Stanley Davidson writes:
I am reading a rugby book at this moment in time, which I can thoroughly recommend, written by Jonathan Bradley called The Last Amateurs.
It tells the incredible story of how Ulster, a team of builders, students, lorry drivers and a few professional players, overcame the odds to become the first Irish Champions of Europe.
I’m sure a lot us can remember that incredible feat back in1999, but what I hadn’t totally realised was just how amateurish the Ulster set up, prior to ’99 was, in comparison to the big French and English clubs.
And on reflection this development from amateurism to the top team in Europe echos the origins and evolution from the humble birth of Mini Rugby at CIYMS to the impressive slick set up it is today, with some 50 coaches and approximately 200 children. I am more blown away by the 50 coaches stat, as I can assure you it wasn’t always like that.
The origins of mini rugby at CI, like all good things in rugby clubs started over a few pints at the bar, well perhaps, if I’m honest, more than a few.
It was 1992/3 season and I was complaining to the late great Jimmy Stewart who was then looking after the youth rugby at CI.
‘Why do I have to take my son Chris to Cooke for mini rugby?”
“Surely a club like CI should have a mini section?”
“Mini rugby is catching on and CI are going to be left behind”.
I must have been berating the poor man for about 30 minutes when he shut me up by saying, “Well Mr D, if you feel so strongly and passionately, why don’t you do something about it yourself?”
Thinking back, I somewhat petulantly replied, “Right I will”.
Now I’ve got to say, Jimmy who had probably only wanted me to shut up and to leave him alone, looked horrified. “The club doesn’t have any money for mini rugby” he said. “I won’t be asking them for any”. I replied.
“They won’t be able supply any kit”. “That’s ok,” I said.
“I’m not sure the club will want a mini rugby section.” “ I’ll check,” and so it went on for a good ten minutes and then it dawned on me that Jimmy’s negativity was based on fear. He was frightened I wanted him to help out on Saturday mornings and that I would somehow compete with him for any funding he requested for the youth teams he ran.
Once I reassured him that neither would be the case he relaxed and over a few more pints, gave me some advice and suggestions about how I might set up mini rugby at the club.
I can still remember his closing sage like comments “Of course it will have no benefits for the club whatsoever. We will never get any players out of it for the senior teams as you will lose them (the boys) once they go into secondary education.” I like to think that Jimmy who was a great club man, is looking down from that club house in the sky smiling and thinking, “Oh how wrong was I”.
I got permission from the club to start mini rugby but no great enthusiasm. You have to remember that this was 1993 and mini rugby was in its relative infancy within the Provence and not every club had yet to embrace it. The main concern was of course over funding, but once I explained that I saw the project as self- funding and stated that I would cover any outstanding cost if the whole thing failed, they supplied me with half a dozen balls, a set of cones and pretty much left me to get on with it, for which I was very grateful.
Grateful but clueless. This wasn’t a thought out process, more of a knee jerk reaction, but heh, how difficult could it be, I innocently thought.
After some advice from some of the Cooke coaches I contacted the branch and received whatever literature they had on mini rugby coaching.
So now all I needed were a few coaches and some boys (girls had never even entered my head at this stage). I posted a request for volunteers to coach CIYMS new mini rugby section, not on the clubs website as we didn’t have one in ’93, not on Facebook because this was some 11 years before it existed, but on the clubs old cork noticeboard, on the walls of the changing room and everywhere that would take sellotape.
The response was overwhelming, sorry that was a typo, it was definitely underwhelming. Just one person responded. And that person was the now scourge of the veterans tennis circuit, the Peter Pan of CIYMS Rugby and Tennis Club, Paddy Brockerton.
I knew Paddy from our playing days and over the next 4 years got to know him a lot better. I will always be enterally grateful to him for stepping forward and helping to get the show on the road.
He already had coaching experience and announced that he would take the oldest boys, the P7’s and joked that, he would leave the headless chickens to me. It took me a while to finally get that joke, but it did eventually click. That left the P4’s, 5’s and 6’s. Well I would take one of the years, so I needed to find another 2 “volunteers”. And with a great deal of persuasion from both me and my wife Joan, they turned out to be, my brother-in-law Michael Hall and his mate Graeme Byers, both members of the club.The next job was to find players to coach.
Joan canvassed the local primary schools to see if they would let us distribute leaflets advertising the start of mini rugby at CI. The response was mainly positive, although some of the schools insisted that they would only allow this to happen if the leaflets were distributed to both boys and girls. This had the potential to give me all sorts additional problems, which as I stated earlier, I never even thought about, let alone plan for, changing room facilities etc, but we fired ahead anyhow and printed 5,000 leaflets. To this day that figure amazes me, but I can assure you that’s the amount my good wife distributed.
I also displayed advertising posters in local shops which were more than happy to help.
I can tell you, I had many a sleepless night leading up to the first Saturday worrying if anyone would turn up, or if too many would show, or how was I going to cope with changing room supervision if a lot of girls came.
As it was we had just under 40 boys turned up that day and one girl. I explained to her mother that it would be difficult for me supply chaperoned changing facilities for her daughter, but that I would be happy enough for her to join in. The mother understood totally and said that the girl would arrive kitted and booted and ready to give the boys a run for their money. And she did!
So armed with a whistle, an armful of cones and a bag of balls, each “coach” headed off to different section of the grounds. I took the P4’s, the youngest that the branch allowed to play at that stage and very soon I got Paddy’s joke about the headless chickens. But I must say I enjoyed the session and so it seemed did the boys, because the next week we had just under 60 boys. New “volunteers” would be required.
Joan had persuaded a client of ours, Henderson’s, to donate crisps and juice for the kids, which she distributed after each session. The mad scrum which formed around her each Saturday, made it difficult to keep track of who hadn’t received their crisps and juice and who were chancing their arms for seconds. She became very good at spotting the chancers. “Missus its not for me, its for my brother” was the most common excuse of the guilty and Joan came to the conclusion that most of these kids must have come from very large families.
The the following Saturday each boy left with a letter for their parents asking for anyone who was interested in helping out, to come along next Saturday, “no rugby coaching experience required”. Judging by the number of disregarded letters, along with the usual empty crisp packets I had to pick up from the changing room and car park, I wasn’t holding out much hope.
At least 4 letters made it home, I know this because the next week we had 4 Dads willing to help. Bill, David, Alistair and Jim and this made Saturday mornings a lot easier. Of course there were days when some of the coaches couldn’t make it and so I put together a very small list of emergency phone numbers I could ring. The one I rang the most, was one belonging to a certain Mr Morris Dowell and it was always answered in the same way, “no Stan, don’t do this to me”, but he never let me down. He might have turned up a wee bit late, he might have looked the worse for wear, he may have had unorthodox coaching techniques, but like I said he never let me down and the buys loved him. He quickly became known as SUUU…MOOO.
Next on the agenda was to get the boys some CIYMS kit and to keep the cost down, I asked the late Philip Johnston for some sponsorship. I asked for £500 and we settled for £350. To be honest, I would have settled for £200 as I wasn’t sure there would be any benefit to Philip’s estate agency. As it was, some 8 weeks after I started to act like Del Boy selling kit out of the back of my car, Philip approached me and told me he wanted to continue the shirt sponsorship into the following year and that he was willing to pay the £500. Apparently, when meeting new clients his staff always asked why did you choose us and a surprising number of replies were, “ because Philip Johnston sponsor my sons rugby team”. He told me later it was the best money he ever spent on advertising.
By the time I handed over Mini rugby mantle to Brian Taylor some 4 years later, we had just over 100 players and at no time can I remember having anymore than 7-8 coaches available on any given Saturday.
One Saturday stands out when only 2 coaches turned up, myself and Paddy, the rest being laid up by some overnight bug. Most of the boys had already been dropped off at the club before I realised how short of coaches we were. So we just had to divide the boys up between us and get on with it. We had about 80 players between us. That was a morning that I will always remember as you can imagine.
Brian was able to bring a lot more Dads into the coaching circle and this was obviously the model on which the success of the mini’s today was built.
I have many stand out memories from those 4 years, like during our first match against another club at CI, having to calm down a Mother who was suggesting in rather colourful language that her son should perhaps remove the head of his opponent!!!!!! To this day I’m sure she still gets embarrassed thinking about it as I don’t believe in her excitement and support of her son, that she realised what she had come out with.
Another example would be at Ravenhill, on a coaches coaching course with Michael Too Tall Hall, our instructor emphasised the importance of matching boys up in competitive session, not only in age but in size and then proceeded to match little old 5’ 10” (and shrinking) me, up with my 6’ 7”, 18 stone, 12 years younger, brother in law in what was basically a wrestling match. I would have needed to attend Katie, the club physio, for a week after that, but unfortunately she would have been about 10 at the time.
Perhaps my favourite memory, is non rugby related. It was the morning of the 11+ results. I tried in vain to ban all talk of the exams, but it wasn’t long before “I got an A, what did you get?”, ‘I got an A”, “I got a B”, “I got a A” was ringing around the ground. Then this voice stated, with a little nervous laugh, “I got a D”, now I’m sure the lad wasn’t the only one to have failed, but he was the only one to announce it.
To be fair to the rest of the boys, much to my relief, gave him no banter, nor called him names and a few tried to reassure him. I was proud of them. At the end of that morning session when the rest of the boys were collecting crisps and juice for their numerous siblings. I spotted the boy standing quietly by himself, shoulders shaking and tears rolling down his face. I took him to the side and tried to console him, but to no avail.
In desperation comes inspiration, or so they say. Without another word I grabbed him by the collar and half walked, half dragged him to the car park. He stopped crying and looked at me as if I had gone mad and to be honest I was beginning to have doubts myself. In the car park I asked him. “What’s the biggest car in the carpark?”, “That Mercedes,”’ he replied. “And who owns it?” “You. ‘ “We’ll I didn’t get my 11+ either!”.
He looked at me for a moment and as this declaration sunk in, a huge smile spread across his face. Later as I was loading all the kit into my car I heard another boy ask him how he did in the examine, “I got a D,” was the almost proud reply, but “I’m getting a Mercedes” and I really hope he did.
This coming season, some 27 years later, sees my son Chris take up the mantle of coach of the minis, along side an unbelievable 49 others, and my grandson Joshua becoming the 3rd generation of Davidsons to play their rugby at CI, not bad coming from an otherwise football crazy family.
And as for Jimmys declaration of the seniors not benefiting from mini rugby, I hope you are smiling Jimmy…..of the thirty something boys that turned up on that first morning, 3 went on to played for CIYMS 1st XV, Chris for 10 years, Hayden Swift for 3 and Thomas Horner 2 and there have been many more since. Long may it continue.