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Emerging from life in rugby lockdown gives Shelford a renewed sense of purpose

Shelford Rugby Club. Picture: Keith Heppell
Shelford Rugby Club. Picture: Keith Heppell

Making the best of a difficult situation has helped provide Shelford with the emphasis to be more than just a rugby club.

It has been a hiatus of 14 months since any of their senior teams last played a league match and, as the campaign is not due to get going again until September, the wait continues.

They have been back in adapted training in between lockdowns, but the primary focus of their existence has been put on the back-burner. Or has it?

The answer is yes and no.

Many, if not all, sports clubs have had to refocus on what is important during the past 14 months, and in Shelford’s case, it has led to a raft of new ideas and initiatives to be rolled out from this summer.

“We had to put a lot of things on hold because of the tumultuous year we’ve been through, but it has allowed us to plan,” said director of rugby Will Cotterill.

“One of the biggest realisations we had in the last year is that we’re much more than just a rugby club.

“We haven’t had rugby to focus on so we’ve been able to look at all the other things that we are and look into how we can service our members in the local community, our role in the local community, player welfare, community projects, how we utilise facilities.

“We have to continually think outside the box which has put us in a really good position to launch some new programmes and initiatives.

“There is so much more that we do behind the scenes which is often not discussed or not extrapolated in enough details because we are so focused on rugby.”

In a snapshot, Shelford have broken down their initiatives into Tackling Social Issues, Rugby For All and a coach development and mentoring programme.

The Tackling Social Issues project will put the spotlight on raising awareness of social issues, supporting members and the local community, and becoming a positive influence in those areas.

The first one is focused on mental health.

They are looking at getting coaches in each of the age groups across the club, including the senior men’s and women’s set-ups, trained in mental health awareness by completing the UK Coaching Mental Health Awareness in Sport certificate.

Shelford will then look to put four mental health leads through the mental health first aid course in order to have one person each looking after the mini, youth, women’s and girls’, and men’s sections of the club.

They will then partner with Loose Headz to help raise awareness and provide ongoing education and support.

“We’ve already got about 30 coaches and admin from the club that are doing the UK mental health awareness in sport course,” said Cotterill, pictured below.

“It’s a bit like a funnel in the sense that if one of those trained in mental health awareness recognises some issues with a player or member of the club then they get to talk to the mental health first aider who can probably then look at it in more detail.

“They hopefully then support them and if the member or player needs further support then that is where the partnership with LooseHeadz comes in with the dedicated phone line.

“There are so many spaces we want to work in with this project, but I think mental health off the back of lockdown is a massive theme so it made sense to start there.

“It’s an area we can jump straight into and we’ve got a lot of volunteers willing to be part of this programme, so it made sense we started with this one.”

Further social issue projects that Shelford have planned include Play with Pride, which centres on discussing LGBTQ+ awareness and diversity.

“I think as a club we can do so much more in raising the awareness and the level of understanding through our members to make sure we’re inclusive,” said Cotterill.

“Inclusivity is massively important to us, it is one of our core values. We need to make sure we’re educated well enough and there is enough awareness and enough conversation within the club that we can deal well enough with these issues.”

Shelford are aiming to broaden their playing offering to opportunities to enjoy rugby to as many different people as possible, at all ages.

Shelford director of rugby and head coach Will Cotterill. Picture: Steven Illingworth
Shelford director of rugby and head coach Will Cotterill. Picture: Steven Illingworth

Cotterill has worked with Cambridge Touch Association (CTA) to form an official partnership and offer a structured programme at the Davey Field as part of their Rugby For All philosophy.

It will launch in early June, and will act almost as a satellite programme for CTA, who will support its delivery as well as coaching support and player development opportunities.

“Touch rugby is a really enjoyable game,” said Cotterill.

“It’s very popular in Australia and with me just moving back from Australia, it just makes sense that we offer it as a rugby club for people that want to be at the rugby club, want to play rugby but don’t necessarily want to get into the contact element.

“Cambridge are one of the top touch associations in the country. It’s a win-win for both sports I think.

“We will probably pick up players that come to the game initially through touch and then decide they want to play a contact version, and vice versa.”

There is an overwhelming feeling that Shelford are trying to put an arm around as wide a proportion of the rugby playing world as possible, even capturing them as young as they can.

It has meant that they have signed off on a Didi Rugby franchise, which is for under fives, and starts at 18 months.

It will add to the touch rugby, traditional rugby and walking touch rugby that is already available.

“It’s promoting rugby for that younger age group and those parents,” said Cotterill.

“But it’s also Shelford Rugby being out in the community and funneling kids hopefully through from 18 months to under-six, under-seven, under-eight up to our youth programme and hopefully through to our senior programme and dare I say it, they could come out the other end as 75-year-olds still playing walking touch.”

Shelford are also hoping to help fill the void created by structural changes at the RFU, which in turn will tie in with being able to provide rugby across the club and ages.

With the restructuring at the governing body, it has meant that opportunities to support clubs with coaching courses have changed.

Coach development is an area that Cotterill is passionate about and he feels that it is vital to be able to develop coaches so they, in turn, are able to develop players.

Therefore, he has put together a team that includes himself, former Scotland international and senior lecturer in sports coaching and physical education at ARU Dr Anna Stodter, former RFU development officer for Cambridgeshire Tim Reed, Shelford women’s first team coach and RFU qualified mentor Scott Brand, and new director of youth rugby at the club Chris Clayton Smith.

It will be a complementary programme that supports what the RFU are doing, which is largely online, and will provide ongoing mentoring and support for coaches.

“We’re meeting in two weeks to brainstorm and flesh out what we’re trying to achieve over the short term and the next three to five years with the programme,” said Cotterill.

“It will be exciting and it will hopefully be something that is very practical and beneficial for the coaches.

“We want them to come away with a toolbox of things that they can use, not learning it in April or March and not being able to apply it until the following October.

“It’s not just what we’re delivering, it’s the timing of when we’re delivering it so they can do a course with us and then jump straight into using those skills the following session they take.

“Then having that feedback loop whereby we have the mentors there.

“It will be very much educational at the start of the season, and then moving into a mentoring arrangement through the mid to late season so they are getting feedback on what they’re doing.”

It just goes to show that while Shelford have been waiting to get back on the pitch, there has been no hanging around in the background as they seek to nurture a rounded club.

There is also light at the end of the tunnel in a playing sense, with a series of matches planned from May 15 to June 12.

It means that the level of anticipation and excitement is two-fold.

Cotterill added: “We have been thinking outside the box and getting outside our comfort zone for the last 12 months now to keep the club afloat, to keep the members engaged and to make sure we’re offering a product that is more wide-ranging than just your traditional rugby product.”

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