In these dark times there is a ray of light to be found in the heart of England. Just up the road from Spaghetti Junction to the north-east of Birmingham’s city centre sits the suburb of Erdington, officially rated the fifth-most deprived area in the UK. Less than three miles distant is Hodgehill, which sits at No 3. Rugby is not normally high on many local agendas.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Erdington RFC has just leapfrogged the rest of the nation to be crowned club of the year by Gallagher, sponsor of the Premiership. The shortlist was outstanding but the judging panel – which included this correspondent – ultimately could not sidestep Erdington’s vivid story.
The club, founded in 1924, had to close down in 2003 after their clubhouse was destroyed in an arson attack and has only been reborn in the past three or four years. Erdington’s resurrection offers hope to every cash-strapped club battling to stay alive. They still don’t have a proper roof over their heads at Spring Lane Playing Fields but their resilience and resourcefulness comfortably make up for it.
Instead of a clubhouse the club use a renovated double-decker bus, which sits alongside the pitches next to four shipping containers-cum-changing rooms. “When we first moved back on to the ground the council wouldn’t allow fixed Portakabins to change in,” says Andy Trueman, an openside flanker for the club in the 1980s and among the driving forces behind its revival. So we said: ‘Can we bring down our own mobile changing facilities?’ They agreed so we converted the double-decker bus. After a while they realised we were good tenants and now they’ve allowed us to have four containers as well.”
The previously empty council-owned pitches are also filled – or were before Covid-19 – with young players drawn from a vast array of diverse cultures and religions. “At U17 level we’ve got African Christian, African Muslim, Asian Muslim, we’ve got Polish kids, we’ve got everybody,” says Trueman. “We don’t think about that, to be honest, that’s just the makeup of the area.”
Equally instructive is the role he believes rugby can play in driving behavioural change across the community. In and around Erdington there is no shortage of gang violence and knife crime but fewer outlets for young people to let off steam and make a more positive impact. “Most of the kids don’t get an opportunity to play rugby at school,” says Trueman. “So about two and a half years ago, through our own funding, we started coaching in local schools to get it back on the curriculum. We were trying to get kids involved who have never experienced it.”
The aforementioned Changing Lives Through Rugby programme proved beneficial for all, not least the schools whose difficult Year 7 kids stopped fighting each other and began to train together at Erdington instead. “One of the decisive things for me was when other schools started asking us to come in,” says Trueman. “They see the benefit of it as well.”
It has not been remotely easy and, funding-wise, it has been achieved without any assistance from Twickenham. “The RFU are as useful as a chocolate teapot,” Trueman says with a shrug. “I don’t want to get too political but I have a real big problem with it. Almost everything the RFU does is focused on the elite game. If you look at the England squad the majority of the players have attended private schools or academies. The opportunities for the types of kids in our area are very limited.”
Instead, he and Erdington have concentrated on what they can control. “We believe in the rugby community. Forget having to be the best in the sport. We know being part of a rugby club provides lifelong friends and shapes your personality. That’s one of the concepts we took forward. The highlight for me is seeing the kids make their own way down here. We’ve targeted 14- to 17-year-olds with after-school clubs. It’s an age group a lot of clubs really fail to attract. At a traditional club the kids grow up with rugby.
“When they get to that rebellious age between 14 to 17, the last thing they want to do is come out on a Sunday morning with their parents to the rugby club because that’s what they’ve always done. We’ve done the opposite. With a lot of the kids we deal with their parents don’t really give a damn anyway. We’ve really focused on that age group and the kids see it as a youth club. They come down, play rugby and they’ve got their own little community down here. Rather than kids joining gangs we want them in the rugby gang. That’s how we’ve approached it.”
Their latest reward materialised on Friday in the form of a surprise visit from Ugo Monye to announce their success. Supposedly better-resourced grassroots clubs across the Midlands would now love to be in their position. “We play against much bigger clubs and they struggle to fill sides,” says Trueman. “On the south side of Birmingham you’ve got four clubs who have had to band together to get a side out in the U17 age group but we’re not struggling.”
Erdington RFC are still doing it tough but they are an example to us all.
We shall have to wait and see whether Jack Willis makes England’s squad for the autumn but there was no disputing the Wasps’ flanker’s impact against Bristol in last Saturday’s Premiership semi-final. The only possible reason for not including him would appear to be Eddie Jones’s trademark reluctance to be seen to agree with what everyone else is saying. After the magnificent season Willis has had, however, not rewarding him with an international call-up this autumn would be a travesty.
One to watch
Exeter v Racing 92. It is hard to imagine a European Cup final featuring two clubs from more contrasting backgrounds. The Chiefs have not had the benefit of a multimillionaire backer and there is definitely not a futuristic roof over their Sandy Park ground. Nor, conversely, do they serve many pasties (as opposed to pastis) in the pavement cafes of Paris. Earthy rural charm versus sophisticated Gallic chic? A slight caricature, perhaps, but Saturday in Bristol will still be a major cultural collision. A Racing certainty? They beg to differ from Newton Abbott to Newlyn.
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