Back to Rugby – with Player Welfare at the Heart

Wharfedale RUFC will return to training from 30 March in line with Government and RFU relaxations of lockdown restrictions. The 2020/21 season may have been abandoned but the club is looking ahead to next season – the 99th year in the club’s history and 27th unbroken season in the National Leagues. We are all very conscious that the last 12 months have borne down heavily on young people with employment uncertainty, social isolation and academic interruptions all contributing to very challenging times for the club’s core playing membership – not to mention 12 months without contact rugby. As we return to rugby activity, player welfare will be at the forefront of our planning.

Firstly, we have withdrawn from the proposed Ventur Cup which Leeds RUFC have organised for May/June. This was a difficult and finely-balanced debate but in the end was a unanimous decision of the club committee. Whilst we congratulate Leeds on initiating the competition, the timing would have meant our players starting in March and training/playing through to May 2022 – fourteen months without a break. Having had no contact rugby for 12 months, we felt that a 5-week training block was insufficient to prepare for what would undoubtedly be a physical competition – a run of seven matches back to back against Leeds, Otley and Huddersfield, followed by pre-season, a full 30 match National 2 campaign and then, for our key players, the possibility of a county representative season. In total, potentially 40 matches or more in a 12-month window. When added to the continuing uncertainty over non-rugby issues around bar/catering and spectators, with no clarity that spectators would be permitted at least for the first two rounds of the competition, it became clear that we had no real option but to withdraw.

We are instead planning a couple of potentially more inclusive fixtures against Harrogate –provisionally 22 May at Harrogate and 5 June at Wharfedale. Details are still to be confirmed and will depend on player availability, but hopefully each fixture will involve 3 matches back to back at each ground – U17/18, 2nd/3rd XV and then a senior squad match. This will allow for a longer training lead-in and a less intense return to play, but will provide a competitive focus for training and give both clubs a real opportunity to re-engage with members before the summer break – subject as always to observing government Covid-19 restrictions. Once the 5 June fixture is out of the way, the players will have a month break before returning to pre-season in early July.

As part of our focus on player welfare, we have teamed up with Give A Ruck, a non-profit organisation which works with rugby clubs to address mental health issues and where former Green Mark Tampin is an ambassador. Matt Beesley will be heading this initiative amongst the senior players and we will be looking to roll it out to the junior age groups – particularly those in the 15-18 age bracket whose education has been so disrupted over the past 12 months and who may welcome some extra support. With particular focus on age grade rugby, we have also developed a matrix of mandatory training around first aid, concussion and safeguarding which all age group coaches will be required to undertake before next season – and are developing a clear concussion management process for the guidance of all involved in age group rugby.

Separate announcements will be made on these in due course, so in the meantime keep safe and well – and look forward to seeing you all back down at The Avenue!

Robert Fort, Chairman Wharfedale RUFC.

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