Interview with Harry Cornforth, Chief Executive at Tynedale RFC

Rugby Blindside recently spoke with Harry Cornforth, CEO at Tynedale RFC to get know him and talk about the commercial impact of COVID-19 at the club and what measures they have taken to combat it.

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

As a young man I attended RGS Newcastle where I played rugby under John Elders, the former England Coach. Whilst being a reasonable Centre I

found that I was probably more proficient as a goalkeeper in soccer and was invited for trails with Nottingham Forest and Newcastle United. In my early twenties I became disillusioned with soccer and was persuaded by my good friend Richard Breakey, Gosforth and Scotland Fly Half, to play rugby again. This I did with Consett and Gosforth before my business career took off with the BTR Group and Barratt Developments.

I became Southern Regional Finance Director of Barratt and moved to Ampthill in Bedfordshire where I was lured into a wonderful community

rugby club which became the focus of my leisure time and family life. I coached my son Adam from the age of 6 and went on to become Treasurer, Secretary and eventually Chairman of Ampthill Rugby Club. I also became Chairman of Bedfordshire RFU and served on the General Committee of the East Midlands RFU.

When Ampthill found themselves without a Director of Rugby I took over the job and guided the club through several seasons where we won the East Midlands Cup twice and established ourselves in the League System. Several seasons after I stepped down the club was struggling so I returned to the Director of Rugby role and we gained promotion the following season. I then looked around for a successor and appointed Mark Lavery who was a successful coach at Colts level. Together we masterminded the plan for Ampthill’s rise.

I cannot lay claim to all of the success at Ampthill but Mark and I set out how we wanted the club to grow and he has been a tyro in making sure it was achieved, culminating in an unbelievable promotion to the championship.

In 2012 I returned to Northumberland and after a couple of years watching Tynedale from the terraces I volunteered to help out on the gate, Needless to say things seemed to move on quickly after that!

What do you enjoy most about your role as Chief Executive at Tynedale RFC?

Being part of a like-minded team who are striving to bring the wonderful facilities at Tynedale up to their true potential. John Inverdale once described Tynedale’s ground as being one of the most picturesque in the country.

I didn’t envisage that my first year as Chairman would be so devoid of rugby but I have enjoyed the challenge of leading a team of talented and enthusiastic ladies and gentlemen.

What is the current state of affairs at Tynedale RFC?

Like all clubs we have seen at very marked reduction in our income streams. We are not located in the centre of a town and thus depend upon our membership,events, sponsorship and home match attendances for income. However careful housekeeping from a very lively committee and the loyal support of our sponsors and members has meant that we remain in a solvent position although wary of the possible impact when we return to rugby and in particular the costs which will arise from maintaining a First XV in National Two North. Being a northern outpost means that our travel costs are considerable and are likely to become even greater as we try to find ways to keep the players safe in these COVID days.

We are also heavily engaged in trying to provide resilience to our clubhouse which has endured two major floods in recent years.

Due to COVID-19 Tynedale RFC had to close the clubhouse and grounds. What impact did this have on the club and players?

There is immense frustration amongst the players and the officials at the club. There is also concern that senior players may not return to the game having had their routines and priorities changed. We have managed to keep training going when lockdowns have permitted but the lack of real contact rugby has clearly had an effect. Ben Woods and his team have been ingenious in the methods they have used to keep the players interested and fulfilled.

The Junior Section of the club has been very resilient and numbers of players have generally been maintained but prolonged absence which we are experiencing now may prove damaging, particularly in the youth age groups.

I have to say that when we have been able to train it has been very heartening to see the enthusiasm from the girls and boys teams.

The only upside of the lockdown period is that we had a tremendous response from volunteers in carrying out maintenance to the grounds with the mainstand being re-painted, the perimeter fence being totalled renewed, a new electronic scoreboard being installed and trees being given arborial treatment.

Like many other clubs, much of Tynedale’s income and community engagement will come from events at the club. How has this year been different?

Our main event of the year is a 3 day Beer Festival which provides the club with around £30,000 of income. This year it was cancelled due to COVID but with some ingenuity the Festival Committee held a Virtual Event and raised around £2,000 which was donated to charity. If the Beer Festival has to be cancelled again this summer it would have a severe effect on club finances.

We have been able to keep some of the boot fairs and caravan rallies going but income is about 30% of usual contributions.

What initiatives has Tynedale RFC undertaken this year to ensure survival?

Early in the pandemic the Committee launched an appeal among the members which produced an outstanding response of around £23,000. We have also greatly benefitted from a stream of grants from local authority, Sport England and the RFU.

As mentioned previously, we have also managed to keep some events going but with greatly reduced income.

How important is the relationship with Tynedale’s commercial partners, especially in times like these?

Absolutely essential. Our main sponsors Harlow Printing, Meldrum Construction, GSC Grays, Borderstone Quarries and The Building Maintenance Company have continued to support us albeit at reduced levels in some cases.

We have also seen a considerable number of our perimeter advertising board sponsors continuing to contribute despite their business suffering in these difficult times. We are extremely grateful to them all.

And finally, what does the future look like at Tynedale RFC?

We are cautiously optimistic. We have a broad based membership and a lively Junior Section which continues to support us. We also have some low contact rugby groups with two Touch Rugby Groups regularly playing at the club.

Like most clubs we are wary as to how long we will be without competitive contact rugby but feel sure that when we return to normal times our club will once again be a hub for the community.

This interview appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Rugby Blindside magazine – Read the full issue here