Fylde RFC – Developing and retaining players at a community club

Rugby Blindside recently spoke with Warren Spragg, Fylde Rugby Head Coach, who told us about the history of Fylde RFC and how he has helped the club develop in recent years.

Warren Spragg, Head Coach at Fylde RFC

Even many local people do not know the origination of the word ‘Fylde’. In fact, it dates back to Saxon times and means ‘low lying ground between two Estuaries!’ Equally, the story of the Fylde Rugby Club is very interesting as back in July 1919 the the club was born literally on the toss of a coin. On July 25th Manchester businessmen met at the Ansdell Institute to discuss the formation of either a rugby or football Club. A coin was tossed and it fell in favour of rugby. From such small beginnings, Fylde grew and after 95 years it is a nationally respected club with a strong brand name in English rugby.

It was in May 1920 that the present Woodlands site, although not in its present state, was used for rugby. In those days the admission was 5d and the first yearly gate receipts amounted to just over £57. In 1922, Harold Brooks was elected President and through his efforts Fylde progressed. He also generously provided the present stand. As far back as 1924 the club were represented in the Lancashire team by many famous names such as ‘Ham’ Neville, who was capped 33 times, and ‘Pop’ Ogden, who was classed as the greatest kicker of the time. He was the originator of the ‘round the corner’ style of kicking now used by more or less all kickers worldwide. The club was strengthened by the merger with Blackpool Old Boys in 1934/5.

Today, the teams still go onto the field wearing the colours of claret, gold and white, which were really the colours of the Huddersfield Old Boys. For some reason, this mystery has not been resolved and the colours have not changed.

Like so many clubs, Fylde is trying in this professional era to maintain a balance between a members club, based on traditional local community values and structures, and a professional outfit able to compete for players, regionally and nationally. The Club has reasserted itself as a community-oriented, members club, basically amateur, bringing together experienced players in the locality and region, together with nurturing considerable local talent. The club currently fields 10 mini/junior sides, a Colts squads and four senior sides.

Fylde is a family club where everybody is welcome.

Warren has been at Fylde since 2012, firstly as a player and S&C coach, then as backs coach, before taking the role of Head Coach for the 2017-18 season.

He told us what the situation was like when he took over as Head Coach. He said: “We had been a strong team in National 1 with lots of experienced players who were coming towards the end of their playing days or had already decided to move on. This was clearly a difficult place to start but it gave me the opportunity to set out a vision of a playing squad who would learn, develop and build a promising future together through their shared experiences. We were relegated, but followed up with a positive first season in National 2 North, then we were pushing hard until the outbreak and stop of all rugby activities. I am really proud of the work we have put in until this point and have been doing behind the scenes while we anxiously wait for the restart.”

He said: “Player development and retention is different at all clubs, especially in the National leagues. For me, the unique mix of history, aspirations, and resources makes every Saturday afternoon an unbelievable experience. Whether you are being berated by the venerable home crowd at Wharfedale, or enduring the less sophisticated but often funnier student banter at Loughborough’s state of the art facilities, you realise that the external environments may change but we still have the same job to do. Clubs and coaches need to be able to field the best team possible to compete at the highest level they aspire to. Finances clearly have a part to play in the equation, but more money doesn’t guarantee success and there is a real need to retain and develop players which goes beyond the match fees on offer.”

So what does development and retention look like? For Warren it comes down to a few simple areas: Challenge, Enjoyment, and Integrity. He explained this to us:

“Challenge looks different for players on an individual level than it does for the team. Some players may need clear performance outcomes during matches. This can be applied easily with video analysis and statistics on tackles, touches, support play and so on. Others might need increased responsibility, such as involvement in leadership or tactical groups, while some might need to be pushed hard in training to get their work rate up to the expectations of the group. Challenging players appropriately also tells you a lot about character, which is incredibly important for player and squad development. If members of your team don’t want to be challenged, development will be difficult and you will struggle to keep your better players engaged and committed. Challenging the team comes from clearly stating your ambition and collectively pushing towards it. Everybody needs to commit or “buy in” to a shared purpose and this needs to be consistently reinforced, rewarded when things are moving forwards, and reviewed when things aren’t working. Players can then focus on their appropriate individual challenge when they have the clarity of what is required for the team.

“Enjoyment can be misunderstood in sport. This doesn’t mean endless socials and joking around in training. It is more about feeling that you are doing something meaningful with purpose to it. The difference between 10 minutes engaged in an activity that challenges skill and decision making at high intensity or 10 minutes of a mindless drill without learning is massive for players. When you can train and play how you want to play the rewards are amazing. So we train with purpose and clarity, always aimed towards evolving our style of play. When we improve in training we are happy and when we execute it on a Saturday afternoon we are even happier! Can we lose and still be happy? Not always, but we have developed trust amongst the squad on and off the pitch, so we soon regroup and get back to the enjoyment of striving to be better on the pitch. And of course, the social aspect of enjoyment is very important. We socialise together after games, go out for team dinners, and eat together in the clubhouse after training. We have a lot of young men in their late teens and early twenties in the squad. Whilst I want them to perform at their best on a Saturday afternoon, I also feel a responsibility towards making sure that the club is a place that they feel happy and supported. We’ve got a lot of supportive people round the group, making the club is a great place to be. I also hope that we have a strong enough support group for any lads to reach out if they are struggling.

“Integrity is crucial to tie the whole development and retention package together. If I tell a player they need to improve a specific area of their game to be able to push for a place in the team and then don’t select them, why would they trust me again in the future? If I tell players that we need to reduce the rugby budget but don’t take any reduction in my own wages, then why would they trust me the next time we spoke about finances? We have a number of really exciting players at the club who could’ve moved on over the past few seasons, and I believe one of their reasons for staying is that we have developed trusting relationships. This means that I have had discussions with players about their future on and off the pitch that I couldn’t imagine having with coaches when I was younger.”

The break in rugby has been difficult for everyone involved in the game and even in brought uncertainty for many, it also gave Warren the opportunity to reflect.

He explained: “The Covid-19 outbreak and the obvious effects it has had on rugby at all levels has afforded me a chance to reflect on the progress made as a playing and coaching group. If we had continued the season, I don’t think you would find a player with a shred of doubt in their mind that we would have reached the playoff and there was a collective self-belief that we would win the playoff game, regardless of opposition. This developing mindset is something I am extremely proud of. As with most areas of society, the lockdown brought uncertainty on and off field. Health, mostly mental well-being, has been affected, and there are financial implications for the squad with the abandonment and delay of fixtures. But through it all there has been an unwavering positivity from the players and staff to get back to training, playing and doing what we all love. We have stuck to the guidelines for training, starting with socially distanced fitness sessions on the beach at St Anne’s, and recently moving back to the club where players have had to fill out symptom questionnaires and complete temperature checks before training.

“And this is where we are, waiting for the next steps, hoping to get back on the pitch where we can compete. When we do get back out there, I hope we can continue to push forward as a group and enjoy the challenges that we know National league rugby will bring.”

Warren’s game development strategy is based on his core ideals of how to develop and retain players. It’s obvious he has a clear and positive vision for the future of Fylde RFC. With challenging times ahead we wish him the best of luck.

This article appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue of Rugby Blindside magazine – Read the full issue here