support provided to the children and young people has been important for any age group, but especially for the older ones such as the U15s and U16s. In my experience, understanding what worries them and supporting the mental health amongst our players is so important. It has been phenomenal, really, to be able to have that additional training and to open your mind just a little bit more, something I have been aware of and deal with through being a teacher anyway, but the club’s initiative in that area has been great. It’s not a case of ‘telling them’ what to do, but to have an open dialogue and asking questions, such as “have you thought about doing this or speaking to that person” when you see that they are worried. It is also helpful in spotting the signs when children and young people are struggling, especially for us male coaches, as the girls may experience different issues, and this has really helped me in developing a better understanding.
In addition to the training for adults, I believe there has been a series of mental health workshops for kids and young people?
Yes, that’s right, they used an external speaker to deliver the workshops. The theme was “talk more, play better”; and was well received by all.
As for other initiatives, the U15 boys had Danny Care from Harlequins come to the club and talk about the ‘Movember’ initiative, which advocates the importance of recognising male health including mental health issues. One of the key messages the boys took away from this was to look out for each other, both on the pitch and at other times.
There is also Claire, who has the role of ‘Head of Happiness’. She comes to training on Sundays, sometimes on Wednesdays, talks to the children, and anyone can see her privately for a chat and support. Importantly, the coaches can also approach her and talk about potential concerns they may have about members of their team. The whole approach is essentially not about solving someone’s problems or issues, but to ensure that we can help signpost them in the right direction, in terms of where they can get further help. And it is a bit different in the U15s, I’ve had conversations with them, it’s clear they are more like young women now, and social media plays a huge part in their lives which unfortunately can also cause a lot of problems.
I suppose older girls (and boys) go through many physical and mental changes which can have an impact on their sports performance and their relationships with team mates and coaches.
Yes, working across all year groups in primary school, over the past 10 years, and now working with Year 6, I can see how the children change and girls tend to be affected by this earlier than boys. Keeping children engaged in sport when they get older is so important. A lot of the girls in our teams play other team sports such as netball and volleyball, but the actual teamwork in rugby is very different. The feedback we get from the girls is that the nature of the teamwork in rugby is quite ‘full on’, you cannot hold back and stay in your position, you need to always move and support your teammate. I love the unsung ‘heroes’ in teams; those that enable others to shine through the consistent teamwork and hard work in performing jobs in the game that aren’t always seen by parents. The captain of the U15s this season epitomises this and was the reason she was asked to be captain of the side. This seemed to surprise some players but she has a fantastic positive attitude, does everything to the best of her ability and helps create so many opportunities for her teammates to take advantage – a leader who leads from the front.
It’s so important as coaches to recognise and celebrate the efforts of all members in the team who support the player who ultimately scores the try. It is also a sport for all abilities, shapes and sizes and everyone plays a key part which ultimately leads to success.
It’s great to hear that team effort is recognised and celebrated in rugby. I suppose there might be some invaluable life lessons for those who play it?
That’s right. Apart from the physicality of the sport, there are also mental challenges which I like to emphasise to girls who are considering of joining a rugby team – I feel strongly that playing the sport will really help develop you as a person!
What would you say to any girl, regardless of her ability, are the key benefits of coming to play rugby; and would you be open to welcoming anyone who wants to play?
Absolutely, we welcome anyone who wants to play, not just at the beginning but mid-season, too. We do as much as we can to integrate them as quickly as possible into the team regardless of timing or their previous experience in playing rugby, provided it is safe for them to play. One of the key benefits is that they experience to be part of a team. One of our members refers to her team as her ‘rugby family’, and that’s probably what it is, I think the whole club is indeed like a family. That, for me, was my main goal when I agreed to come on board, first as a coach, then to oversee all the girls’ rugby, to create an environment where the girls can be themselves, where they can express themselves.
Ultimately, on the rugby field, you can be yourself, everyone gets muddy and mucks in, it doesn’t matter whether you are a girl or boy nor what your background is.
The girls pretty much do all the things that other girls do, they dress the same as other girls their age, the only thing I suppose they cannot do is have long nails…which is the same in netball!
The parents will be grateful for that! You mentioned your engagement with schools earlier. Do you connect directly with other schools to develop membership and a general interest in girls’ rugby?
Yes, for example, James Robertson, who as I mentioned originally started the girls’ section to give his daughter a go, his wife loves rugby and his son plays, and it is really his legacy we are trying to fulfil, he went to the Ursuline High School, signed up some 40-50 girls for after school rugby to introduce them to the sport. Many would not really know much about the physical and mental challenges of the sport until they try it out themselves.
So, James organised a match between the Ursuline team and the Old Ruts girls, and from that day, we now have 6 girls from the school join Old Ruts which is fantastic.
As an inclusive club, I imagine anyone who is physically able to take part in the sport would be welcome?
Everyone is definitely welcome. We do not have a disability team as such, but I do know of some teams at other clubs who have players with a range of physical needs and everyone does what they can to make the player part of the team. I’m not aware of this at Old Ruts but know that we would do everything we can to give everyone the opportunity to play if it’s possible. You just need to look at a player like Jodie Ounsley for an example of how someone has overcome an extra ‘barrier’ and managed to represent England in 7s rugby. Jodie, who has hearing loss, is a fantastic, inspirational player/person who did not let her physical challenges stop her love for the sport.
Old Ruts, like others, relies heavily on volunteers, both on and off the pitch. In your experience, how difficult is it to find people who are happy to help?
I would say, in our experience, for the U15s it is quite difficult to attract volunteers. It seems to become more difficult the older the children get. The majority of the U15 players turn up to training by themselves. We train at Tooting and Mitcham FC on a Wednesday night, and half a dozen of the girls travel together. Some days parents may come and watch, which is when we try and entice them into doing the BBQ/catering or similar activities. However, it is very difficult which I can understand, because as a parent you turn up to watch you daughter play and not to flip the burgers! With the younger teams you can see a difference in terms of attitude, but as is commonly the case with volunteering, it’s often the same people who help and get involved.
However, it’s clear that the club could not survive without its fantastic volunteers and commitment from the families involved. There is a huge amount of goodwill, I would say, from coaching to managing teams, First Aiders, maintaining the grounds, catering, and general administration/operations, whatever it is, you know there are a lot of people involved in making this club so special.
It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you for providing our readers with your insights into women’s and girls’ rugby and sharing the news on the amazing work done by yourself and the many volunteers and staff at the Old Ruts in Merton Park!
Since we met with Rob, the country, and indeed the world, have been turned upside down by COVID-19 which sadly resulted in the suspension of community rugby until recently.
Upon hearing the exciting news that rugby is re-starting at Old Ruts, I asked Rob to update us on the arrangements for the new season and what they have done to adapt to the new, COVID-19 secure way of delivering rugby training.
The next season starts on September 13 for the girls section and Kids First teams. The Juniors are starting on September 6. Everyone is very excited as you can imagine. A lot of players took part in Zoom training sessions during the lockdown period and have been training in small groups, following Government guidelines for a few weeks.
Like schools, we (the rugby section) have had to produce risk assessments and implement Government guidelines, along with RFU guidelines on what is acceptable for training. We have training sessions for coaches to make sure everyone is up to speed with the guidelines but also to help provide a bank of games and activities that all coaches can use to keep training fresh, fun and enjoyable. We have also reduced training times and staggered the session on a Sunday so that less players and parents are present at the same time.
As the landscape changes and guidelines change, we will continue to make sure safety is at the heart of everything we do and that our players enjoy their rugby experience with us.
Old Ruts, Rob, and his coaching team are always on the lookout for new players to join their teams. Please contact Rob on Email, visit the Old Ruts Rugby Website, and the Old Ruts Girls Rugby Website to find out whether rugby is for you and how you can join this amazing ‘family’ that is the Old Ruts! You can also connect with them on Facebook: Ruts Girls Rugby; and Instagramm: @rutsgirlsrugby!
Interview by Susanne Ollig