Interview with Jon Arch, Head Coach at Aldridge RFC

Jon Arch, Head Coach at Aldridge RFC

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

I started playing Rugby Union when I was 6 at Daventry RFC (near Northampton); I got a bloody nose first session and have loved the game ever since.

Most of my early senior rugby was with Daventry RFC before I moved to the Channel Islands in my mid-20’s, playing for Guernsey Raiders for nearly 10 seasons before returning to the UK to live. Although I haven’t officially retired, at 48 the aches and pains last far too long for it to be enjoyable now but I miss playing so much; I do still have aspirations of playing a game one day with my son, who is part of an amazingly talented Under 14’s squad at Bromsgrove, as long as my knee lasts out! I played hooker for most of my ‘proper’ rugby years but as the age increased and so did the waist, I ended up playing right across the front row.

I was once described as a ‘touch volatile’ in the front row but the game has changed and I have mellowed over the years.

Can you explain the details of your role at Aldridge RFC?

To be honest I didn’t even know where Aldridge was when I accepted the role of Head Coach; I just knew I wanted to start coaching again and what type of rugby I wanted us to play – I wanted us to entertain and have fun – but I also expected us to win.

I joined Aldridge RFC just before the start of the 2018/19 Season. Rather uniquely they had just got promoted so I was taking over a team which had been successful, rather than one which had been struggling. Unfortunately, it was an ageing squad and the club had become a bit stagnant with a shortage of players and the training numbers had dropped to the point where sessions were being cancelled.

As Head Coach my job is simple to work with every single player regardless of ability or experience and help them become the best player they can be. I meet with players for 1 on 1’s and we agree goals and areas for them to development.

My coaching style has changed over the years, I have a good idea of what I want the outcome to be but rather than drill it into players, we let them create and adapt through game play and creative thinking to hopefully get to the right outcome. I still do feel though that there is an important place for basic skill technique development especially in youth rugby; Unfortunately I have seen far too many kids getting injured because they haven’t been taught safe and effective tackle technique instead they have been playing ‘imaginary invisible ball touch rugby’ because it is “Fun”.

How has Aldridge RFC developed as a club over the past few years?

I think the biggest change is in the way we play rugby. To be told by opposition coaches, players and spectators that we play some lovely attacking rugby is a massive compliment to the players and my coaching team. You are as likely to see our props making the ‘Sonny-Boy Williams’ offloads out of the back of the hand as much as the backs.

In one game in February we scored 12 tries – 11 by the backs in some simply horrific weather and pitch conditions – the rugby was almost sublime at times.

My first season (2018/19) was a real challenge, we got hit with some big injuries and ended up using over 53 players in the first XV league and cup games including myself. We simply had no consistency and at times ended up using players in the 1’s who were almost completely new to the game, but we got better and I started to understand the players better. We finished mid-table and had a couple of decent cup runs. Most importantly though we got the 2nd XV back playing almost every week, and bought some fun back to training nights.

At the start of last season I challenged the players to make it ‘the best season both on and off the pitch in the clubs history’. I felt that we would get promoted but we didn’t focus on it; we just took the season week-by-week and simply got better and better as a team and stronger as a club. Our 2nd XV were playing every week and we started to put out a 3rd XV.

Some of the young lads who we had to throw in the season before now had the experience, and we were fortunate to pick up a few very good new players who fitted right in both on and off the pitch.

We finished the season with promotion and a North Midlands RFU Cup final appearance which unfortunately got binned because of COVID. I have no doubt we would have won that.

We are approaching the start of this season (whenever that may be) with gusto. I have always said I would rather we AIM HIGH AND MISS than AIM LOW AND HIT… we have got lots of new clubs to face and a great local derby with Veseyans RFC (who we were 3 divisions apart from just a couple of years ago) and who are just a few hundred yards from us; so It’s exciting times for the club.

What have you done to grow the player pool and retain players at Aldridge RFC?

Firstly, anyone who wants to play rugby or simply loves rugby is welcome at Aldridge RFC – it’s a great honest little rugby club. We try not to take things or life too seriously. At the same time I firmly believe that any player joining Aldridge will improve as a rugby player, we challenge players to improve, feeding back to them regularly giving them areas to work on in their game. We have increased our Social Media fingerprint in the past couple of years, making lots of noise, which has attracted players, alongside encouraging current players to promote the club. Being able to offer rugby for all ability and ages has certainly helped; I fully expect videos of our Social 3s this season to go viral on TikTok at some point.

We have players who live within walking distance of the ground, but also players who live in Solihull, Halesowen, and over past Kidderminster who travel 40+ miles twice a week to train so we must be doing something right. I think our style of open, free flowing creative rugby helps, and obviously a second promotion in 3 years has also led to a number of players wanting to join the journey. We don’t and won’t ever pay players, and no-one is guaranteed a 1st XV shirt. If a player wants to join us, show us commitment, performs at training and in games, and has the right attitude on and off the pitch they will get their chance. At Aldridge saying ‘sorry” or berating a fellow player is not allowed at training nor on the pitch – no one drops the ball or misses a tackle deliberately.

We have also developed a great relationship with Wolverhampton Wolverines Aussie Rules side which has benefited both clubs – a number of our players now play both sports and visa-versa, in fact our 1st XV Fly Half ‘Sir’ Adam Reed has been selected to represent Great Britain ARFL in Australia in 2021.

Finally we really invest in our players. We have regularly used specialist coaches from both within Rugby (Scrum and Attack play) but also Aussie Rules (which has benefited our strategic game) and Yoga (flexibility and injury recovery). This season we already have a Judo Coach and a Bobsleigh Coach lined up to deliver sessions alongside former and current professional rugby players.

Aldridge RFC has recently launched an Under 23 Development squad. Tell us more about this.

At Aldridge RFC we have no M&J or Youth rugby set up. With Veseyans RFC and their award winning youth section, just down the road, it would be impossible to compete. Instead we have focused on young players who played rugby up to Colts level but then didn’t transition well into Senior Rugby or who simply fell out of love with the game. We have become a bit of a ‘vulture club’ targeting players from 18 to 23 who want to play rugby, with their mates and then socialise after. We have players who played Colts Rugby at clubs such Old Halesonians, Sutton Coldfield and Wolverhampton. We had a number of Under 23 fixtures last year, winning games against University sides and also good standard club side

If we can develop and progress this model, with these players moving through to 1st XV rugby then we have a sustainable model for the club for years to come.

What coaching and staffing improvements have been made at Aldridge RFC to progress the club?

The most important change was asking the club to appoint a Director of Rugby in my first season, and suggesting the person (Jim Arnold) I wanted. Jim is a club legend, and is still playing regularly in both the 1s and 2s, but most importantly he bought a connection to the club which I didn’t have at the time. Jim does a lot of the fire fighting and committee admin type stuff which allows me to focus on the players, the game strategy and the coaching.

With training numbers growing, last season we appointed a young player coach in Harry Baldock. Harry had played at the club previously and I wanted an enthusiastic young coach who had his own ideas and own way of delivering these. We also had former Rugby Lions RFC Number 8 Ben Husthwaite join us as a Player-Coach, Ben is a former World Champion in Clay Shooting and still competes and coaches at World level. Ben has really bought focus and control to our set-piece work. We also managed to get Victoria Brown to join the club as our Physio. Vicky works with Pro-Footballers across the Midlands and also worked with Samoa Rugby at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

This year we have also added a dedicated coach for the 2nd XV as they are re-entering Greater Birmingham Merit League, and are also looking for additional support to assist with Match Day Team Management, Game Analysis and First Aid cover.

This infrastructure and investment in the players over the past 2 years has been a real catalyst for our success on the pitch.

How are you currently coping with playing/coaching restrictions due to Covid-19?

Covid is a challenge, but our numbers have been outstanding with 40+ players attending sessions. We have called it Skill-Season rather than Pre-Season. We have followed strict RFU guidelines at all times, and have focused on skill development and more recently have started to bring in elements to bring about a change in mindset for our principles of Attack and Defence.

We always ask the players for feedback on all the sessions. As a coach keeping the sessions fun and engaging within the COVID restrictions has been the hardest part, so it was nice to move to Stage C on the RFU Roadmap, and being able to start to use the Ready4Rugby (R4R) Touch game. I think for players of any age R4R Touch is a fantastic way to challenge ad develop players physically, technically and with their tactical decision making under fatigue and pressure.

What does the future look like at Aldridge RFC?

Good – I hope…

As a club we are about to launch our 5 Year Strategic Vision “Aldridge RFC – Rugby at the heart of the local community”. It gives us targets for both on and off the pitch; I think the last 6 months have really shown the importance of grassroots rugby clubs in the local community, and for the players and members the friendship groups and the support network you get from it.

On the pitch we are all just looking forward to playing rugby again at some point. Success is measured not only what we do on the pitch at 1st XV level in the RFU Leagues. Our aim is to be bucking the trend in continue to grow our playing numbers, putting 3 sides out every weekend and have our Under 23’s playing regularly – all done with a smile on our face!

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