All levels must support the new National cup, says Albion’s Chris Bentley

With moves being made by the National Clubs Association to launch a season-saving Cup competition in January, Plymouth Albion commercial manager Chris Bentley explains why community rugby clubs nationwide must grab the opportunity to start playing again.

After speaking to Damian Welch, our head coach, we at Plymouth Albion are very keen to get back playing in January. I’ve heard a few dissenters saying it’s not going to be rugby if we play to adapted laws.

Well, no, it’s not going to be the full Monty, but it’s going to get lads together again and that has to be a good thing. They’re going to be getting changed and training together and we’re going to take the attitude that even if we don’t have scrums, and mauls are depowered, we’re still going to play our props. It’s a game for all shapes and sizes, more so in the community game.

Our players are not all muscle-bound like in the top tier and we want everyone to play. If that means our props have to increase their cardio-vascular efficiency slightly, so be it. Ultimately, the game is going to come back and we’re really excited about it because it’s beyond important that we get back playing.

In the meantime, there’s now renewed hope of getting crowds back in the New Year, too, and we’ve been taking advice from non-league football clubs like Plymouth Parkway.

Prior to this latest lockdown, many non-league clubs had experience of dealing with crowds of 600 and Max Venables, our MD, is working really hard to ensure that the Brickfields is as secure and socially-distanced as possible for when we get the green light to welcome people back.

There are obvious pinch points such as toilets, bars and exits but we believe we can accommodate 600 people safely. Accordingly, we’ve launched a corporate club membership to accommodate businesses and we’re encouraging regular fans to put their names on the log so we can give them priority.

We’re confident we’ll accommodate all our season ticket holders and get to 600 straight away, and then hopefully we’ll increase that as time goes on.

I believe that for supporters to be able to come to the ground again and have their pint and a pie or pasty and watch a bit of rugby, there’s a massive contribution to be made in respect of mental health. Getting rugby back in January will be a massive fillip for a lot of people and there’s a lot of good that can come out of it all round.

In light of the backdrop we’ve got, this Cup is the best opportunity we’ve got to play some rugby and save the season, so let’s take it. It’s been lovely to see the women playing again in the Allianz Premier 15s and you’re getting 90 per cent of the game of rugby as we know it there.

As a player, you’ve got to retain muscle memory and if we just stamp our feet and say having fewer scrums or lineouts lessens rugby and we’re not doing it, I believe you’ll have a huge haemorrhage of players and talent who will find alternative attractions and be lost to the game, forever in most cases. We need to get the habits back so guys turn up and train and know there’s a goal at the end of the week.

I believe there’s going to be a realignment in Rugby Union over the next few months because the effect of Covid has meant that the business model has been kicked very hard.

Accordingly, we need to look more at the core of the game and not just about making money at all costs. Everyone looks at what the top teams are doing but we’ve actually got to plough our own furrow as the community game now and not just think money is the most important thing.

Money is an aspect of it and we have to accept that, but it’s not the be all and end all and, as a group of National League clubs, if we can get a communal voice and advertise that, we’ll have a product that we can sell.

I was asked to address the NCA clubs on a conference call last week and I’ve been very fortunate to see all aspects of rugby, from being at junior amateur clubs in Caldy and New Brighton to the professional end of the game with Orrell, Biarritz, Edinburgh and Exeter.

I saw a money man buy Orrell and my uncle was the captain of West Hartlepool when they attracted new money at the outset of professionalism, so that’s twice I’ve seen instances of people spending lots of cash for no return which led to famous old clubs going down the pan. We don’t want that happening again.

We need to look at an alternate route and the rabbit is out of the hat now with Covid. Although there is still money in rugby, we’ve got to juxtapose this sport with the community game.

We’ve got a blueprint at Plymouth now whereby we’re bringing some of the great qualities of Rugby Union but mixing that with professionalism in the form of good coaches, good facilities and we’re looking to support players off the field with jobs and careers.

They will get some remuneration for rugby but that’s now down the list of priorities and, as a group of community clubs, we all need to adopt a similar blueprint and then we can advertise that as a unique selling point for our sport. It will attract a level of support that we won’t find unless we have a communal voice.

– As told to Neale Harvey

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