The final whistle
[feature from Middlesex Rugby’s Middlesex Matters magazine]
When you can no longer play, you don’t have to lose touch with the game. Lonsdale Leggett-Flynn catches up with three people who’ve stayed involved long after they’ve hung their boots up.
There comes a point in every player’s career when they know the time has come to hang their boots up once and for all. But just because your playing prowess isn’t what it used to be, it doesn’t mean you can’t still be involved, either on the playing side or in an administration role. So how do you fill the void on a Tuesday night and on Saturday afternoons?
Originally trained as a PE teacher, coaching was a natural progression for Tony Robinson when he reached the end of his playing days. Having played as a prop for Saracens and London Scottish (he lost his first team place at Sarries to Jason Leonard), Tony played his last senior game in 1996. “I was 36 when I officially retired from first class rugby – but I played my last serious game at 41 and also managed a match in Malaysia against the Australian Army Jungle Warfare Regiment at 43!”
His day job back then was at Queen Elizabeth School in Barnet, but it was through his work as a coach educator and trainer for the RFU that he realised that coach development was his calling. He spent nine and a half years at the RFU, latterly as player development manager, but last year decided to branch out on his own and form Coach & Mentoring Solutions.
“The position had changed from what I had originally signed up for and I wanted a new challenge helping people to become the best they possibly can be. And I love the autonomy!” he quips.
Now, based in Bookham in Surrey, Tony runs courses and mentoring sessions for aspiring coaches, and is running a series of workshops for Middlesex Rugby coaches.
“Now I’ve found a new love for coaching and refereeing I am able to pass on my knowledge and love for the game”
Gavin Nichols’ job as an investment banker in the City, combined with his role as secretary of Chiswick RFC and a young family, didn’t leave him with enough time to commit to coaching. “Last season was the first season I didn’t get a 1st XV cap or score a try” he laments. “I captained Chiswick’s 2nd XV to win Middlesex Merit Table Division 1 and I figured I’m not going to top that so why not bow out with a trophy.”
Having made the decision to stop playing, he wanted to stay involved in the game “to keep me running around on a Saturday” he says, only slightly tongue-in-cheek. “I couldn’t commit to Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for most weeks of the season, but reffing is something I’d considered for a while.”
He reffed a game last season by accident when the referee didn’t turn up and as captain he fell on his sword and volunteered. “What appealed to me was something I wasn’t expecting – the learning curve. I’m not saying I know all there is to know about the playing side but with a whistle in hand I suddenly had a hell of a lot to learn – where to stand so as not to get in the way, what an offside line is and how to deal with scrum halves! I took my son to Twickenham to watch England v Ireland in the 6 Nations and found myself watching the ref to see where he was positioned.”
He has completed three online courses over the summer covering concussion, first aid and the laws of the game. “I also attended an intense two day practical course which was great. Eighty per cent of it was on the pitch actually reffing in different scenarios.” He has now been signed off as a Level 12 referee and officiated at his first game this month.
Bowing out gracefully after a long and fulfilling playing career is one thing. But what happens when injury forces you out of the game long before you’re ready to quit?
When Joe Russell was just sixteen years old, his playing career was brought to an abrupt halt when be broke his neck diving into a swimming pool. “I hit the top of my head on the edge of a blow-up rubber ring which snapped and crushed several vertebrae,” he recalls.
As a young Ruislip player, he first took to the field at the age of five, and at the time of his accident was scrum-half for the U16s with his sights set on playing for Wasps or even England. “Having a huge goal like this spurred me on each week to make me a better and more developed rugby player.” With his dreams in tatters and the prospect of months of rehabilitation ahead, Joe was determined to stay involved in the game he loved. Despite being off school for three months trying to rebuild his neck muscles and learning how to walk again, as soon as be was able, Joe booked himself onto a refereeing course and all the coaching programmes he could get on to.
Through his volunteering work at Ruislip he was chosen to become an RFU Young Rugby Ambassador along with his team mate Cameron Taylor. “It was a great way for me to stay involved with the club and enabled me to meet new people and create my network of contacts,” he explains. From there, he continued reffing as much as possible and started a year-long coaching apprenticeship – a year that enabled him to develop his coaching and refereeing and to grow as an individual.
“Breaking my neck had a huge impact on my mental state. It was really hard to stay motivated when all I wanted to do was get on the pitch and play. Now I’ve found a new love for coaching and refereeing I am also able to pass on my knowledge and love for the game on a daily basis through work.”
Now almost 21, Joe works for the RFU as part of the local delivery team for Middlesex and his role as a YRA in the lead up to the World Cup took him to the dizzy heights of Downing Street to promote the tournament.
“The lack of movement I have in my neck still does effect my day to day life, but it doesn’t faze me in the slightest anymore,” he grins. As for the future, he has big plans to build on his rugby career abroad. “As I’m still young I’d like to get some alternative experience out in Australia and New Zealand but that will be in a few years’ time. For now being a CRC is fantastic and I’m loving every bit of it.”