Worcester RFC: Developing participation pathways

Worcester Rugby Football Club has enjoyed much history in its 152 years of existence, and the last decade has been arguably one of the most transformative.

After a trio of Worcester RFC players featured in fixtures against Swansea Gladiators – the oldest mixed ability rugby team in the world – they came away with ambitions to create something similar at their own club.

The initial pitch to the club’s management, who had been closely related to former Premiership Rugby club Worcester Warriors until 2011, was that mixed ability would be a fantastic opportunity to open Worcester RFC to a new demographic of players.

The concept of mixed ability was completely new to the club at the time, but it soon became apparent that it was about so much more than increasing members. The entire club, from its foundations through to first teams, had begun a revolutionary journey.

“The culture is the massive part of it really,” said Dave Church, who is a mixed ability player and coach and was one of the three who played against Swansea Gladiators. “We have got to be a welcoming environment and instilling that into people on their first impression has meant that’s now flooding through the entire club.

“This is partly because we have developed so many players now who have come in with very little or no rugby ability and are now playing at other levels for the club. We’ve also had guys who wouldn’t say hello to you when you walk in and are now communicating on a rugby pitch with 30 other guys.

“We make sure there is a focus for each session, be it attack, defence, whatever it might be, and we are really lucky that we have grown from three coaches up to seven. We can tailor more things to the individuals and provide more support for different people.”

Training: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 6-7pm at Worcester RFC
Social media: @Worcesterrfcma on Facebook, X, and Instagram

Tom Reeves is the club’s Mixed Ability Rugby Lead and joined the club a little later than Dave. Having played rugby before, and looking to get back into the game after a string of injuries, the club provided him with a unique opportunity.

“I randomly saw a piece in the paper about it,” said Tom. “When I phoned AJ Mills [one of the team’s founders], he said he needed some coaches.

“It sounded like it shouldn’t work, but that has been one of our biggest challenges – trying to convince people that anyone can play rugby. I came down to a session and caught the bug, and it has changed my life as well as hopefully a lot of others.

“It has made me a better coach holistically because of the huge variants in ability and skillsets, and has made me a better person in terms of being more open. In rugby you mix with people that you’d never normally cross paths with, and become mates with.”

A lot of communication happens off the field as well, from promoting the club on social media, to mixed ability coming up in conversations between members, parents, and affiliates over a drink at the clubhouse.

“Mixed ability has probably brought in over 100 members to the club,” continued Tom. “For any rugby club reading this, from a sheer mathematical perspective to try to be sustainable, you should have a mixed ability team – that’s before we think about all the cultural and emotional benefits.

“We are lucky that Worcester is a big rugby club, and overall it has become more inclusive and holistic; now we have walking rugby and more women’s rugby, including women’s mixed ability. It has also provided a pathway as we have now had players from mixed ability go all the way up to the other Worcester adult teams, including the first team.

“Whoever you are, you’re in it and you are treated as one of the gang right from your first session. It’s not like people get separated in sessions based on ability, everyone is mixing.

“We always do a little group huddle at the end and acknowledge achievements, and we speak to every new member a lot about what the group is and isn’t, and try to learn if they will need a bit more support like an assigned buddy in their first session.

“It’s not just about on-field development, rugby is the vehicle and everyone is treated as one and the same; if they are able to they will help carry equipment back with everyone, and they can come out on socials – we do things that everyone can do and then if people want to continue on or go home then they can.

“There are two key things: fun and inclusion.”

Photos: Worcester RFC’s 2022 World Cup squad (left); Dave Church and his father who also plays mixed ability (right).

These values have had a huge impact on Dave’s life beyond rugby. He was a graphic designer when he helped start the mixed ability team, but the sport inspired him to change professions and become a policeman so he could continue to help and support people in his day job.

Dave added: “Whether someone is having their first session or 100th session, everyone is on that level playing field.

“Although we have a core of players that have been there for a number of seasons now, if there is somebody next to them who they don’t recognise they will put their arm around them and talk to them, which makes it so seamless for people to cross that white line and get started.

“People can watch if they want to, come and join in if they want to, there’s absolutely no pressure, and I haven’t seen a person stand on the side for more than two minutes before they say ‘I’m coming over and I’m having a go’.

“It just comes down to that culture, which makes it such an easy environment to be a part of.”