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Al Hargreaves


WOLFPACK LAGER

 

interview by Naomi Prakash

ALISTAIR HARGREAVES

 

photography by Oscar J Ryan

Al Hargreaves Rexclub

“Wolfpack means bringing people together and gaining that sense of camaraderie that you get from doing something that’s greater than yourself. More than anything, lockdown has taught us that life is better when it’s spent together.The strength of the wolf is in its pack, and we believe that wholeheartedly.”

Al Hargreaves Rexclub

Alistair Hargreaves is a former professional rugby player from South Africa. He retired from the game in 2016 after playing with Saracens, and started planning his next move. He launched Wolfpack Lager in 2014 alongside fellow Saracens teammate Chris Wyles, with the goal of bringing the rugby spirit to the world of beer. We sat down with Alistair to talk about rugby, his international experiences, and his entrepreneurial journey.

Can you tell us about growing up in South Africa? Was sport always a central theme for you even as a child?

Yeah absolutely. In South Africa you’re born with a cricket ball, a rugby ball and a football in your hands! It’s certainly an outdoor life and a lot of your social interactions from a very young age revolve around not only playing sports, but also watching sport with friends and family. It’s a sports-mad country and it’s a real privilege to grow up there.

When did rugby start to emerge as the front runner of the few?

When I was younger we just played everything, whatever you could get your hands on really! Primarily I played rugby and cricket, and as I got a bit older I found that I had more opportunities in rugby, and decided that it was the one sport that I could probably turn into a professional career.

When did rugby start to seem like a viable career path for you?

It was probably around the age of 16. I started to understand where I’d like to study, what kind of union club in South Africa I could sign up for, and I guess the pressures of playing junior rugby in South African teams started to dominate a lot of my time. You start to think, “well hang on, if I’m going to put all this effort in, I better make it count”.

Was it always your goal to become a full Springbok International?

That’s an interesting question – probably not actually, I reckon I grew up wanting to be South African cricketer more than anything! But it’s all about opportunity and of course, getting some luck along the way.

The further your career develops, the more these things start becoming a reality and the Springbok idea started coming into my mind a bit later on. I certainly didn’t sign my first professional contract going, “wow, I could end up playing for the Springboks”.

You first played for your hometown team The Sharks around 2005, and then had your first Super Rugby debut in 2009.

For the uninitiated reader, what was the big difference between these two types of competition?

I played South African schools and under-19s in a few World Cups, and the jump from that under-19s level, even just provincial rugby at a senior level, was massive. I was a tall skinny guy back in those days and I was told that I’d need to find 10kg from somewhere before I was allowed to play for the senior team with The Sharks. They basically locked me in the gym for a year to train and to bulk up. The physical step-up was huge from that schoolboy level into the professional game. My career really started in 2005, and over the next ten years the general physical nick of the players just got extreme, and it’s just kept growing year on year.

When did you first hear that you’d been selected to tour with the Springboks?

I was actually at a friend’s wedding. You always hear a few rumours and I’d had one of the assistant coaches give me a tap on the shoulder saying I had a good chance. But I was at this wedding, speeches were starting, and I thought I’d just creep out just in case it happened. I ended up sitting in a hotel pub myself watching the team get announced on tv! It’s really quite surreal, and obviously being at a wedding I couldn’t run back in and say “hey everyone, forget

the wedding – I’ve just been chosen!”. I tend to be very quiet and very humble, and it was only later in the evening when someone else figured it out and asked if I’d heard the announcement. It’s one of those incredibly rewarding moments, and that feeling of accomplishment quickly changes to the awareness that it’s a huge responsibility. I remember hoping that I’d make the most of it and prepare properly and just thinking, “wow, what happens next?”.

You made your debut against Wales in a very tightly fought win. What are your biggest memories from that day?

The best part of it for me was actually driving in the team bus to the stadium. You drive through Cardiff and you see these crowds filtering out onto the street, just thousands and thousands of people. Obviously driving in the big green Springbok bus, you’re just a target for everyone and everything! It’s amazing just to look at it through that lens, and to see how much passion there is for the game out there. It was something truly spectacular and I’ll never forget it.

After 2012 you made a pretty radical decision to move to England to join the Premiership powerhouse Saracens. What was the main driving factor behind this decision for you?

There were a couple of things really. My international career didn’t pan out with many caps international rugby, I only played four times for the Springboks in test matches. It got to the point where, with my club The Sharks in Durban, I’d lost a bit of passion for the team, the game, and the environment. I was thinking of hanging up the boots. I was about 26 and I had just fallen out of love with rugby if I’m honest with myself.

“It’s good to have a certain amount of fear”

It’s quite interesting to reflect now on the space that I was in. I never really had any ambition to move overseas to play rugby. I always thought that rugby was a great part of my life and that I was very privileged to do it, but I was also looking forward to the next challenge. When the Saracens opportunity came about, I already had a lot of South African friends playing with the club. They all said there were some fantastic players, and to give it a try. I said to my girlfriend at the time, who’s now my wife, “what do we have to lose?”. We thought we could spend some time in London, see what it’s all about and have some fun. It was the best decision I ever made. I absolutely loved my time at Saracens and in the UK, and I’m now settled in London with a young family. I’m very pleased I took that leap of faith.

What were your first impressions of England?

I came straight into pre-season so you don’t really have much time to explore anything outside of your team environment and the people that you’re actually playing rugby with, so I just got immersed in the culture that existed at Saracens at the time. I was very lucky that it was a like-minded bunch of people – there’s a kind of policy that Saracens only sign players who had some reference from within the team, so there’s a lot of guys who knew each other and played each other at previous clubs, so I got along well with everyone. I absolutely loved it. I must say it was a tough pre-season, and I had a bit of an eye-opening experience. I got called in

very early to the coaches office just to say, “listen if you think just because you played a few games for the Springboks that you’re going to be a legend at Saracens, think again”. You need to work very hard and earn the right to have a great social life and enjoy the Saracens culture, which I think I did and made the most of. It wasn’t a culture shock because the club did a really good job of helping me fit in, and like I said I really loved the vibe and the atmosphere that they had created.

Saracens have a strong reputation of being a very close-knit family club. Did you feel that straight from beginning?

Yeah definitely. When I left my old club, I felt a little bit disillusioned with the whole thing. I felt that a lot of people say it’s a family atmosphere and that they all love each other and care, but you know at the end of the day, you were there to do a job. And it started feeling like a job to me. Saracens felt like quite a lot more than that, and I thought that people actually did care and they actually did look out for you like your family. They wanted you to have great memories away from the game as well, and for me having that freedom, to not be treated like a machine, really made me feel accountable. There’s a huge lesson in leadership for me there, and I think a lot of those values that I learnt about how to inspire people and motivate people have stuck with me to this day, and apply to my business now.

Al Hargreaves Rexclub

You became Captain in 2014 and led the
team to Premiership glory by 2015. Was this your peak in terms of highlights from your time in the Red and Black?

Yeah, like I said when I came over, I had no expectations of even playing for the club, so to lift the Premiership trophy at Twickenham was spectacular. It’s the highlight of my career – I absolutely loved every second of it. We went on to win European Cups and more Premierships, but that first one was something that was truly special because it was so out of the blue in a way. I would never have thought that I would be on that stage, in this country, having a moment like that. To share it with a bunch of people that I absolutely loved was such a massive accomplishment.

You became Captain in 2014 and led the
team to Premiership glory by 2015. Was this your peak in terms of highlights from your time in the Red and Black?

Yeah, like I said when I came over, I had no expectations of even playing for the club, so to lift the Premiership trophy at Twickenham was spectacular. It’s the highlight of my career – I absolutely loved every second of it. We went on to win European Cups and more Premierships, but that first one was something that was truly special because it was so out of the blue in a way. I would never have thought that I would be on that stage, in this country, having a moment like that. To share it with a bunch of people that I absolutely loved was such a massive accomplishment.

Al Hargreaves Rexclub

“We just want to create brilliant experiences for social people, and we want to have the most fun we possibly can doing it!”

Concussions in rugby are obviously a very topical subject now. Did they feel serious to you at the time?

They did, and that’s why I’m glad we took them so seriously. It’s good to have a certain amount of fear, because you’re armed with the knowledge that if you don’t treat it with respect then you could get yourself into trouble. That was really the final nail in the coffin for me, when before games I was actually worried about my physical health, and after games I would be relieved if I made it through. I think the most important thing is having awareness and education around what concussion looks like and how to treat it. Prevention is an area we can work on, but I think it’s always going to be impossible to completely eradicate concussion from the game. If we can recognise it and learn how to help people recover from it, then that’s what we should be aiming to do.

Do you think there’s anything we can do to reduce the repercussions of head injuries in rugby?

I don’t think it’s good enough to ever just accept that it’s going to be an essential part of playing the game. There will always be instances, hopefully rarely, of concussions if rugby continues to be played the way it is now. I think there’s a stigma and an old school mentality that you have to be hard and brush it all off and get back up. That has to fall away. We know how severe these

things are, and we see people getting hit time and time again with signs of concussions. But they carry on! So we need to be cautious with those borderline cases. The alternative is banning tackling, which is an absolute disaster. Collisions in rugby are really the pinnacle of the sport.

While you were still playing in 2014, you decided to set up your beer business, Wolfpack, with Chris Wyles. How did this idea first come about between the two of you?

Over a couple of beers, unsurprisingly! The club was really good at exposing us to other industries outside of sport, and Chris was thinking about doing an MBA at the time. We started discussing what we’re going to do after rugby, and through the club we met a few well-respected industry veterans and CEOs. They always told us that the skills we learnt in rugby were pretty useless unless we could demonstrate that we could apply them to real life. That inspired us to consider starting something ourselves, and to tap into the support system of the club. Being rugby players, we’re never too far from a pint or two and at the time, craft beer was growing massively. It started as a hobby and we bought a double-decker bus, and started selling beer from there. We used to turn up at the stadium and sell beer just on the outskirts of where the commercial contracts applied! Seven years later, we’re still going strong

What’s the vision behind Wolfpack?

It’s an extension of our personalities and our experiences in sport. At the very heart, Chris and I are social animals, as are the people we played rugby with. Part of the ethos of any sporting team is that you put in the hard work and then you reap the rewards off the back of it. We really try to create that camaraderie that you get in a team environment around the Wolfpack brand. We just want to create brilliant experiences for social people, and we want to have the most fun we possibly can doing it! Brewing beer and running bars for a living is as fun as it sounds, so we’re just enjoying the journey and keen to keep pushing ourselves as much as we can.

Before the idea behind Wolfpack came about, had you ever thought about starting your own business?

I was always focused on having something for after rugby. You know, when you asked me earlier if I grew up wanting to be a Springbok, I think the reason I didn’t was just because it doesn’t seem like a sustainable job for the long haul. I didn’t necessarily think it would be a brewery or that I’d be in London, those things came about through circumstance and through meeting Chris who really inspired me and gave me the belief that we could really do it.

“Sharing highs and lows in sport prepares you well for being an entrepreneur and running a business.”

How is working with a friend and a teammate? Do you ever wish you were just business partners?

It’s been brilliant. When you play in such a close environment with someone, you go through a lot of experiences together and show a lot of vulnerability. Sharing highs and lows in sport prepares you well for being an entrepreneur and running a business. It comes with a lot of sacrifice and it’s not always an easy ride, but we trust each other implicitly and that’s been the cornerstone of our business relationship.

How did you land on the name Wolfpack, and what does that mean for you both?

It started at Saracens. We always used to talk about having a wolfpack mentality, and we thought it was a great name for a brand that was built from the idea of building bonds within communities. Wolfpack means bringing people together and gaining that sense of camaraderie that you get from doing something that’s greater than yourself. More than anything, lockdown has taught us that life is better when it’s spent together. The strength of the wolf is in its pack, and we believe that wholeheartedly.

Speaking of lockdowns, how did the pandemic affect your business and you personally?

It’s difficult because you lose momentum. We like to be busy, and you want your brand to be constantly growing. Being forced to stay at home for a year was pretty devastating, but I’m actually

really proud of what we’ve been able to achieve as a business in the last year. We started an online store and have been very active on social media. We actually kitted out an old Land Rover with beer taps and drove around giving away free beer for weeks at a time, just to let people know that we’re still here and we’re not going anywhere.

How has the last year changed your business goals?

We’ve always been quite open to change, I think that’s a reason why we’re still going after seven years despite the ups and downs. We always want to make sure that we’re able to adapt to different circumstances, and that’s the beauty of being a small and young business in a very big category of hospitality. Our strength is that our team is four people. It’s a strength that we don’t have a huge marketing budget so we’ve got to think out the box and do things differently. I think after this lockdown, we’ll come out of this stronger. We just have to be open to change.

Our final question… if and when the Lions tour goes ahead, who do you see coming out on top?

Well a lot of it is down to where it’s being played. If it’s in South Africa, you have to back the Springboks. The international season in the southern hemisphere has been basically non-existent, so those guys will be out of practice. Put it this way, if it’s not in South Africa, I think the Lions will come out on top.

Al Hargreaves Rexclub

Nick De Luca


THE PROFESSIONAL MINDSET

 

interview by Naomi Prakash

NICK DE LUCA

 

photography by Oscar J Ryan

Nick De Luca Rexclub

“I had three goals in life: to be a fighter pilot, an 100m Olympic champion, and to play rugby for my country. Very ambitious! I soon realised I wasn’t fast enough for the Olympic dream, I realised the army life wasn’t for me so I really zoned in on the rugby path.“

Nick De Luca Rexclub

Nick De Luca knows the game of rugby inside-out. He played at centre for Edinburgh, Border Reivers, Biarritz, Wasps and Scotland over a career that spanned 12 years and included 43 international caps. Post retirement, Nick has taken up the role of Director of Rugby at Uppingham School and is also a fully qualified MHFA (Mental Health Fitness Advisor) instructor. We discuss his time playing the game, and his insights into the emotional aspects of rugby and coaching.

When did you first realise that you had a passion for rugby?

I’m not known for my memory, but I do remember playing rugby from the tender age of four. I had three goals in life: to be a fighter pilot, an 100m Olympic champion, and to play rugby for my country. Very ambitious! I soon realised I wasn’t fast enough for the Olympic dream I realised the army life wasn’t for me, so I really zoned in on the rugby path. It wasn’t long until I was being called ‘Rugby Nick’ and it’s really just been an incredible journey from there, with some massive highs but also devastating lows.

What path did you take into the professional ranks?

I was very fortunate, I think. Millions of kids want to be a professional player nowadays. Of course, hard work and deliberate practice is crucial, but luck and timing is a massive part of it. I was at Lockerbie Academy and we didn’t even have a rugby programme, we had a rugby team but we were terrible! In fact I often had to go round and convince my football friends to come play so the game would even happen. I got spotted by a few coaches and I was brought into the Under 16s before I went to play with Edinburgh. Eventually, I got a full contract for Scotland, I think I played every range you could before that point!

You graduated from Edinburgh University before becoming a professional rugby player. Was further education always important to you?

In a way – I studied sports science at university but to be honest, I didn’t take it overly seriously. At the time, it was very much to appease my lovely mother who said, “well if you’re going to play rugby, you should really study at university too”. And she was right – I’m so glad she said that and encouraged me to keep my options open.

In my last couple of years at university, I was in the Scotland sevens squad and I was starting to break through, so studies fell on the back burner. I’ve always been grateful that I got my undergraduate degree, I gained a lot of great knowledge and connections. I also think I needed those few years for personal development before going fully into rugby

You spent the majority of your playing career in Edinburgh. What were some of the highlights from your time there?

I spent about nine or ten years in Edinburgh, so as you can imagine there was a huge range of highs and lows. People assume that the highs will be the games, but often it’s the people and the shared experiences. Saying that, getting to the semi finals of the Heineken Cup was probably one of my highlights when thinking about the game itself – although maybe I should be saying the quarter final was the highlight, since we actually won that! It’s just amazing to find yourself in those upper echelons of European rugby and winning some big games on the way. The year Andy Robinson was in charge was a good season for me personally. I got into the Celtic League and that was the first year that I felt like I belonged. It felt really nice to get recognition from the wider community.

We were lucky that the weather was nice for that first lockdown, so spirits remained pretty high and people got some well-earned rest in too. I think even outside of sport, a lot of the public went on a bit of a health-kick, and we definitely saw that happen within the club.

In 2014 you made the decision to move to Biarritz to play for two seasons. Did you always want to play abroad?

To be honest, for the first few years of my career I didn’t look very far ahead. I’d thought about moving before but the timing didn’t line up well with my family’s

In my last couple of years at university, I was in the Scotland sevens squad and I was starting to break through, so studies fell on the back burner. I’ve always been grateful that I got my undergraduate degree, I gained a lot of great knowledge and connections. I also think I needed those few years for personal development before going fully into rugby

You spent the majority of your playing career in Edinburgh. What were some of the highlights from your time there?

I spent about nine or ten years in Edinburgh, so as you can imagine there was a huge range of highs and lows. People assume that the highs will be the games, but often it’s the people and the shared experiences. Saying that, getting to the semi finals of the Heineken Cup was probably one of my highlights when thinking about the game itself – although maybe I should be saying the quarter final was the highlight, since we actually won that! It’s just amazing to find yourself in those upper echelons of European rugby and winning some big games on the way. The year Andy Robinson was in charge was a good season for me personally. I got into the Celtic League and that was the first year that I felt like I belonged. It felt really nice to get recognition from the wider community.

We were lucky that the weather was nice for that first lockdown, so spirits remained pretty high and people got some well-earned rest in too. I think even outside of sport, a lot of the public went on a bit of a health-kick, and we definitely saw that happen within the club.

In 2014 you made the decision to move to Biarritz to play for two seasons. Did you always want to play abroad?

To be honest, for the first few years of my career I didn’t look very far ahead. I’d thought about moving before but the timing didn’t line up well with my family’s

When did you first realise that you had a passion for rugby?

It was closer to the forefront actually! I had already retired and played my last game of rugby in France, or so I thought. In France, they effectively give you two years pay (up to a certain amount) to let you train or to sort yourself out. It’s a really wonderful thing for allowing a smoother transition and giving you time to develop other skills. I had planned on just taking that, and I had just finished my MBA, which I was going to use as a launchpad to start a different life in the city. But then there was a phone call that meantI could choose to roll the dice one more time. I thought, alright, let’s have another crack at it. In hindsight, for that first year I’d have been better off financially if I’d stayed where I was, but often things happen for a reason. I really wanted to try for the Premiership, which I hadn’t done before, especially after my playing career in France didn’t go exactly as I would have hoped.

You took on the job of Head of Rugby at Uppingham School in 2017. What made you want to go down the teaching/coaching avenue?

When playing rugby full-time, I thought I’d go down a relatively well-trodden path into the city in some kind of financial role. However, when I started reflecting on my time coming up through the ranks, I realised that I didn’t always feel like I was well looked after. As a senior player, I thought I might be able to help remedy that a bit to get the best out of the young guys playing. I always enjoyed that side of things, and when I started thinking about earning a living outside of rugby to support my young family, teaching seemed to align with my passions and skills very naturally. It sounds very grand, but I do believe

You graduated from Edinburgh University before becoming a professional rugby player. Was further education always important to you?

In a way – I studied sports science at university but to be honest, I didn’t take it overly seriously. At the time, it was very much to appease my lovely mother who said, “well if you’re going to play rugby, you should really study at university too”. And she was right – I’m so glad she said that and encouraged me to keep my options open.

that teachers impact their students’ lives, and so it’s one of the most important jobs in the world. Every year I see hundreds of kids that I can potentially help shape through teaching and coaching. Besides the obvious skill development, I’m really focused on good morals and kind-heartedness. I’d love to see one of our pupils become a stand-up Prime Minister one day, with good values and a lot of empathy.

How has school been different this year?

There’s been a lot of time spent online, which is rough for everyone’s mental health really. Uppingham has been brilliant with implementing the right protocols, like private testers on a regular basis. Obviously, we have to abide by the governing body guidelines. They basically limit the type of interactions we can have, and it means concentrating a lot on equipment hygiene. Once you get used to it, it really just becomes routine and like normal set up. We didn’t have any cases last term, which was incredible, because we basically exist as a giant bubble. I’ve personally been spending a lot of time in my front room with my young kids around. Our garden, trampoline and swings have been a real lifesaver!

How has your job changed this year?

Obviously my work isn’t a natural fit for online teaching, so I’m being as creative and purposeful as possible. I’ve been doing a lot of physical and mental challenges with the kids, to really test their limits in different ways. Physically, they’ve been trying everything from yoga to cricket skills, and we’ve been bringing in a few guest speakers to keep them motivated and inspired.

Nick De Luca Rexclub

We actually had Rex Club’s own Hamish Watson as a speaker a few weeks ago!

After retirement, you became a youth
Mental Health Fitness Advisor. What inspired you to do this? And does having these skills help day-to-day with the pastoral care involved with the teaching?

When I came back to play with the Wasps, I took on a sort of big brother or fatherly role with some of the younger players. I got a real buzz from helping them and seeing their improvement, and I thought that coaching could be something for me. I’ve always been really interested in psychology, and that inspired me to go after the Mental Health Fitness Advisor training. When I started teaching, I was very serious about the impact I could potentially have on the young lives I was getting involved with. I would hate to miss something and not be able to help, because some things aren’t reversible. Mental health awareness can be quite reactive, looking for signs and symptoms. That’s not a bad thing, but I also want to be more proactive in my role. The majority of diagnosable mental health illnesses are already established by the end of the teenage years, so in a school environment we’re really well placed to make a difference. Every interaction you have with someone impacts them negatively or positively – it’s very rarely neutral.

Nick De Luca Rexclub

The training has helped me to feel much more confident when asking some big questions and talking about serious topics. Now every time I interact with a kid I’m consciously trying to pay into their emotional bank account, instead of taking away from it.

What have you taken from your own experience to use in your teaching?

I always took feedback quite personally when I was younger, I sometimes even got quite competitive with my coaches over it. Instead of seeing it like a gift, it was almost like a personal attack to me. I’ve unpacked that in terms of how it related to my identity, and as a coach I wanted to make sure that I was able to give feedback well. You have to build that trust in those relationships. Once you have that trust and after you’ve paid loads into their emotional bank account, then if every so often you say something that hurts their pride then it doesn’t destroy the relationship. Instead the players can see it for what it is: impartial feedback. It’s nothing to do with them as a person, it’s simply to make you a better player and a happier, healthier person. I love the Maya Angelou quote, that “people forget what you’ve done and what you’ve achieved, but they never forget the way you make them feel”. Having little things like that at the forefront of my mind keep me going in the right direction.

Nick De Luca Rexclub

In 2018 you were in the papers discussing your thoughts and experiences concerning mental well-being and its role within rugby.
Can you tell us more about this, and how we can help young players?

There’s definitely some massive issues that players face when transitioning from our professional world. When you play in a rugby team, you have this incredible community around you and you’re all fighting for the same thing. You build these really intense relationships, then suddenly they’re gone. On top of that, you can go from working 4 hours a day as a player to 100 hours a week, and from concentrating only on your own development to working in a completely different environment. Financially, you can struggle if you didn’t set yourself up properly. Rugby is getting better in terms of professional payment, but my generation and earlier definitely still need to work to pay our mortgages.

The big thing, for me at least, was the change in identity. I was always ‘Rugby Nick’, and you can get in trouble when you tie your identity too strongly to one thing. If I played badly one day, I’d lose confidence in every aspect of myself, because I placed all of my value in my ability to play rugby. When I had my kids, I was suddenly more than rugby. I was something bigger and more important, and I found that when I was doing other things or concentrating

on other realms of my life, my rugby was much better. Players need to have other skills that they can build during their rugby career, because it can be taken away at any moment. Sport is not your identity; it’s a canvas to express your identity. To be able to do that properly, you need to know who you are and what you’re about. It’s going to be really interesting over the next few years, because a lot of people have had sporting careers dashed because of coronavirus, Olympic athletes being the prime example.

In terms of our young and emerging players, and preparing them, I think it has to come from the top. If it’s simply encouraging them to pursue a dual career path then they won’t do that themselves, because it’s time wasted away from the gym. Going forward, we should aim to ensure that young players divide their time between rugby and skills training. If their sports career looks promising, that’s brilliant, but if not they have solid career options available. We really need to get that balance right. Plus, it’s important to remember that a lot of the skills taught in rugby can be applied to university and work too. There’s so much emotional, social and psychological training that enables us to create not just brilliant players but also well-adjusted adults in general.

What’s next for you? Do you want to stay in coaching and teaching?

I get such a buzz from being in a position to impact kids’ lives. That could sound very arrogant, but you can see the results in the kids that come out of our rugby programme now compared to when I first arrived. I’ve been able to flip the aspects that I hated from my own career, and give the kids the experience I wish I’d had. Feedback from the parents has been amazing – it really lifts you when you hear you’re making a difference. I think I would struggle to leave that completely behind. I’m an ambitious man, so it would be great to explore other areas of the world and other types of jobs, including things in the city. Maybe further down the line!

How do you rate the Scotland team at present? Do you reckon we’ll see some silverware on display at Murrayfield anytime soon?

The current team is good – they now expect to win their home games which is really cool. We would always say those things but actually I reckon 99% of my team would have had a losing Scottish record. I expect them to be competitive this Six Nations but I don’t see them winning silverware. My heart says yes but my head says no. I think on our best day, Scotland could beat anyone, but to win Six Nations you need to have ‘your day’ at least six times in a row. Plus, you need other teams not to be on their best, ideally! I’ll never lose hope, though.

Tony Walker

Tony Walker Rexclub
Tony Walker Rexclub

In conversation with Exeter Chiefs Team Manager, Tony Walker about how they’ve maintained their growth and success during 2020.

Tony Walker

 

written by Naomi Prakash

photography by Oscar J Ryan

 

 

Exeter currently hold bragging rights for taking the number one spot, in both the English Premiership & European Champions Cup. However, due to COVID-19, finishing off the season was by no means an easy feat, not just regarding performance but also from a logistical perspective. Rex Club sat down with the man behind much of their success, Tony Walker, to chat about how Exeter have continued their success into what has been
a traumatic year for sport.

Tony, can you tell us about what led you to Exeter Chiefs?

I first joined Exeter Chiefs as a player in 2004 after playing in Scotland for seven years. I continued my playing career here until an injury stopped me from going any further. I injured my ACL for the second time, and I wasn’t really in the position to justify rounds of rehab.That was around 2008, and luckily for me, the club was really looking to push into the Premiership around that time. One of the minimum standards to enter the Premiership meant that we needed a Community department, and given some of my previous work up in Scotland on the development side of rugby, I was able to work with Keith Fleming to set up that department for us. In those days, we took on a real variety of tasks, so we all sort of blended into one big group including coaching staff, physios and the medical team.We really started from scratch, and as the club has grown, the departments have gotten a lot bigger and more distinct. From there, I started picking up more admin work, and eventually moved into team management.

Tony Walker Rexclub

What is a typical day as Team Manager for you?

It would probably look a lot differ- ent than what the boys around here would tell you I do! The first thing about managing the team is that my door is always open for staff and play- ers. In order to get to kick-off time at the weekend, there’s a lot of stepping stones to cross throughout the week. Every week looks different; we can be travelling to a different town or coun- try, and it’s all about being prepared. Running the week can often be quite straightforward, but you show your skills when you have an obstacle to deal with. Naturally, there are a lot of them to contend with at the mo- ment with COVID-19! The best thing I can do for myself is to stay organ- ised.That’s the key to making sure all the boxes are ticked, which includes the small but important things that might get overlooked, like visas for travelling to games. Now that there are so many more rules in place, we have to be even more on top of the rules and regulations in and around the game.Theoretically, it’s all about making sure the players have what they require to play the game, and each week really is different.

Do you remember when you were first made aware of the pandemic?

The first time I caught wind of the issue was during a family trip to New Zealand. We’d gone away for a fami- ly reunion, and that was around the time that some murmurs of an illness had started, but back then it seemed pretty isolated to a few countries. By the time we were making our way

home through Singapore, it was clear there was a bigger issue brewing. Rumours of lockdowns started, but I don’t think anyone had antici- pated the impact on sport at that point. We were called into a large meeting in March, and at that point it was made clear that this was seri- ous for our health and our families.

How did players continue elements of training when lockdown started?

Soon after that meeting, the lock- down came into effect. All of a sud- den, we had to plan how we’d keep our players going throughout. The strength and conditioning and med- ical teams got their heads together pretty quickly and worked on a solid plan, even though no one knew how long the lockdown would last. Who would’ve thought we’d still be talk- ing about it now, nine months later?! There was a lot to get done: we were literally loading gym kits into peoples’ cars and trying to set up gyms in ga- rages so the boys could train, because once we were locked down there was nothing else we could do.The strength and conditioning and medical teams have been just amazing – the plan they put in place for the players is proba- bly what kept them going and put us in the strong position we’re in now.

We were lucky that the weath- er was nice for that first lockdown, so spirits remained pretty high and people got some well-earned rest in too. I think even outside of sport, a lot of the public went on a bit of a health-kick, and we definite- ly saw that happen within the club.

What did you miss the most over the break?

The team here really becomes your second family, and so it was very hard to be away from everyone. When you’re here, everyone picks each oth- er up and keeps team morale steady. It’s really fortunate that our group gets on so well and can joke around, but truly cares about each other too. That’s the stuff I really missed. I can see how some people suffered men- tally over the lockdown, or even in ‘normal times’ when they leave the sporting world to retire. It’s really bizarre to suddenly be without your support system. The people here give you an opportunity to be the best you can, and that’s within the staff team too, not just players. Even now that we’re playing again, we hav- en’t been able to have a beer in the bar or speak to spectators and cel- ebrate the season we have just had with everyone, but let’s hope that can happen as we enter into a new year.

How has pre-season training changed this year?

We do COVID testing every week and as long as we get the right re- sults then everyone can kick on, otherwise you can lose a couple guys for a while. It does add an ex- tra level of pressure – you never want to be missing out especially when it comes down to finals time! Through DCMS and the rugby gov- erning bodies, we came back to start training under ‘stage one guid- ance’ which meant no contact.

So you weren’t allowed to shower or eat at work, social distancing is still really important, and balls and equip- ment used have to be cleaned after each touch. There are five stages of guidelines within rugby to create a pathway back to playing competi- tive rugby and get crowds back in. These guidelines gradually allowed us to increase the amount of contact. Stage three is the return to games, four is cross-border like travelling to France, and stage five allows crowds back in to watch live matches again. But every time you advance a stage, you continue defaulting to the pre- vious ones. So say you’re on stage three, when you’re not playing a game you go back to practicing un- der stage one and two guidelines. The aim is to create an environ- ment where we can maximise training but keep everyone safe

and comfortable at the same time, and getting back to stage five, or back to play as normal, re- ally means that you have to get those first four stages right first.

How has social distancing affected players’ morale?

It’s tough to start with, because nat- urally sports people – and especially rugby players – are very close-knit. You high-five, tackle each other and lift each other up. It’s a very hard sport to transition into individual play, as it’s all about contact and en- couragement. Coming back into a changing room where people are sat metres apart and they can’t chat face- to-face was tough. Now, we’ve gotten so used to social distancing that it’s actually hard for some people to start

reintroducing some contact again, so that’s been a whole new challenge in itself.We as staff are a bit like a nag- ging parents at the moment, as we need to push safety rules, additional admin and checks on a daily basis. We are lucky that the whole team of staff and players understand though, and we know we must get these areas right so we get the chance to play the games at the weekends.

What keeps you inspired when things get tough?

Although this change is unprece- dented, we’re used to adversity in sport. We’ve always got new chal- lenges to rise to. Sometimes you have to look at your situation from the outside to realise how good you have it. We’re playing against some amazing traditional clubs

Tony Walker Rexclub
Tony Walker Rexclub

Claire Cruikshank

Claire Cruikshank Rexclub

Thoughts on how the women’s game has developed, and what she believes still needs to be done.

Claire Cruikshank

Photography Oscar J Ryan

The growth of women’s sports in recent years has been dramatic. More money and resources are being injected into professional games, and this change is visibly echoed in the grassroots level. Grassroots sports clubs have seen higher investments in recent years, not only monetarily but also in the form of increased time and interest, leading to higher participation rates.

Local changes start by following public examples. Huge professional sports clubs like Manchester City and Barcelona have helped to drive Women’s Football forward. Large corporations like HSBC have helped to popularise Women’s Rugby on the International Sevens circuit. Most notably, the governing body ‘World Rugby’ dropped gender naming of tournaments, the first federation to do so. Of course, the likes of Wimbledon leads the way and is the clear outlier, having both men and women athletes on equal pay.

Your playing career came to an end prematurely following an injury. Did that encourage you to start coaching?

My injury was unfortunate, as I had always envisaged myself playing for Scotland again. While I was injured, my focus changed. I started to help out with the U15 & U18 girls teams at my local club, and I found I was getting the same enjoyment and satisfaction from coaching as I previously did from playing. With the benefit of hindsight, my injury was the best thing that happened to me. I wouldn’t be where I am personally and professionally without it. I am lucky to call coaching my job.

You started in club rugby, are you still involved in grassroots rugby?

I’m not in a club, but within Edinburgh University we develop players from beginners. This could definitely be classed as grassroots, as many players have never played rugby until university.

How is your time split in a typical week?

A typical week for me starts at 6am on a Monday morning with the Performance group in a S&C session. It concludes at 11am on Saturday after a pitch session. Between then, there are two other early mornings and 2 evenings, days filled with player reviews, video analysis, analysis of our GPS data, session planning, and travelling to fixtures on a Wednesday – we can end up going to the very south of England, to Exeter!

Having been involved in women’s rugby since the early 2000s you must have witnessed a lot of change first hand?

As a particular case study, what have been the biggest changes that you’ve seen during your time at Edinburgh University?

The sport has changed so much. When I started playing internationally, Women’s Rugby was a separate body called the Scottish Women’s Rugby Union, and it wasn’t affiliated with Scottish Rugby. Bringing the two bodies together allowed for more support for the women’s game. I remember our first training programmes,

they weren’t like they are now! We essentially had to make them up ourselves in our own time, with no real guidance. I was really fortunate to go to Northumbria University and get support through their Elite Athlete Scheme, which gave me S&C programming and medical support, but not everyone is lucky enough to do that. Rugby for girls wasn’t a thing when I was growing up in the Borders; we played hockey, it’s just what you did. The boys always played rugby, though. It was at University I was first able to play rugby. I had always chucked a ball about for fun, but I’d never had the opportunity to actually play. Now it’s in schools and girls can play from such a young age, it’s great.

Edinburgh University had a new coach due to start in September 2011. When they pulled out in August, the committee asked if I’d help them out. They knew I was working for the University in Sport Development at the time..I remember it clearly, I said: ‘I’ll help you out for the first semester until you can find someone else’. Well, I’m still here eight seasons later and it’s now my full-time job! When I started, the support offered to the players at Edinburgh wasn’t what it is now. The nights they trained, the gym support offered, and the number of coaches was significantly different. It was only really me coaching, and we sessions with brand new players training alongside players who had national aspirations. No one can develop in that environment. We were struggling to get ten people to training and couldn’t field a 1st XV on occasions. Then, we got relegated and had a season in BUCS Scottish 1A in 2013-14. This was the turning point: we won 1A and the BUCS trophy, but the players wanted to push on. They realised that if they wanted to play at the next level, they needed to make some changes. We reviewed the training days, the number of coaches we had, the differentiation in sessions, the days and times of the training sessions, and the overall support and commitment that we put

into the team. That 2013-14 season was a catalyst for change that led to being crowned British Champions in 2017, and created the programme that we use now. The players at our Performance level now train for about fifteen hours a week, plus a match. I now have a raft of amazing coaches, which allows us to ensure players have the correct session for their ability. Now you can join as a brand new player and train two hours a week, or play for your country and train for over fifteen hours and travel across the UK for fixtures. Our 1st XV are currently one of the best teams in the UK, sitting top of the BUCS National League. We have a 2nd XV in Scottish 1A and provide development games for our ‘futures’ or 3rd XV. So as a club we have gone from struggling to get a 1st XV to now having a 3rd XV, where everyone has their place within the club.

On one hand you are trying to create a high performance environment, on the other you are trying to grow player numbers by making the sport approachable.

How do you reconcile these two aims?


I think the programme at Edinburgh University proves that both are possible side by side. It’s about giving people the appropriate opportunities. Some players want to play for their country, while others want to be part of the social side of things. Both are great and aren’t mutually exclusive. The key is getting programmes that can support both without trying to cross pollinate. People’s motivations are different and you need to create an environment to suit all of them. It’s not easy and it takes lots of planning, but for me it’s about passion and enthusiasm. I want all coaches within the club to be enthused and pass this onto the players. If we can just pass that enthusiasm on, then we will hopefully cover all bases and have a happy group. We also try and make sure our international players work with our new players: although they are the same age demographic, they are still role models to new players. We run a programme where all of our

Claire Cruikshank Rexclub

Through coaching, I’ve been able to travel the world, made some of the most fantastic friends, met the most amazing people, and experience the immeasurable joy that developing players brings to me.

Performance Rugby Players have to co-coach new players, alongside myself or one of the other coaches. This allows them to pass on their knowledge, but also allows us to ensure all players within the club know each other. That’s great for creating an environment where everyone feels welcomed. It’s really important that those getting great support from the University give something back to their club and peers.

You were previously Head Coach at Red Kites. How has this shaped your understanding of coaching?

Coming in as the Head Coach of Red Kites a few years ago was great. The opportunities it provided for me as a coach have been invaluable. For me, it’s always been about giving a platform to some of the best young players in Scotland so they can play 7s at a high level. What I quickly found was that by extending the player pool to those in the rest of the UK, we could enhance the player experience. By adding in some players who have played to a very high level – for example on the World Series in 7s, Tyrrell’s Premiership or different environments across the world – you can give these players an experience they would never normally get. As a coach, having these other players’ involved challenges me too. I have a short time to get to know them and pass on information, but it doesn’t change my fundamental philosophy of creating an environment that is fun. We all work hard for each other and learn and develop at every opportunity.

In 2006, you represented Scotland at the Women’s Rugby World Cup in Edmonton. That tournament has recently been renamed. Having played professionally yourself, what do you think of the name change?

I think it’s a great move, rugby is a

sport that likes to be ground-breaking and to be the first major sports federation to remove gender from a competition title is just that. As a former player, and now as a coach, I know the time and effort that goes into playing internationally for your country. To have this equality is what players deserve. Unfortunately for a large number of females, they still aren’t treated as professionals in terms of payment, and this makes the balance playing sports for a living really hard.

We’re currently undergoing great change, but what more needs to be done to keep momentum going?

The sport is changing and evolving and this is really exciting. Numbers across the world are growing, playing opportunities are increasing, support for girls’ and women’s rugby is increasing from federations. All of these things need to continue in order to develop the sport. There is a real opportunity here, and if nations continue to drive each other then sports will all benefit, globally.

Since you transitioned from player to coach, how has your philosophies about training and tactics evolved? How do you manage the team day-to- day and help them to balance rugby, work, and social distractions?

I think my view has completely changed. Even when I started coaching, I was probably copying what I saw other coaches did. Now I think I have learnt to do things my way, based on what suits me and my players. I have become really interested in coaching pedagogy and the learning styles of individuals, and love finding out how I can maximise the potential of each individual in my group as a coach. Tactically, I would say I am much more aware of this as a coach than I was as a

player. My understanding is totally different.

To help the team day-to-day, we try and keep things are structured as possible. This means that they can plan their time. If our routine changes all the time, this makes it hard for them to plan and make time. As the majority of academics takes place during the ‘working day’, we try to avoid this time. That’s why a lot of our training takes place in the morning before 9am. By 8.30am, we can have finished a S&C and a skills session, and this then leaves the rest of the day for them to focus on their studies and frees up their evenings to spend time relaxing, studying, or being with friends or family.

It’s all about balance and ensuring you know your athletes so you can pick up on things when they seem stressed or off their game. If you can develop a coach-athlete relationship where mutual trust and respect exists, you are more likely to get mutual appreciation. Each knows what to expect from the other: they understand how the other communicates, the environment they work best in, and how to maximize their strengths in the context of their sport. This is key to my coaching and something I hope we have developed here at Edinburgh.

Finally, what advice would you give to the 21 year old version of yourself?

View every change in your path as an opportunity. Everything happens for a reason and I think my injury is a great example. Without it, I would probably never have developed my passion for coaching. Through coaching, I’ve been able to travel the world, made some of the most fantastic friends, met the most amazing people, and experience the immeasurable joy that developing players brings to me.

Edited by Naomi Prakash

Tim Rouse

Tim Rouse Rexclub

In conversation with a young ex-professional cricketer who has his sights on pursuing a new career.

Tim Rouse

 

written by Oscar J Ryan

Tim has been a close personal friend of mine since the age of 4, when we formed a strong bond in the nursery sandpit.We grew up together (Tim probably more so than me), with both of us receiving scholarships and participat- ing in sport together until the age of 18.Quickly,Tim’s talent and drive for elite sport outgrew mine, which was clearly shown by his inclusion in our school’s 1stTeam Cricket at the ridiculous- ly young age of 12, where he padded up to face bowlers aged 17 and 18. From there, he excelled through the ranks, broke school records, was selected for academies, and received a professional contract with Somerset CCC at the age of 18.

Tim’s work ethic always stood out to me. He thrived academically during school, putting my grades to shame – much to the envy of my parents. It was clear that Tim always knew he was a talented sportsman, but he was always aware that professional sport never lasts forever and so a safety net is a necessity. He was accepted to study Philosophy at Cardiff University, and took on the challenge of studying for a degree while also playing professional cricket for Somerset CCC. Upon graduating with a 2:1, he was offered a full-time contract with Somerset and continued playing for another two years.

He has since decided to call time on his cricket career and instead pursue a career in law. I caught up with my old sandpit buddy to discuss the possibility of a law conversion on the horizon, and to pitch the age-old question:

“where do you see yourself in the ten years?”

Tim Rouse Rexclub

Remind me, Tim, why cricket?

“I was just drawn to it really. I first played at the age of 9. I have always loved sport, and I found I had a nat- ural talent for cricket so I just ran with it – playing for Marshfield Crick- et Club, then Bath Cricket Club, and onto the Somerset age-group sys- tem. I was incredibly fortunate to have supportive parents. They nev- er put pressure on me to play but were always there to support me and ferry me around when I need- ed, so I have a lot to thank them for.”

And then you ended up playing for Somerset!

“Yeah! At 15, I joined Somerset Acad- emy and started playing for Somerset 2nd XI. I had some success for the second team but most of my success came in age-group cricket. I made it clear to Somerset that I was going to university, so they gave me a 3-year deal that only paid between April and September – a development contract as they called it. It allowed me to be in Cardiff and play for them, whilst fo- cusing on my studies, then come back in the summer to play for Somerset, which was ideal for me.After universi- ty,I was offered a full-time professional contract, which was a proud moment for me, and I really looked forward to finally focusing only on cricket.”

The summer contract must have been really crucial in allowing you to focus at university during term- time.

“For sure,sport was always on my mind though. In reflection, the main decision that my sporting life influenced was the subject that I chose at university.

If I didn’t play cricket I think I would have studied law or business, how- ever, I thought balancing those with my sporting commitments when I knew very little about them would have been too demanding, so I chose a subject that I knew I found inter- esting, which oddly was Philosophy.”

We both chose to go to university. What was the draw for you?

“I always enjoyed school and I nev- er really considered the option of not going to university. Growing up I understood how tough professional sport would be, and wanted to give myself options for future careers if I had to move on from playing profes- sionally – which came sooner than I’d hoped! I also don’t think I was quite ready to go straight into professional cricket at the age of 18, so it gave me some extra time to mature and gain some valuable life experiences be- fore having a full-time job in cricket.”

So you knew you would always go to university; did you always know it would be Cardiff?

“No, but it wasn’t a difficult decision to be honest. I chose Cardiff because it was one of the six MCC Univer- sity set-ups, which provide quality coaching and support for people who want to pursue a career in cricket whilst getting a university degree. A huge amount of funding is provided by the MCC to accommodate this, and I doubt I would have been able to achieve both if it hadn’t been for that. We played matches against the other five universities in the program, and also first-class counties such as Glamorgan, Sussex and Essex.”

You graduated with a 2:1 in the end – but what moved you away from cricket and towards continuing your education?

“Really the decision wasn’t entirely my choice. I was told that my con- tract would not be renewed about halfway through the 2019 season. I was inevitably gutted, and I had (na- ively) never really considered life away from Somerset. I never real- ly had a plan for leaving the game – planning it fully would seem to be conceding that I was leaving, which isn’t something I was prepared to do until it was really happening. I had al- ways given myself options by going to university, but they had never really been relevant to me until this point, as I had always truly been focused on pursuing my cricket ambitions.”

Did it take a while to adjust to the idea of stopping cricket, then?

“Yeah, there was an adjustment pe- riod, definitely. For the remainder of the season, I tried to find a way to move clubs, mainly through trialling in other 2nd XIs. Unfortunately, I didn’t perform and nothing came of it. Ulti- mately, I lost confidence in my ability to play well enough at that level, so I had to move on. Past a certain lev- el, I have always believed that cricket (and sport in general) is more of a mind-game than anything. Since university, I had very little success and it got to the point where I thought I had more potential in another career. I realised that now is a great time to capitalise on my experiences in sport and throw myself into a different career, so eventually I began to consider which new path to go down.”

I know that period was tough. Did the move away from playing affect you mentally?

“Oh, the first month was incredibly tough – I felt like I had lost
my identity to some extent. I was always known as ‘Tim the Cricket- er’ growing up, so I had convinced myself that this is what I really was. Whilst I was excited about the next chapter, it was an incredibly daunt- ing experience. I wouldn’t describe professional sport as a part of the ‘real world’, you tend to live in a bubble of thinking that it’s the only thing that matters to anyone, which simply isn’t true! So I had a lot of changes to make. I felt I had to get
a job to give myself some structure whilst I make the decision on where to go next, so I currently work at the local pub. I have found shift work useful because it gives me the time during the day to get some other stuff done, exciting stuff like studying and applications!”

How are the applications going?

“Alright, I think! I have now made a final decision on my career path, which will hopefully be a move into a career in law. I will be doing the law conversion starting September 2020 and I am currently applying for legal jobs for after my next studies.”

Great! I’m glad things are working out. So when you were dealing with the huge decisions surround- ing your next step, did you find that you were well supported by your previous industry?

“Fortunately, yes. Most sports have an independent organisation that

looks after the interests of the players and offers them support wherever and whenever they need it. In professional cricket, we have the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA).The PCA has been fantastic for me.They offer support through- out our playing careers, with psycho- logical support, careers support and funding for things from educational courses to driving lessons.What is so brilliant about the PCA is that once you become a member, you re- main a member for life, which means I get the benefit of their support whenever I need it even after leaving the game. Every year they host an event called the ‘Futures Confer- ence’, which is a two-day conference for players and past players to attend to get advice and support for when the time comes that they step out
of cricket. It was fundamental to my decision-making process and coming to terms with the fact that I had to move on, and my transition would definitely not have been as smooth without their support.”

It must have been an odd period, still playing but without the possi- bility of progression, right?

“It’s definitely a strange time playing out the season when everyone knows you’re leaving, but luckily all my teammates are primarily great friends of mine.All of the players and most of the coaching and manage- ment staff offered support, which made the process much easier. Doors definitely closed with regards to my cricket – it was evident that

I wasn’t going to get into the first team unless some freak accident occurred, but I was fine with that.

I tried to enjoy the rest of the season for what it was – an opportunity to play a sport I still love with some of my best mates – what more could you want?!”

How has it been preparing to re-enter university and the world of academia, especially when most of the friends we grew up with have now graduated and are working?

“I do feel like I’m playing catch-up
a bit: I had already fallen behind my cricketing peers and I was slowly falling further behind peers who went into non-sporting careers. I always felt like I could have been good enough to play professional cricket, and maybe if I gave it another year or two I could have broken into a different team.

Tim Rouse Rexclub
Tim Rouse Rexclub

edited by Naomi Prakash

Manchester Storm

MANCHESTER

STORM

edited by Naomi Prakash

ICE HOCKEY

photography by Oscar J Ryan

Manchester Storm Rexclub

When we think of ice hockey, we think of Canada. Montreal is known as the ‘birthplace’ of ice hockey; it’s their national sport and a staple of Canadian social and pop culture. Yet the origins of field hockey are widely believed to be rooted here in England, and by the end of the 1890s the ice-based version had started ap- pearing in the UK. Soon, the Great Britain men’s team was winning in- ternational competitions, includ- ing the bronze medal at the 1924 Olympics, and gold in 1936. So al- though we can’t claim to be the orig- inal ice hockey nation, we did have a big hand to play in its foundations.

Club Hockey in the UK became pop- ular in the 1980s, and is now played in the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL). One of the registered teams, Manchester Storm, was founded in 1995. After finding great success,

including drawing a crowd of over 17,000 for a game against the Shef- field Steelers, they met some diffi- culties. Due to financial constraints, the team folded in 2002 to be re- placed by the Manchester Phoenix. However, in 2015 the Manchester Storm team rose from the ashes – pun intended – and re-launched.

Here at Rex Club, we’re lucky enough to work with lots of professional and amateur teams across a variety of different sports. We get to work on headwear merchandise with some amazing teams and supporters, and as a team of sports enthusiasts our- selves, getting to work so closely with sports clubs is hugely fulfill- ing. One of the teams that we work closely with is Manchester Storm. With the Planet Ice arena just a short distance from the Rex Club HQ, we’ve been able to visit them often.

Manchester Storm Rexclub
Manchester Storm Rexclub

During the week, we brainstorm new designs; and at the weekend, we watch the boys do battle on the ice against the best and brightest in the country. We know how thrilling it is to sit rinkside, but ice hock- ey has a hard battle to win viewership from fans of football and rug- by. We wanted to take the opportunity to go behind the scenes and spend a week with the Storm, giving our community unprecedented ac- cess to what goes into one of the most exhilarating sports in the UK.

The current Head Coach and General Manager of the team is Ryan Fin- nerty. Ryan was a professional player for over fifteen years before going into coaching, and has been with the Storm since 2017. He developed a thirst for hockey at an extremely young age: his Dad coached a local jun- ior team, so he started skating around the age of 2. In fact, Ryan told us that his earliest memory is playing on an outdoor rink in St. Paul, Al- berta, in -30 degree weather. From the age of 4, he started dreaming of playing in the National Hockey League. “Unfortunately you have a bet- ter chance winning the lottery than making the show”, Ryan told us, so he began travelling the US and Canada to play in the ECHL and CHL.

After some years traveling North America with hopes to climb the lad- der into the NHL, Ryan decided on a change of scenery. In 2006, Ryan moved to Europe to play for the Cardiff Devils in the EIHL. After success- ful stints in Sheffield and Glasgow, he moved south of the border to coach Manchester Storm. Alongside coaching, he soon became the team’s Gen- eral Manager, and is now moving towards making that a full-time role.

“Pro hockey can be very demanding and unforgiving. I was lucky enough to play for some great organisations and great coaches. The best part of moving around is the experiences and memories that you collect along the way. I still have great friends all over the world from my travels through hockey and memories that will last a lifetime. The game has prepared me for any obstacles life can throw at you, and I was able to grow and mature alongside some fantastic mentors along the way.”

Manchester Storm Rexclub

The North West is an extremely competitive market with top flight football and rugby on Storm’s doorstep, yet Ryan is confident about ice hockey’s growing spectator base: “Ice hockey is the fastest team sport played and has so many aspects that keep fans entertained. Our games are family-friendly and all the aggression is taken out on the ice, not in the stands.”

The EIHL released figures last year claiming that ice hockey is the third most popular winter sport in the UK, behind football and rugby. Numbers increase every year, and with the added attention of team GB securing their spot in the World Championship A Pool, Ryan is confident that the sport will start receiving the media attention that it deserves. “The UK will become a proud ice hockey nation very soon.”

With so much happening in the ice hockey world, there’s a lot of work needed to keep up. Liam Hesketh, Storm’s Head of Sponsorship and Marketing, took us through a typical week in his life to show us just how much goes on behind the stalls.

A Week In The Eye Of The Storm with Liam Hesketh
Head of Sponsorship and Marketing

Monday: Monday is the most important day of the week, and the busiest one for me! It’s usually an early start, around 7am. I’ll begin by checking the ticket sales for the following home fixtures and look at a few different things, such as how many group bookings we have, which commu- nity groups we have coming to the game, and how many natural ticket sales we’ve made, basically to pin-point what we need to work on throughout the week. We use the week leading up to the fixture as a huge push for ticket sales. I’ll also take care of any housekeeping on the official Manchester Storm website – this usually means mak- ing sure that our home match report is on- line, the league table is updated, and that our next home game is being promoted.

By this point in the season, we already have the blueprint for what our social media is going to look like for the week, but I’ll go over this once I’ve put a plan in place with regards to ticket sales. So- cial media is very organic in sport, so we use what we can, when we can. If we won the previous fixture, then people are go- ing to know about it! We may also change things slightly if there’s a special game next, such as our Pride fixture or our Star Wars night. We try to keep things fresh on social media, but we’ll certainly use it as much as possible to help push ticket sales.

Tuesday: Tuesday morning means a video session and then on-ice practice for the play- ers. I’ll head down to training to get some social media content while the players are on the ice, then catch up with Ryan Finner- ty afterwards and go over the plans for the week. At the start of the season, many of the players who are new to Manchester and the UK have lots of questions and need help with getting settled here, so I’ll pick up and help where I can. This aspect settles down after the first couple of months into the season.

Manchester Storm Rexclub

Sponsorship is key to the running of the club, so I’ll usually catch up with sponsors early in the week. If any at- tended the previous match, I’ll make sure they had a good time. If we have a specific sponsor coming to the up- coming match, I’ll call them and give them a quick rundown of events, like what happens when they go onto the ice to present the Man Of The Match awards at the end of the game.

Wednesday: Wednesday means a quick catch up with netminder Adam Long, who also helps run the community scheme here in Manchester. We’ll be vis- iting a school or community group on Thursday so we’ll discuss that, and I’ll give Adam an allocation of tickets for the community group so they can come to the weekend’s Elite League fixture. We’ll also reach out to schools and community groups across Greater Manchester to discuss visits from our

players, and work on getting commu- nity groups to games as we continue to grow the sport here in Manchester.

I’ll also catch up with any media out- lets and make sure they got the in- vite to our practice session on Thurs- day morning earlier. We may also hold a Twitter Q&A with one of our squad on a Wednesday evening, so I’ll make sure this runs smoothly. I’ll have checked ticket sales around 100 times by the end of play Wednesday!

Thursday: We’re approaching the weekend fast now and it’s all systems go here at the club. I’ll head down to on-ice practice early and grab a coffee. We always invite any media outlets to join us on Thursday to interview Ryan or any of our squad once practice is over. Chris from That’s Manchester TV arrivesontimeevery Thursday to cover us – thanks, Chris! There’s always a

Manchester Storm Rexclub
Manchester Storm Rexclub
Manchester Storm Rexclub

quick catch-up with the Planet Ice Box Office staff to reserve group book- ings and sort through last-min- ute community group tickets. Then Adam Long and the players head off to their community visit to discuss all things ice hockey, healthy eating and living, anti-bullying and more.

Friday: Friday is an important day, it’s one final ticket push and it’s also important to make sure all group booking tickets are taken care of,

along with any community groups and tickets for sponsors who may be attending. I’ll also catch up with the match night crew to make sure they are ready to go for the upcoming match. I’ll also get any sponsor mate- rial ready for our fixture as each week we have a different ‘match sponsor’, so we’ll make sure we have all the graph- ics ready for in-house screens. I’ll do final checks of the ticket sales and to- do list, then I’ll report back to Jamie and Ryan for any last minute requests,

We’d like to thank Ryan and Liam for taking the time to talk to us about their favourite sport. With the season officially over and no clear start date for the 2020-21 season, the EIHL clubs and players are working slightly in limbo. While bigger, established sports clubs should be able to survive the pandemic, smaller clubs are more at risk. We’d like to take this opportunity to encourage our readers to support their local teams and experience sports outside of rugby and football, there really is room for them all. We hope that once life is more normal, you’ll visit your local rink, particularly if you’re in Manchester. We promise, the atmosphere is second to none!

Rex Club Biannual

How did the idea of Rex Club first come about?

In 2013, my brother Hamish and I went to New York for the very first time. We’d just started to watch the NFL a few years before that, so a visit to the Metlife Stadium (home of the New York Giants – and Jets!) was our number one priority. Most people might want to go up the Empire State building or visit Times Square, but for us and our obsessive love of sport, it was entirely about watching the Giants. The game was played on a freezing November night and it was an incredible spectacle – if memory serves me right, the Steelers won. During the game, Hamish and I couldn’t stop noticing the amount of Royal Blue on show. Despite being season ticket holders at United all our lives, we’d never seen crowds decked out like that before. At home, you’d go to a game wearing as little colour as possible, maybe with a pin badge. But the Giants fans that surrounded us were wearing as much team merchandise as possi- ble, to the extent that we jibed they probably wore Giants underwear! The one thing that really ap- pealed to us was the cap culture – that was some- thing we thought suited our love of sports back home to a tee, a fashionable cap with team branding that could be worn and taken off when required.

How long did it take for the idea to become a business?

We returned from New York and by the follow- ing month I had registered Rex Club on Compa- nies House whilst still at my old job. By February 2014 we had some idea of how we wanted the business to work, and I think Hamish got our first sale with Edinburgh Academical (fondly referred to as Accies) around then. That same summer we made caps for Exeter Chiefs, Cornish Pirates and Rotherham Titans. I think the real question would be, ‘when did I start to treat what we were doing as a business?’. I’d say that moment probably arrived when we bought our first embroidery machine.

Hamish is still heavily involved with Rex Club. How is it working with family?

It’s a family affair here for sure! At Rex Club I ac- tually work with both of my brothers, my younger brother Hector runs our production. Working with anyone, especially in a start-up capacity, can be fun and trying in equal measure – we all have our opin- ions and those won’t always align. However, having grown up with both of them, we share so many of the same passions and values. Cheesy as it sounds, often working alongside them doesn’t feel like work at all.

Rex Club Biannual Rexclub
Rex Club Biannual Rexclub

You work with pro teams demanding the latest and greatest, and you also work with grassroots players and teams. How does your approach dif- fer when dealing with the two?

Everyone will want something personal to them, but we never wanted to be a business that offers a premium range for one customer and a ‘cheap and cheerful’ one for the next. We sell things we’d wear ourselves – that’s really where our mantra ‘For The Players For The Fans’ stemmed from. I suppose the only real differentiating factor is order volume, as that will dictate the options available for a custom- er. We offer off-the-shelf caps for most of our cli- ents – that’s great for when a local business wants a mix of styles, colours and sizes, as it gives them the flexibility they require. On the other hand, someone like GB Snowsport will want the same design in one style in a greater volume, and for an order like that we can offer greater customisation to the cap itself.

Meeting so many people from different clubs and disciplines must really fuel your passion for the sporting world, right?

For sure. I think it’s very difficult to not become interested in the sports you’re working with. I remem- ber when we first started working with some Super League teams, and one Thursday night I found myself getting really into a Widnes Vikings vs Castle- ford Tigers game. One weekend some friends and I found ourselves shivering inside an ice rink watching Manchester Storm – in retrospect, we should have realised that an ice rink would be reasonably cold. Esports is the one that really pulls my attention at the moment. We have worked with a couple of teams and individuals lately, and I now have Twitch on my mobile, it’s really a guilty pleasure.

Rex Club Biannual Rexclub

You have a really varied client base. Does this present any challenges for the business?

The list seems endless, even simple things like ship- ping to Samoa or importing from Asia require different answers. We are keenly aware that working with schools requires very different things to work- ing with the local rugby club or England Cricket. We first started working with Charterhouse School after I approached their master in charge of cricket on a tour back from Sri Lanka; we were on a flight together and I noticed all the boys were wearing their own caps. So this school wanted something appropriate for cricket and the school shop, where- as Wilmslow Wolves may want something more streetwear appropriate. England Cricket will want you to adhere to strict brand guidelines, and Manchester Storm may want you to get slightly creative.

You’ve managed to combine a passion for sport with a day job. What’s the most satisfying part of the work?

Repeat business is probably the greatest compliment. I was at Oakham School the other day, just by chance, and I saw their pupils walking around in our hats. Also, just last week my younger brother Hector and I were driving up to Edinburgh and we saw someone with one of our caps on the back of their headrest. Really though, nothing beats watching Hamish play at Murrayfield, and seeing fans entering Murrayfield with their caps on!

Do you have any favourite Rex Club designs from past projects?

That’s so tough, I fall in love with every new cap we make for our own brand, and then I tire of it and we’ll design something new. I am not sure what that says about myself – perhaps I’m always striving for more? Who knows, let’s not read into it!

I think the Rex Club Royals cap we made alongside ex England cricketer James Taylor, in support of the British Heart Foundation was awesome, it was clean and yet full of character. Plus our Rex Club Athletic cap was inspired by old fashioned monogram style sports log- os, which ticks a lot of boxes for me. It’s simple and yet bold, and with a nod to the history of sports that I love.

Rex Club Biannual Rexclub
Rex Club Biannual Rexclub

Any sports enthusiast will have seen that even Nottinghamshire CCC have recently reverted back to a similar logo – we’re currently applying it to some bobble hats for them. With regards to the team logos we work with, Exeter Chiefs have great branding, I just think it’s so iconic and I loved visiting Sandy Park. The tomahawk chop is epic!

Rex Club Biannual Rexclub
Rex Club Biannual Rexclub

THE FUTURE OF REX CLUB…

What does the future have in store for Rex Club and it’s clients?

I probably would have answered this question very differently in February, most likely I would have answered, very uncreatively, ‘more of the same’. However, with the world now being what it is, I am hoping to be able to speed up our introduction and roll out sustainable headwear across our entire range. We’ll also be looking to engage with our community more, lockdown has put a huge onus on this. Our journal is a great way to focus on case studies within our field and we’ll be looking to increase our content across social media.

Rex Club Biannual Rexclub

Sarah Wilson

‘STAYING GROUNDED’

 

edited by Naomi Prakash

 

SARAH WILSON

photography by Oscar J Ryan

Sarah Wilson Rexclub

“Seeing the Olympic rings and then hearing the national anthems, it was that sudden realisation of where I was and what I was about to do. That was such a special moment.”

Sarah Wilson could be forgiven for sometimes forgetting which hat she is wearing. On the world stage, she is the renowned international hockey umpire who shone at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Nationally, she is known for managing the elite group of twenty-two hockey players contesting major medals. Locally, she goes by Miss Wilson, a PE teacher at George Watson College in Edinburgh. It’s a lot to balance, but Wilson does it with joy. She juxtaposes her roles to great effect: using her stories from international sport to engage, motivate, and inspire her pupils; and tapping into her communication and people management skills to make sure that on-pitch flashpoints are avoided and the game runs smoothly.

She has been umpiring since her early teens when an injury curtailed a promising playing career, but it’s only in the past few years that Wilson’s umpiring profile has become global. After moving up through the ranks from club to national to an international umpire, the Olympic Games in 2016 and the World Cup in 2018 cemented her spot as one of the best female umpires in the world.

In her earliest days as an umpire, Wilson’s young age meant that some of the more experienced umpires didn’t take her seriously. It was learning to cope with sometimes negative attitudes that allowed her to develop her own style of dealing with adverse situations. For an international umpire, the pathway can be challenging. In Wilson’s case, she completed all the

Scottish qualifications, up to and including National League Division One. She then joined the European Umpire Development Programme – a three-year-long course with other umpires from around Europe. From there, she started to attend world level games and eventually was promoted to the higher level tournaments. The culmination of any umpire’s career is to join the World Panel, which is now known as the Olympic Panel. Throughout the entire journey, there are workshops and training programmes to ensure the umpires are at a level that reflects the standard of competition.

Yet umpiring wasn’t always part of Wilson’s plan. “It certainly wasn’t an immediate thought. I was quite fiery on the pitch, so umpiring didn’t seem too appealing at first,” she says with a grin. “But then my club needed an umpire, so I helped them out and really enjoyed it. A couple of other umpires with great experience told me that I could make a career out of it if I wanted to go down that route.” Despite starting by chance, her career has taken her onto the field at some of the world’s largest sporting events. The 2016 Games were her first Olympic Games. She performed so well in the pool matches and knock-out rounds that she was allocated the bronze medal match between Germany and New Zealand. After that mind-blowing moment, she was then able to watch Great Britain win gold in a classic encounter with the Netherlands. “Stepping out into the stadium for my first match [of the Rio Olympics], which was Germany versus Korea, was one of the best moments of my umpiring career,”

says Wilson. “Seeing the Olympic rings and then hearing the national anthems, it was that sudden realisation of where I was and what I was about to do. That was such a special moment. It was the same before the bronze medal match. I just took it all in. I looked around and I thought ‘this is just incredible.’ I was hugely nervous but it was also a massive sense of pride, achievement and excitement.” Just days after that experience, she was back at the day job, working as a PE teacher at George Watson College in Edinburgh. Wilson is actually an alumna of George Watson College, and carries with her a wealth of stories and experiences that she inspires her pupils with. As a school known for great hockey, a lot of the pupils look up the Great Britain team, often asking Wilson for tips and tricks. “I’d like to think I am quite humble about what I have done and achieved so I don’t go overboard when I’m back at school,” she says. “But, following Rio, I was asked to do an assembly to talk about my experiences. I really wanted to use it as inspiration for the pupils going into the new term. A lot of what I spoke about in assembly was about being brave, achieving your dreams, working towards your goals and just trying to be better people.” When she’s at school, Wilson drives herself hard. The demands of the international game are huge and she spends many weeks in the year on umpiring duty. Generally, the department covers her absence but luckily a lot of the tournaments coincide with school holiday time. Besides regular teaching hours, including Saturdays, she will also offer to take assemblies and other

roles where she can use her umpiring experiences to inspire and inform the pupils. She’s also introducing an umpiring course at the school, offering any pupil the chance to take umpiring qualifications.

When she’s at a tournament, such as a World Cup or the Olympic Games, Wilson’s support comes from the umpire managers who look after the entire team of umpires. They are not there to tell her what to do, but rather to offer guidance. “In both cases, they are there for you and offer you the chance to come and have discussions with them. To be able to tap into their experience is invaluable,” says Wilson. The support network between umpiring and teaching is similar, but in other respects, the two roles are poles apart. During a competition, she is a vital cog in a drama that is playing out on a hockey pitch, often on a stage that is in front of thousands of spectators and screened to a global audience. Following a grand final, the noise of the crowds and the buzz of adrenaline can stay with you for hours, even days. While Wilson’s umpiring commitments take her all over the world, it can mean that there is very little time for her to transition from the world of elite international sport to being back in the school environment. “For the majority of tournaments that I go to, I fly straight home and I am back in school the very next day. I don’t always have a lot of time to reflect back. It’s strange – I could be umpiring the final of the European Hockey League on Sunday night in Amsterdam and then teaching badminton to 10-year-olds on a Monday morning. But that’s just what I do! I am so lucky to have such a supportive department

They are genuinely interested to hear all about it.” The sports department at George Watson College is packed with former international sportspeople, many of whom are still playing club-level sport. Wilson told us about the sense of community that stems from this: “they’ve all been there, they get it and understand it”. When returning from a sports- based trip, her peers can’t wait to hear about the competitions, in fact, she says they have usually followed it on social media or television. Excitingly, Wilson is one of a handful of top umpires selected to officiate at the Tokyo Olympics next year. With Rio 2016 and a bronze medal match under her belt, could this be her swan-song and, if so, how on earth will she replicate the excitement and adrenaline of international competition? “That has been on my mind,” she says. “I have always thought that I would go on for as long as I possibly could. But now I’m not sure that I’ll continue for that long. The mental pressure combined with physical training is tough. I’d like to keep going for as long as I am physically capable, mentally tough enough and, importantly, still enjoying it. I also only want to keep going as long as I am continuing to learn and doing the game justice. Once you get to the top of the game, it is very tough to stay there.

“But, it is adrenaline-fuelled. It is addictive. That said, if I step away from umpiring I don’t have to step away from hockey altogether. I can take up roles as an umpire manager or umpire coach. I will then be able to invest more time into my career. I think I will know myself when it is time to step away.”