The Unity Project

When the final whistle blows on the eighth edition of Rugby World Cup in England on October 31 next year, many lasting memories of daring and inspiration will have been created in the preceding six weeks of action.

As well as the legacy created by elite players at the very pinnacle of the Game performing in the likes of Twickenham, St James’ Park and London’s Olympic Stadium, organisers will be keen to ensure that this legacy also runs down to the grass roots.

Plans have been put in place to attract more players to Rugby within England and the rest of Britain, with the likes of the All Schools programme which will give a million children the opportunity to play, with a target of introducing the sport to 750 secondary state schools by 2019.

However, the benefits of holding RWC in England are not just reserved for the host nation. RFU Head of International and Public Affairs Ben Calveley says: “The way we look at the tournament is that it is not just England’s tournament, it is Europe’s. We really want the legacy benefits to be not only felt here in England domestically but right across the continent.”

Generating their own legacy

As a result of this inclusive approach, the RFU has, in partnership with IRB, Rugby Europe (formerly FIRA-AER) and UK Sport, created the UNITY Project in order to “try to make sure that other nations within the region benefit from Rugby World Cup too, so they can generate their own legacy in their own countries”.

The UNITY Project involves 17 target nations, selected by IRB and Rugby Europe. These are countries that could be described as developing Rugby nations or areas outside of the traditional Rugby heartlands such as Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

With the UNITY Project rolled out in June 2013, the scheme is currently in its foundation stage where the participating Unions and RFU are getting acquainted.

Each target Union is twinned with two of the RFU’s constituent bodies or counties, a team made of volunteers from the counties along with some central RFU staff visit the country, and then representatives from the target Union visit their twinned counties in England. From both visits both sides can work collaboratively to create a bespoke development plan fitting the specific needs of that country.

RFU delegates visited Norway

An interesting quirk in the UNITY Project is that three Scandinavian Unions, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, are working together as one due their already close relationship.

Norwegian Rugby Federation technical director Jose Gorrotxategui is enthusiastic about the first visit of RFU delegates from Cumbria and Yorkshire.

“It shows the small Unions that you are not alone and they are going to help you every year and they are going to help you in the areas that you feel are important,” he says.

“It was very interesting to see examples of how the RFU organises development activities such as coaching courses, competitions, referee education, administration for the clubs, volunteer work and it was about sharing a lot of information between the English and us about how we do things.”

Sharing is the key principle

Sharing would seem to be a key principle of the UNITY Project. Calveley says: “We are looking for the countries we work in to benefit but also for the constituent bodies from England to benefit too. It is an international development programme but it is absolutely key that the benefit is both ways.”

So how will the smaller Unions benefit from this co-operation? It depends completely upon the Unions’ needs but despite this being the early stages of the UNITY Project, areas to develop have already been identified.

In the case of Scandinavia, Gorrotxategui and his counterparts from Sweden and Denmark are eager to create a common framework for age-grade competitions across the three countries.

“That is something we identified as very useful because there are many clubs that are very close to the border with Sweden and they will be able to participate with different competitions,” he says.

“It is only a three-hour drive from Oslo in Norway to Gothenburg where there are a lot of Rugby clubs but to drive to Bergen or Stavanger, it would take nine hours. When you think of the positive thing of going across the border to play against Swedish counterparts is massive.”

Congested sporting market

Recruitment and retention of players in the Netherlands would seem to be a particular issue as Kees Blaas of the Nederlandse Rugby Bond explains. When it comes to the Dutch sporting market place, it is rather crowded.

“We are a tiny country but the density of sports is huge. The competition between sports in the Netherlands is intense because, without being arrogant, we are not that bad at quite a few sports: hockey, skating, swimming, football. So, it is very difficult to compete with those sports.

“An interesting potential target group is girls and women. With the ladies Sevens programme, there is quite a lot of enthusiasm. We want to build the structure for girls’ Sevens as you do not need that many to form a team.”

As well as keeping an eye on the on-field preparations of the countries competing for the Webb Ellis Cup in England in 2015, it will also be fascinating to see how the Game grows from volunteer recruitment in Spain to harnessing Rugby’s values as an educational tool in Poland.

For more information about the Unity Project click here.

This feature forms part of our Around The Regions series exploring the game beyond its traditional heartlands. Do you have an interesting story to tell about Rugby around the world? Let us know by emailing aroundtheregions@irb.com.
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By Kate Rowan

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