Summer Update from Chair, Lucy Armstrong

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Dear Chair,


The season is over, and I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you, and your Club colleagues, for all your hard work and commitment to rugby over the last year. We have delivered a ‘normal’ rugby calendar but the impact of the pandemic – behavioral and societal changes – allied to current economic challenges mean very little has felt normal or seemed the same. Below are some of the issues that remain high on the board agenda for the coming twelve months.

  • Separation – separation of the Trust from the CB is now almost complete. This has been a lengthy process that has detracted from rugby. I am incredibly grateful to board colleagues, particularly Henry Cave and Brian Fergie, for their tenacity and doggedness in bringing this to fruition. Completion means the board’s focus will switch entirely to issues that directly relate to the safe conduct, growth, and development of rugby in the county. Clubs, CB and Trust will all need to adapt to the new position and develop open and respectful relationships which facilitate the health and growth of rugby in Northumberland long into the future.

  • Safeguarding Education – throughout the year the board has flagged its growing concern about increased severity and numbers of safeguarding and discipline issues. As I write we are dealing with several new issues raised since the close of the season. Without proper safeguarding in place any rugby activity leaves a club, coaches and officers exposed. They run the risk of operating illegally, threatening the future of their club and jeopardising their personal reputation.

    Separately, we will be writing to your safeguarding officers about additional RFU and CB support to ensure arrangements for Age Grade affiliations are all complete for the start of the season. Similarly, we have established a small group to look at neuro-diversity and mental health so we can develop some best practice to share across all clubs. There also appears to be some confusion about DBS, GMS and general safeguards in relation to some mixed age / sex groups (eg. touch and walking rugby groups etc). The guiding principle is that all rugby activities are rugby and so they are subject to the same safeguarding and Rugby Safe protocols. If you need help in developing these activities please speak to a member of the CB governance team led by Gary Robson.

    In order to make these processes smoother and simpler the new website allows an immediate ‘self service’ approach to gaining the correct permissions throughout the season. This is designed to be available on mobile devices and provide automatic audit trails for all decisions. It will make adherence easier and traceable so we can demonstrate we are operating safely. Claire and Henry stand ready to guide you through when it all goes live on Monday 17th July.

    We do need to raise the profile and “educate” decision makers at all levels within the CB about safeguarding and discipline issues. Future General Committee meetings will be themed. The first of the new season, 18 September, will be on safeguarding and rugbysafe education. In addition to providing useful updates to those directly involved in these issues it will also raise awareness and understanding among the wider rugby community, particularly those less familiar with the legal and moral requirements on clubs and coaches in this vital area. We have to get this right. It is our basic permission to play.

  • Budgets – following a recent ‘end of term report’ from the RFU the board are confident we will retain, as a minimum, the same level of central funding we received this year. We remain hopeful of a small percentage uplift. We are already in discussion with clubs and the RFU on gaining additional funds for activities related to central RFU priorities. In short these all revolve around the World Cup competitions. Autumn ’23 is about attracting new audiences to engage with rugby whilst the men’s competition dominates the nation’s screens. For Northumberland this means diversity – age, socio-economic, gender and sexual orientation. In the run up to the women’s competition in ’25 the focus is on making rugby welcoming and engaging for females. Northumberland clubs who want to develop their
    female offer or simply get some loos will be ideally placed to capitalise on this priority. Dave Challenger and the rugby team are here to help you access support and funding. We are building a group of property and facilities management experts to support clubs in these areas too.

  • Partnerships and Communications – led by Dean Gray the board continue to try and develop long-standing comprehensive partnerships. We have built on the national HondaRFU relationship developing additional funding and support in kind for the growth of our children’s festivals. We will develop this further in ’23-’24 in concert with the Falcons Foundation. The focus will be on wider inclusion for children without a rugby heritage or access at school. The new website is better at presenting useful information, easier to use and a vital tool to help you run your club. We will continue to develop this tool and need feedback from you to make this happen.

    Rugby reflects wider society in struggling to adapt and learn to use social media for the benefit of the game in a respectful, thoughtful and considerate manner. Don’t write anything online which you wouldn’t say to someone’s face, and be prepared to explain to your mother is a good rule of thumb. We need to get better at this, particularly where confidential information has been shared more widely than appropriate.

 

I anticipate the pace and demand for change will only accelerate further in the coming years. I believe long term demographic trends in our region and society’s tightening appetite for risk will be the key drivers in shaping the future of rugby. I am sure we all want Northumberland to be at the forefront of those changes with all our clubs positioned to thrive and grow in this newly emerging
world. As such I have noted below some themes we need to start considering so that we can capitalise on any opportunities.

 

  • Changing demographics suggest we will thrive if we are early adopters of new forms of rugby. Our ageing population means touch and walking rugby may be really good long term options for our region.
  • 50% of the population, i.e. females represent a huge opportunity not least because this is already the fastest area of growth in rugby
  • Competition on the field is healthy and an integral part of sport. Off the field, not so much. Sharing resources eg. mobile lights, electricity provider, coaching notes needs to become an important facet of how we work together.
  • Fewer working age people and more competing demands on people’s time and attention are trends set to continue. I am sure we all want to ensure we have the skills, finance and people to deliver a comprehensive service in twenty years time. To do that I believe we will need to innovate and explore new ways of working. This may include learning to buddy up or think about hub and spoke models of organising ourselves. The earlier we experiment and explore different models the less painful and difficult any change will be.

 

All of these issues present both threats and opportunities to Northumberland’s clubs and rugby more generally. The board are keen we embrace these changes; take control of those issues where we are able and influence others to our advantage. None of that is possible if we are divided or prove indecisive and unwilling to experiment and innovate.


Finally, I want to extend my sincere thanks to all my colleagues around the board table – county administrator, directors, members of the presidential team, our RFU rep, and RFU staff members.

 

Much is expected of this group with many competing demands and expectations from Clubs, parents, players, partners and spectators, and the RFU. I have been incredibly impressed with their resilience and dedication. They have delivered a wide range of opportunities for many people to enjoy and develop their rugby skills and experience in a safe and legal manner with tight resources.

 

Over the next twelve months, this team will start a process of succession as people’s terms come to an end. Anyone who is interested in bringing their expertise, energy, and enthusiasm to the table please let me know.

 

Thank you all again and enjoy the summer.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Lucy Armstrong
Chair

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