Gloucester captain Willi Heinz surprised local side Longlevens RFC after they were nominated for the inaugural Gallagher Rugby Club of the Season, with the England international keen to give back to the grassroots game at what is a desperately difficult time.
Clubs are yet to receive the green light to return to action following the coronavirus pandemic, with the RFU a fortnight ago commencing ‘Phase C’ of their Return to Rugby Road Map that remains three stages away from matches being allowed to resume.
Financial hardships are also a certainty given that clubhouses have been shut for nearly six months, while sponsorship deals have dried up.
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“It’s quite worrying really isn’t it?” said Heinz. “Hopefully the stuff that’s above my pay grade with the RFU and the more local people that are involved at that governance level can put things in place to try and support those local clubs because ultimately that’s where all the professional players come from. We all start out at club level, so you need to have that support there from that young age.”
In order to spread some joy back into the game and highlight the work being carried out among the grassroot levels, six clubs have been nominated for the award, which has been created by the Premiership’s main title sponsors to honour those who demonstrate their inclusivity in providing access to and opportunities in rugby across age, gender, ethnicity and ability.
Along with Longlevens, Battersea Ironsides, Erdington RFC, Haringey Rhinos Ladies, Kingsbridge RFC and Trafford MV RFCC have all been singled out for their work in the community, giving them a shot at becoming the first Rugby Club of the Season.
Former England and Lions international Ugo Monye joined World Cup winner Danielle Waterman held virtual sessions with each of the six nominated clubs where they laid out exactly why their club should be named Rugby Club of the Season, where there was a surprise awaiting them.
Each session featured a special guest to mark the occasion, with Harlequins’ Nathan Earle, London Irish’s Ben Loader, Sale’s Jono Ross, Wasps’ Jack Willis and both Jack Maunder and Tom O’Flaherty of Exeter surprising their affiliated clubs along with Heinz, who admitted that Longlevens holds a special place in the hearts of those at Kingsholm.
“Longlevens are a pretty popular club in our part of the world, and at least three or four of the guys have done a bit of coaching down there in the last couple of seasons,” said Heinz. “They’re really active in the community and they’re obviously doing some really awesome things with making rugby available to a wide range of youngsters, particularly the mixed ability stuff that they’ve got going on too. They’ve got some great programmes in place and I guess at the end of the day local community and grassroots rugby is where it starts for everyone isn’t it? To have clubs like that that are so proactive is really really awesome.”
The news coincided with the announcement that next week’s Premiership clash between Harlequins and Bath will be used to welcome the first set of fans back to rugby as one of the government’s pilot events, and Heinz admits the empty stands have not been a welcome sight during the sport’s return.
“It has been one of the things that you do miss,” said the scrum-half. “Rugby is quite unique in the way that we are compared to other professional sports. As players we’re pretty accessible and you do enjoy rubbing shoulders with the fans, and we haven’t been able to do that for a number of months now, so to be able to do a little bit of stuff like this is cool.
“I know a lot of the other guys have tried to keep in touch with local clubs or schools throughout lockdown on Zoom or however it can be done. But the sooner we can get back playing in front of crowds, that’s what we’re all after.”
A public vote will help decide who will emerge victorious in the running, with Gallagher also helping to select the club that has done the most for its members and surrounding community over the last 12 months, along with Monye and Waterman.
“It has been inspiring meeting all of the clubs and shining a light on the impactful work they have been doing within their communities – Gallagher has chosen six fantastic finalists,” Monye said.
“Grassroots rugby has gone through a tough period over the last few months and the inaugural Gallagher Rugby Club of the Season Award will give a much-needed boost to all six clubs.”
Waterman added: “Grassroots rugby is so important for the development of the game and it has been wonderful to see the quality of the finalists. All six of the clubs have made huge strides to grow the sport in their communities and make rugby more accessible.
“It was amazing to see their reactions when each club was surprised by a professional player on Zoom, they are really looking forward to getting back on the pitch and getting to train with some of those top players in person.”
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