With most of the schools that we will be covering this season returning either this weekend or on Monday, now seems as good a time as any for me to issue my annual plea regarding increasing spectator numbers at 1st XV rugby.
Schoolboy rugby is a wonderful thing; the standard is of an exceptionally high quality, as are the coaches, surroundings, facilities and of course the individual players.
However for all of its qualities schoolboy rugby is woefully under spectated. When you look at school rugby in South Africa or New Zealand there are thousands of spectators turning out each week to watch their local school team, some will say that it is because the standard is better but I point to England U18â€™s narrow defeat to South Africa Schools this summer and ask you really how big the gap is?
Looking outside of the rugby spectrum, in the USA some high school football and basketball teams have stadiums for up to 30,000 people to watch them. Yes they are different sports and it is a different culture but so what, why are we not striving to encourage people to watch schoolboy rugby?
So I issue my plea â€“ let us all work together to increase spectator numbers for School 1st XV Rugby.
There are four really key areas to think about here: Why would people want to watch school rugby, why would schools want people to watch their 1st XV, how can schools encourage spectators, and what happens if we stick with the status quo?
The status quo is the best place to begin as looking at it will show why all may benefit from an increase in spectators.
Currently school 1st XV rugby is of a very high standard and, as I mentioned above, it has fantastic coaching, pitches, surroundings and facilities. Future internationals can be seen when they are just a raw talent at school and it is an opportunity for them, and their less illustrious yet equally committed teammates, to enjoy a brand of rugby that is perhaps the most free that they will ever get to play.
For most school players though school rugby is not just some of the most fun rugby they will ever play, played as it is with their closest friends, it is also probably the greatest standard of rugby that they will ever play.
Should the status quo be maintained though, there is a genuine risk that this may no longer be the case. We have seen across all sports (none more so than in football, but all have suffered) that the search for and development of talent is happening at increasingly young age.
Taking the extreme example of football, where players are often scouted below the age of ten and can sometimes be taken on by the club and be educated â€˜in houseâ€™ from the age of 14, education suffers â€“ in a world where such a small number of those taken on at that young age are actually likely to make it, it seems an incredibly risky game to be playing with childrenâ€™s education.
If this were to happen in rugby then we would see the most talented young players whisked away from an independent school education and inserted into academy education, not only perhaps lessening their own education but also reducing the quality of schoolboy rugby and the experience of those who are destined for school rugby to be their pinnacle.
Many will say that rugby is different and that there are regulations in place to prevent such things happening, to an extent they are correct but then twenty years ago it would have been hard to imagine that the University game would be reduced to the level that it now is, a game shorn of the very best of players. Even the Varsity match is more of an occasion than a top class rugby match these days. It is important that we all work to ensure that the school format of the game does not also lose its edge.
Of course that is an extreme view of what maintaining the status quo may bring, but it is worth noting nonetheless.
However what can be said with absolute certainty about maintaining the status quo is that this wonderful advertising product that schools have, not just of their rugby program (which in the grand scheme of the school is perhaps unimportant), but of the entire school, its facilities, its setting, its buildings, its atmosphere, will continue to go unused and undervalued.
To unlock the key to being able to use that product though we must look at the next of the four key areas â€“ why would people want to watch School 1st XV rugby?
Beginning with the easiest group, parents of pupils of both home and away players, their reason for wanting to watch is clear â€“ their children are playing. All that they need is for games to be at convenient times and for the school to make them feel wanted at the match.
The next most obvious group are the current pupils of the school but those not involved in the match. Again their motive for watching is clear, they are a part of a community (the school) and as such want their friends, peers and in some cases â€˜idolsâ€™ to win. All that they require, again, is for the school to make them feel welcome at the pitch side.
Another obvious yet somehow often-missed group are the vast networks of old boys and old girls of the school that most schools have. These are people who retain a great sense of nostalgia and loyalty to their old school in general, and from first hand experience I can say that they are always interested to hear how their old 1st XV are getting on. Their reason to watch is again clear, they care about their old school, it is a wonderful opportunity to catch up with old friends and it retains that â€˜community for lifeâ€™ ethos that all schools like to maintain.
Perhaps the least obvious group of all are the residents of the local town to the school. Whilst some may resent that the school is in their town a far greater number are often very proud and take a genuine interest in the school and its results. For them there are many reasons to come and watch the 1st XV; in rural towns it is perhaps the best quality live sport available for some distance and it is a chance to watch some of the stars of the future â€“ the likes of Christian Wade and Marland Yarde did not just appear in the England squad this summer from nowhere, they could be seen strutting their stuff for RGS High Wycombe and Whitgift 1st XVâ€™s just a couple of years ago.
What can be seen then is that there are distinct groups who for differing reasons would be attracted to watching school 1st XV rugby, what they are lacking is either the knowledge of it, the availability of time to watch it, or the belief that they are welcome/desired to watch it.
In order to focus on the final, and perhaps main point â€“ how can schools encourage spectators â€“ we must next look at why schools would want spectators.
In my opinion the overwhelming reason is community, though of course there are many other reasons that I will go into, community is what makes good independent schools what they are. Read any school handbook or website and you will hard pressed not to stumble across the word community at least a dozen times.
Encouraging people to watch the school 1st XV gives a fantastic focal point, both physically and mentally, to that school community. It extends beyond just those playing but to the rest of the school, the teachers, the parent and the Old Boys and Girls. It reaffirms the sense of community, it gives everyone a common place and in many ways a common goal.
Local residents can also add to that sense of community, by encouraging them to come and watch the 1st XV schools can develop good links with the local community and combine it with their own, something that will stand them in good stead in the long run.
Schools should also be encouraging people to come and watch because it is as good an advertising platform for the school as there is. Forget advertising their rugby ability, this is a chance for the school to advertise its entire self and not just the physical state of the school but how its pupils interact with one another, what type of atmosphere there is, what the people are like. The things that matter.
Even if it is just parents, pupils and old boys that are welcomed, schools always need to be advertising. The smallest of things can make a difference to where a child ends up being educated and just because someone went to a school does not mean they will send their children there â€“ they still need to be advertised to.
For those schools whose rugby programme is a particular source of pride then of course encouraging 1st XV spectators is also an additional opportunity to advertise their excellent rugby programme.
Third, and perhaps less relevant but still an area of potential importance in an era of questions over charitable status and ever rising and potentially unaffordable fees, is the potential for schools to make money in the long term. It does not take any great amount of imagination to see that large numbers of spectators arriving on a Saturday afternoon provides an opportunity for revenue for schools that may be that way inclined.
Finally, there is of course the question of talent. With an increase of spectators there will be an increase in determination to play for the 1st XV, it will feel that much more special. Given the potential threat that top players could be taken away by academies, a well supported school system would encourage players to be left to play at school and in time encourage people to choose the independent school route, meaning that in the long term the quality of schoolboy rugby would also improve.
To the most important question â€“ how can schools encourage spectators?
The first solution is easy, if you want every pupil and member of staff in the school to come and watch the 1st XV then alter the kick off times. Have ever other team in the school kick off an hour and a half before the 1st XV and people will come and watch the 1st XV after. What is more, some pupils and parents of the away teams will too, a valuable additional source of showing the school in its best light.
Parents are pretty easy too, the first solution of course is simply to tell them that they are welcome, something that rather surprisingly is often not said. It would also be very easy for schools to tell parents that they would be very welcome to come along to watch the 1st XV in action and that afterwards there will be a chance to meet other parents, and possibly teachers, in the refectory or another similar building. Most parents do appreciate the opportunity to touch base with the schools in such ways.
Old pupils can be attracted rather easily too â€“ they have a great affinity with the school and have many friends whom they often do not have an opportunity to see as often as they like. Schools can easily organise old boys events at the school on match day, during which they would watch the 1st XV play, all too rarely this happens. Old pupils events are often held across the country in very pleasant locations, yet the schools themselves have these fantastic facilities which could be used for these events during term time, allowing their former pupils the opportunity to come together and with a focal point of watching the 1st XV.
The wider local community poses are harder question for schools when they consider how to encourage their support, however a number of simple methods could be used, simply inviting members of the local community to come would be a start, for example at the local church or local hotels and cafes that parents frequent when visiting their children. Once the seed has been sown, word of mouth can become a powerful tool.
Every school in the country is sitting on the most wonderful opportunity when it comes to 1st XV rugby, yet so few are taking advantage of it.
Is it naÃ¯ve to think that school rugby could get to the stage of school rugby in New Zealand or South Africa, or high school sports in the USA? Possibly. Are spectators and coverage on that level something that schools even want? Possibly not.
Neither of those points particularly matters though, what matters is having the ambition try to showcase school rugby at its best, to give players the opportunity to show people their talents, to give schools the opportunity to showcase themselves and for it all to be done in a manner that each individual school is comfortable with.
For some that might be the ambition to go for US high school style figures, for others it might just be to get a couple of hundred people down each week and to develop their community further.
Either way, schoolboy rugby is a fantastic sport to watch, pure, talented and entertaining, and it would be wonderful to see it watched by many, many more people.
By Angus Savage