Nick Dance returns to old stomping ground to take on role as Cambridge RUFC mini and youth chairman
Nick Dance has arguably found himself in one of, if not the most important roles at Cambridge Rugby Club in the current climate.
A former player before a long period living and working in the Far East, the 48-year-old had always hoped a return to these shores would bring him back to the city.
A career move for his wife meant that is exactly what happened in January 2019, and when his nine-year-old son fell in love with rugby union during last year’s world cup, there was only one place to go.
However, having been “adamant I wasn’t going to coach at all and not get involved”, it has gone a step further, Dance is now Cambridge’s mini and youth chairman.
With no senior or full contact rugby so far this season – and who knows when it will return – and restrictions on just allowing the modified Ready4Rugby game, it meant that maintaining engagement in the sport with the next generation has become more crucial than ever.
“I’ve come in during the pandemic, not before we knew we were going to lockdown [the first one, in March] – it was the massive challenge in trying to get kids out playing rugby safely again,” says Dance of the autumn.
“The biggest challenge has been the Covid procedures and trying to ensure that we are looking at it and adapting to what the government requirements are as and when they change.
“We need to reassure parents, children, members and stakeholders that we are acting on advice and moving forward to make it as safe as possible for everybody.
“The role is about positivity. At the end of the day, what are we here for? We’re here to make sure that players have a great time and walk off the pitch smiling and they’ve had fun.
“With that you then gain the additional attributes of how they grow – teamwork, respect, attitude, sporting ethics.
“The main challenge was making sure that during the pandemic they still continue to come off the pitch smiling, they’re not bored and have had a good time.
“We’re learning all the time – how we set it all up, how to communicate to the members our protocols, making sure they are confident we are adhering to the policies and we want to keep the players interested.”
Although everything is currently on hold, Dance says: “The last thing we want is to stop rugby for a year and suddenly these kids go and play another sport, and then you lose them forever.
“You could lose a lot of players to other sports because we can’t physically accommodate what they are looking for.”
Given Dance’s background in the sport, there is an argument to be had that it was the right person in the right place at the right time for Cambridge.
A lifelong rugby union player, his father, Jonathan, was president of the RFU in 2014, a citing officer for the governing body and on the IRB council for seven years, while also being president of Berkshire RFU.
His uncle, Jeremy, was president of Esher Rugby Club, and another uncle was secretary of Grasshoppers, the London club.
Born in Reading, going to school in Oxford and university in Cheltenham, Dance’s past clubs have included Old Patesians, Cheltenham Saracens, Cheltenham North, Taunton – as he puts it “I’ve always been a rugby nomad”.
He arrived in Cambridge to run the Chicago Rock Cafe, and was the opening manager of the nightclub Life, now Vinyl, and it was during that time – from 1999 to 2001 – that he played for the rugby club.
They were then in London League One, and his contemporaries at the time included Darren Messenger, Gwyn Stubbings, Russell Doel, Ben Pieterson, Gordon Dingwall and Sam Hoad.
“I enjoyed my time here. It was one of the top teams I played for in my career,” he explains.
“I had always said when I left the UK and moved overseas that if I was going to move back to England then Cambridge would be the place I would move to.”
Dance had spent the previous 15 years in Singapore, having initially only intended to be in the country for two days.
In 2005, he was heading to New Zealand as an agent for the Barmy Army for the British & Irish Lions, but could not afford to go and was offered a role promoting the same tour in an Irish pub in Singapore.
Dance went on to become general manager, and then held numerous other roles in the country including running a rugby club, a boxing gym and working for Rhino Rugby as director of operations and sales in Asia for seven years.
It also proved to be a good place to play rugby union.
Dance, a hooker, took part in the Premiership rugby in the country for 10 years, earning eight caps for Singapore, against the likes of Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan, Taiwan and Malaysia.
“The rugby level was probably around National Two – maybe the level below, four or five,” he explains.
“It is a lot of older ex-pats. You have to have a certain amount of Singaporeans in the side, but it is the ex-pats in the more influential positions such as hooker, No 8, scrum-half and such.
“It was a good experience, I played when there was a coup by the local players in 2009 – they all quit because there were too many ex-pats in the team.
“We (Singapore) were not very successful – it’s called the Asian Five Nations and it was a tough level. We didn’t win any games but it was a good experience, you’re playing against professionals from Japan, Hong Kong.
“Asia is a fantastic place to play rugby, with all the trips around. They very much focus on 10s rugby instead of 7s, so the Hong Kong 10s, Cobra 10s.”
During his time in Singapore, he was also director of rugby of Centaurs, which catered for up to 500 youngsters, from under-fives to under-17s.
“It was the first junior rugby club formed in Singapore,” he says. “It was formed in 2002 by a guy that couldn’t find decent rugby for his sons at the time.
“I loved it. I was director of rugby for seven years, and coached there for an additional three years before that.
“That is where I found that I really enjoyed helping children develop their game and move forward with their sporting aspirations – not so much as being professional athletes but just the enjoyment of sport and being involved in sport and passing on some knowledge.”
On his return to these shores, he played a few games for Cambridge Exiles, and then featured twice for the Wanderers before suffering a knee injury.
He is also on the Cambridgeshire referee panel, but it was a former team-mate, Cambridge president JJ Jeffrey, that asked him to consider a new role.
Dance is now eager to put his experiences to good use for the benefit of Cambridge and added: “I just really wanted to try to give something back to the local rugby community after moving over here.”