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Features | 15 Feb 2022

James Haskell: ‘Our mission to revive grassroots rugby and get kids fit again’

We caught up with the rugby star between dates on the Lions Legacy Tour of local rugby clubs to chat about how to boost enthusiasm for the game.

James Haskell’s rugby playing days may be behind him, but the superfit man mountain is still just as passionate about the game as ever. And his indefatigable personality has driven him into a plethora of other activities, from DJ-ing to book writing, stand-up comedy to podcasts.

Now, with fellow The Good, the Bad & The Rugby podcasters Mike Tindall and Alex Payne, James has been visiting local rugby clubs around the UK as part of the Vodafone-sponsored Lions Legacy Tour, which follows on from the company’s role as Lead Partner of The British & Irish Lions 2021 Tour of South Africa.

So far the team has visited Westbury RFC, Wiltshire, and Dungannon RFC, Northern Ireland, with Aberdare RFC, Wales, and Bannockburn RFC, Scotland next on the list.

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What exactly have they been doing on their visits?

“We’ve been coaching kids, helping behind the bar, serving chips, cooking sausages, giving talks on how best to use social media to promote the club – you name it, we’ve been doing it!” jokes James.

“Without these clubs none of us would be where we are today – every top level player started in a grassroots club and so many Lions players come through them,” he says.

The Good, The Bad & The Rugby team has so far raised more than £21,500 for the clubs, performing live podcasts and advising on technology and marketing, with Vodafone providing free technology to help with their social media and marketing efforts.

Without these clubs none of us would be where we are today

“It’s been really, really fun going back to these clubs, hosting auctions, performing live shows, coaching kids and raising money,” says James.

“There’s been a lot of laughing and we’ve been looked after like kings. But I’m probably the first referee ever to yellow card a six-year-old! I take a slightly tougher approach to discipline…”

Sport for all

Grassroots rugby clubs need to widen their appeal and become more business savvy if they’re to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic era, James believes.

But how?

“By making walking rugby more accessible and fun, for example; promoting it as a summer sport and making the most of the better weather,” he suggests.

“We could improve hospitality and raise awareness by making better use of social media; creating branded content – tackle of the month, person of the week, that sort of thing.

“They need to sell themselves better and challenge the way they’ve always done things.”

And clubs need to make the most of what they have – renting out their spaces for meetings and events, he argues.

Revival challenges

But for many lovers of the game, the issues go deeper than that. Schools continue to sell off playing fields so fewer are teaching or playing rugby. Kids are becoming less and less active and childhood obesity is a growing concern.

Meanwhile, parents are increasingly concerned about the long-term potential health hazards of what can be a very physical and punishing sport.

“It is a contact sport at the end of the day,” says James, “but kids can get hurt doing anything.

“Yes, we can get better at treating concussion and give players more time to recover from head and other injuries, but we can’t change the fundamentals of a tough, physical sport.”

And the many benefits far outweigh the dangers, James believes, launching enthusiastically into what almost sounds like a manifesto.

Playing in a team is much more motivating than exercising by yourself

“Grassroots rugby clubs teach kids about diversity – they include people from all different backgrounds; about how to work together as a team and be part of something bigger than yourself; about the importance of fairness, rules and self-discipline; about how to be part of a team, something bigger than yourself; and how to struggle and get through tough times, how to win and lose.”

And perhaps most importantly, James believes, they make exercise fun.

“Kids should be made to play more sport and get outside more for their own good, otherwise we’re just storing up health issues for the future,” he argues.

“Playing in a team is much more motivating than exercising by yourself. It’s a lot more fun and so you’re much more likely to keep doing it.”

Career highlights

Looking back over a successful career that saw him win 77 caps for England and several appearances for the British & Irish Lions, James singles out two experiences in particular that will live long in the memory.

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“The greatest touring experience of my life was in 2017 on the Lions tour to New Zealand. I got to work with some fantastic competitors who ended up becoming friends for life,” he says.

“And winning a grand slam with Eddie Jones on the tour to Australia in 2016 was absolutely amazing, He was such a brilliant coach to work with.”

James Haskell’s love and passion for the game of rugby – the characters and camaraderie – is plain for all to see. He’s hoping he can infect lots of youngsters with that same enthusiasm on the next legs of the Lions Legacy tour.

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