A new era at Cambridge University RUFC as Jess Tayenjam and Nick Koster take over as co-chairs
Jess Tayenjam probably never imagined that trying a team sport for the first time would eventually lead to becoming its co-chair 14 years later.
A musician at secondary school, it was a desire to do something different that first took the then modern and medieval languages student at Sidney Sussex College to Grange Road.
With rugby union just starting to pick up traction, it felt a safer bet than a more established sport.
“I knew that most girls hadn’t played rugby before, so I’d maybe got a better chance,” says Tayenjam, whose grandfather had played for Cambridge University RUFC LX Club in the 1950s.
“I remember showing up for a development day a week or two after I had started at university so it was a huge time. From the get-go, it was the most fun, supportive, engaging group of people I had ever had the chance to hang out with, really.
“Laura Britton was the captain that year, and I remember we were doing some kind of learning to ruck and she said, ‘Wow, you’re really strong’.
“It was the first time anyone had ever told me that in my life, and that really stuck with me. It gave me the chance to get involved with a team sport, which I hadn’t really done before.
“What it means to me all centres around that team element, the support, the family you get from it.
“I’ve always known from my team-mates that no matter what has happened, that person will physically lay their body on the line for you.
“They will be there for you no matter what, there is space for everyone in that team no matter what, and that has always been really valuable to me alongside the opportunity to develop my leadership skills on the pitch.
“I’ve learned a lot from my time playing rugby, and resilience too.”
That initial involvement was back in 2007, at a time when the women’s club was a separate entity to the men’s club.
Tayenjam was the president of the women’s club for the 2010/11 season, but after graduation she found that there was not much in the way of an old girls’ network.
“I thought it was rather a shame, so with a bit of encouragement from Stu Eru; he said, ‘Why don’t you do it, Jess?’. And I thought, ‘Why don’t I?’,” she explains.
“So that’s what I set about doing at that point in time, creating an old girls’ network together, pulling the contact information together, reaching out to people and getting meaningful events together.”
Shortly after the men’s and women’s clubs merged in 2017, Tayenjam was asked to join the executive committee to assist with the integration, making sure there was the right level of support and visibility for the women’s squad.
Being on furlough last year, she felt able to give more time back to the club and in discussion with past chairman Ian Peck and president Leszek Borysiewicz, they discussed the long-term strategic approach and direction for the club.
Historically, the chair had been a one person role, but after a suggestion, Tayenjam and Nick Koster were approached by Peck about taking on the roles jointly.
“We are a volunteer-led organisation and a big focus for us at the moment is how do we make volunteering with the club more accessible, more manageable and make more opportunities for more people to chip in where they can,” explains Tayenjam.
“The chairman role has been a prime example for that, because as an individual it could come across as a daunting task, to take on leadership and management of the whole club, whereas splitting it between two people, we’ve got two brains, basically.
“Two volunteers who then both have a decent amount of time, that means combined we can give more time to it.”
The co-chairs are keen to push forward diversity and inclusion, getting more diversity of perspective involved in running the club but also the membership, participation and engagement at matches.
“In partnership, we shape that in an interesting way rather than it being just what I think, or just what Nick thinks,” says Tayenjam. “I think there is a lot of strength in us bringing different views to the table.”
Those opinions will be crucial in the organisational transformation in order to make the club sustainable in many senses, including financially and operationally, and bring more hands on deck.
That is undoubtedly the biggest challenge.
“How can we be financially sustainable? What would it take for us to be able to run the club well, consistently, year on year and how do we make sure that those bring in sustainable revenue streams for us?,” says Tayenjam.
“In the past, we were able to depend on huge corporate sponsors.
“From a financial perspective, what would it take for us to be sustainable, to have the right revenue streams and the right income levels coming into the club?
“From an operational perspective, we have some key people around the club who carry a lot on their shoulders which is admirable.
“People like Austin (Jessop) and Jeremy (Macklin) who have done so much to move the club forwards over the last few years, but also knowing that it’s not particularly sustainable to have a few key individuals carrying that much weight moving forward.
“Looking at the way we operate so it is repeatable, that we can keep doing that year on year without any individual burning out, without any major risks around succession planning.”
The duo are working together to develop a compelling vision to sell in order to get people down to the club and enjoy being part of it.
Tayenjam stresses that the co-chair’s role is to support the “great people doing great stuff” across the club to ensure they get the most out of the experience as well.
She adds: “It isn’t my club, I’m only in this seat but for a brief moment of time.
“I’m here because I care about the future of the club and want to preserve the history and tradition, of course, but keep that moving forward so that other people can have as great an experience as I was fortunate to have when I was part of the club as a student and all the things I have gotten from it since.”
Ambition to create the ‘best student rugby experience in the world’
Being indebted to Cambridge University RUFC for reigniting a love for rugby was a pivotal factor in Nick Koster becoming one of the club’s co-chairs.
The 32-year-old South African arrived at the university to study for an MSt in social innovation at Queens’ College after nine years as a professional rugby player with the likes of Stormers, Bath and Bristol.
His passion for the game had waned over time, but being at Grange Road changed all of that.
“I always wanted to be a professional rugby player and I wanted to play for the Springboks,” says Koster, who earned two Blues, captaining Cambridge in 2018.
“As my career went on, the professional side of the game, the experience of that turned out to be very different to how I expected it
to be. Through my career, there were obviously good times but over time, I sort of fell out of love with the game because I felt that I was perhaps playing for the wrong reasons.
“Coming to Cambridge at the end of my career and that amateur setting where no-one is playing for anything other than teamship, sportsmanship and to win a game of rugby, the Varsity Match, that passion, camaraderie and emotion... going on that journey with some first years and some experienced players who have come back from professional rugby was a really special experience.
“It reminded me why I started playing the game in the first place. It brought that love back and it was really the perfect way for me to end what was my rugby career.
“I will forever feel indebted to the club for giving me that experience, and I suppose our key objective as co-chairs is to ensure that experience continues for the next generation of players because the club is really not financially sustainable with its current model.”
Koster was approached about taking on the role of co-chair by the then incumbent Ian Peck.
It was explained that it would be a joint position, which is voluntary, with Jess Tayenjam, which was made far easier by the pair already being friends and having a mutual respect and understanding for each other.
The former forward immediately felt the gravitas of the task, and the undertaking involved given the history, tradition and reputation of the Light Blues.
“There are a lot of people that put time into the club, but they are volunteers,” says Koster.
“It is a completely different leadership challenge to any organisational challenge that I’ve had, in that when you pay people, it’s a bit easier to drive accountability in the organisation. In a volunteer organisation, you have to be a bit more careful with how you lead.
“Those were the two words I would use to describe it – surreal and daunting. It’s a big responsibility in what is a very challenging time for the club.”
Peck had suggested Koster take time to consider whether he wanted to take on the task but, given the honour of being asked in the first place, it was an instant yes.
It meant working out a pathway going forward with Tayenjam to make sure they always presented a united front on decision-making.
“You’ve constantly got to understand each other, set boundaries, form a partnership with good communication at the top of the organisation,” says Koster.
“It’s like parenting, I think in some ways, in that you have to stick together and do everything you can to be on the same page, and then move the club in a direction. It’s not necessarily in your own direction, but find one together. There will be things we disagree on because we’re human, so it’s trying to align ourselves because we communicate and lead.”
They have agreed a clear split in roles, which means that Tayenjam is initially looking at the operations of the club, such as the volunteer roles and the organisational structure.
Koster will firstly concentrate on sponsorship, fundraising and income streams, and they will share the financial aspects.
The main challenges centre around sustainability, more precisely financial sustainability.
The business model focused for a long time on one match, the Varsity Match, a headline sponsor and the size of the crowd gathering to watch the internationals involved.
But the revenue streams from the Varsity Match have significantly changed down the years.
“We’re an extremely lean organisation but it’s difficult to make money as a student rugby club so we’ve had to think outside the box a little bit already,” says Koster.
“We’ve generated some income streams other than the Varsity Match which has been very helpful and come just in time. Going forward, we can’t rely on the Varsity Match any more.
“We have to find another way of generating income to pay the expenses it costs to run a club.”
Koster’s hopes come about through his own experiences, and he wants to carve out the “best student rugby experience in the world”.
To do so, he believes that it means hitting certain criteria in order to generate enough income to create a ‘semi-professional’ club.
Developing an inclusive and diverse environment is top of the agenda, but then comes the more money-orientated hopes which include touring opportunities for players, making sure the Varsity Match stays at Twickenham and supporting the Varsity Match Company Ltd in any way they can.
“We want to start attracting more people to Grange Road for games,” says Koster. “At the moment, if on average we get 200 to games, we want to push it up to 500 or 700 people and create an atmosphere at Grange Road, for that to be the place to be when we have games on. If we can create an atmosphere there and get more people down, that’s when you build your community, that’s when sponsorship is way more appealing.
“From a fundraising perspective and from a playing perspective, a lot centres around that.”
He added: “These are some of the key targets that we have at this stage so far that we’re looking at in order to be the best student rugby experience in the world.”