Q&A: John Pownall, Chairman at Surrey Rugby

Rugby Blindside Q&A with John Pownall

Chairman at Surrey Rugby

A little about you… Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Expatriate Yorkshireman undertaking missionary work In Surrey for last 40 years. After playing first class rugby in the North East my career took me all around the UK, Europe Africa and the USA and I developed an expertise in turning around companies

I am by training a linguist and accountant but most of my work life was in international sales and marketing together with “general management”.

I am now semi-retired living in Farnham with my wife and dog with the benefit of adult children living locally.

How did you first get involved with Surrey Rugby and what is your role now?

When I left corporate life I offered to help my local club Farnham where I had played and coached but they were well set up and apart from a little bit of fundraising there was no job to get my teeth into. Surrey we’re looking for volunteers, we always are, so I joined to help with the Club Development side of matters. After a few years I took on the Hon Sec role which requires a reasonable understanding of how the County works, how clubs can be helped and how we interface with the RFU. 

In due course I was elected Chairman last year but I am delighted to find that we have also found some new fresh talent amongst our Management Committee so my role has been eased by the strong support of a new team. We want to find ways to retain our older experienced volunteers but it is essential to bring in new younger talent who are that much closer to the game. In the volunteer sector that is always a challenge and especially in the present circumstances but we exist purely to help our clubs to prosper and thrive so there is always plenty to do.

Whilst you are Chairman at Surrey Rugby what do you hope to achieve?

My main aim is to transition the county from the “older hands” to a new generation of volunteers to keep us relevant and helpful to our clubs.

We need to update our communications which we are actively doing by use of social media and to reduce the proportion of our cost basis given to “standing costs” whilst maintaining and growing the amount of support we provide and the amount of Rugby played in Surrey. In this regard we are bucking the national trend as our competitions are growing both in number of activities and in numbers of teams involved. We awarded 39 trophies at our last end of season Awards dinner recognising the hard work of many of our 100 + clubs throughout the season.

What role does Surrey Rugby play within grassroots rugby in Surrey?

Surrey Rugby is the interface between our clubs (c100 in total and 70 “voting” clubs) and the RFU.

We work closely as the amateur volunteers with our professional counterparts of Regional Development officers, Area Managers and a team of Community rugby coaches – all funded by the RFU. Where necessary we can tap into the massive expertise and experience available from the RFU – facilities to HR, insurance to Legal or disciplinary guidance for example.

Our strap line is “to help our clubs prosper and thrive” which covers everything from Representative Rugby – Adult to Age Grade, men and women, through to business support and assistance. Along the way we cover Safeguarding, Discipline, Competitions, Club Development (anything off the pitch), Game Development (anything on the pitch). Health and Safety and Compliance. There is an increasing focus on player welfare, again ranging from provision and supervision of touchline physios through to mental health and wellbeing.

Our clubs range from single team occasional clubs to well developed businesses with considerable turnover, assets, capabilities and structures. We work with all of them tailoring our support to their needs. Whilst we do not have infinite resources, we are well funded and can call upon a lot of expertise and experience both within Surrey rugby and the RFU. Often our “added value” is not just money, it is guidance, expertise and support. No matter how well set up a club is, it cannot be an expert on all matters so we point clubs in the direction of highly qualified advice which has demonstrably delivered large scale returns to even the most sophisticated clubs.

What are the main activities undertaken by the ‘Club Development’ department at Surrey Rugby?

Broadly we structure ourselves to align with present or former structures of the RFU and Club Development that looks after all “off the pitch” activity. This includes revenue generation, advice and guidance on helping clubs to raise and preserve their monies. We sponsor and fund initiatives aimed at growing the clubs through increased participation or into new areas (both geographic and new paying initiatives. Sometimes our work crosses into Game Development, retaining players, recruiting players etc, but the overall aim is still to strengthen clubs and get more rugby played.

Can you tell us about the initiatives/programmes Surrey Rugby has to aid player development at various levels and ages?

There has been a lot of focus on Age Grade Rugby development in recent years and our previous player development pathways are now being led by the local Premiership Academy, in our case Harlequins.

Working relationships with Quins are better than ever and the talented team there are keen to extend their involvement with workshops for players who are not involved in the 3 year development pathway. Everybody leaves this pathway in due course and our hope is that they will return to their home clubs to “spread the gospel” of the enhanced coaching they have received.

Working with our RDO’s we are also providing workshops on specific areas of expertise (e.g Scrum workshop) to improve coaching and development across the county. This mirrors the work they undertake within schools (not our area, but obviously fertile breeding ground for club recruitment).

Girls Rugby in Surrey is growing at a fast pace. What is Surrey Rugby doing to make this happen?

Our Representative Rugby, Club Development and Game Development do not differentiate between the genders so we are increasingly traveling along a path of full integration.

We run teams for Women and girls and although the absolute numbers are low for historical reasons, this is one of the fastest growing areas on player participation within the overall game. Within the county we are fortunate enough to have some very experienced and talented women within our Council Representation, Executive, Management Committee and Disciplinary Committees.

What’s the main purpose of the Volunteer Recognition Programme (VRP) at Surrey Rugby?

In addition to the fantastic involvement of Mitsubishi as a National sponsor we place great emphasis on the role of volunteers in our own organisation and in all our clubs. The community game exists purely on the basis of a vast army of unsung volunteer heroes who coach, cook, referee, transport players, clean changing rooms, paint clubhouses, support clubs financially and administratively and a whole raft of other activities too numerous to mention. 

We all need to attract more volunteers and retain and expand the horizons of those already committed. If we can extend a 2 hour a week volunteer into a 10 hour a week volunteer it is equivalent to finding four extra pairs of hands. Many volunteers are giving far more than 10 hours purely for love of the game and to help others  

Our principal involvement is to provide recognition for these volunteers (not always with rugby related gifts or acknowledgments) to motivate the volunteers and quite simply to express our gratitude. We constantly need to find new blood and if someone wishes to ask to be involved the answer is YES – now can we consider how and where!

How important are Surrey Rugby’s sponsors and patrons in helping achieve your goals?

Part of our funding has traditionally been channelled from the RFU (in turn from Sport England) and quite reasonably the RFU expects our commitment for these funds to align fully with their own objectives as detailed in our Local Rugby Plan

Sponsorship money and other self generated funds help to finance areas which go beyond the areas supported by the RFU, for example Representative team expenditure beyond the levels subvented by the RFU.

Our sponsors are generous with their support and funding, in many cases on an altruistic base as the “Return on Investment” in the community game is difficult to quantify. The sponsors not only fund these activities but bring recognition through their own networks to the world of community rugby and the values which underpin our game. It is sometimes described as fulfilling their “corporate social responsibility” but all these sponsors share our view of the values and the benefit to the wider community of a strong involvement in rugby.

Finally, what advice do you have for grassroots rugby clubs who are currently facing difficulties due to Covid-19?

The RFU was quick to take decisive action with regard to the community game and to provide matched funding with the CB’s to create an Immediate Support fund. Further grants and loans have been offered through the RFU and Sport England,

We have helped to advise clubs to mitigate their financial exposure through grants, loans, business advice to seek rates rebates, loan deferrals and the furloughing of staff.

There is continued uncertainty and longer-term planning is a lottery. 

Our concern is that clubs may well have mitigated their short-term position but with many revenue streams either turned off or massively compromised, the situation may get considerably worse. 

We fear that the less considerate clubs may be threatened in the medium term when normal revenue streams are not available for expenditure over the summer or even into next season. The RFU has confirmed that the Immediate Support fund is not time constrained and we are in discussion to find the most appropriate and effective means to ensure that our funds are applied on a fair basis. We have asked clubs to keep in close contact with us and we will monitor our own limited resources to provide as much support as possible over the coming weeks and months, but with no guarantee of when clubs can resume playing and generating revenue, it is difficult to be precise about our ongoing support.