EXCLUSIVE: John Manders is a name that not too many people will be familiar with within Welsh rugby, but he’s been a stalwart member of Old Illtydians RFC for over 30 years following a successful playing career with the likes of Newport, Pontypridd, and South Wales Police.
The former sergeant of SWP now runs businesses along with his part-time role in the community game. It’s this experience and knowledge he’s gained that he believes will help him solve some of the issues in Welsh community rugby.
Speaking exclusively to Last Word on Rugby, John explained his motivation behind running for the WRU Council seat and what he’d do to change the scene if he defeats fellow candidates, Nigel Davies and Ieuan Evans.
It’ll be the second year running that he runs for election and the former Wales youth international is feeling more motivated than ever.
“I’ve been really keen to get involved at this level. The main aim for me is to be a voice for the community game having being involved in it for 30 years, since leaving Newport and Pontypridd, with Old Illtydians.
“I’ve become a bit of an expert on community rugby and I want to share that.”
“I understand what clubs need to be doing and what problems they have – recruitment, coaching, players, mini and junior rugby – I’ve got similar problems at my own club and have assisted clubs over the years as well.”
John has recently managed to get an asset transfer of Old Illtydians’ new premises, an 1894 old library, which they brought back into use as a community centre. “I’ve already been assisting clubs around Wales on asset transfers of property and land, to make facilities better,” he explained.
Having been an unpaid player, team manager, coach, club captain and Chairman of his club for over 30 years, he does indeed pack a punch in the experience department.
“I believe I could bring my experience to the fore at that level. Of course, there are wider remits to the game which are key, but by bringing somebody like me on board, who has played at a decent level as well, I just think they may need that.”
Having unsuccessfully run last year you could have forgiven John for calling it a day on the Council front. However, despite being beaten to the post by Lisa Burgess, he’s back and ready to go one step further in 2020.
“Lisa Burgess got voted in when they were looking to have a more diverse approach to the board and I fully supported that. My message is the same as last year, it’s one of experience and knowledge.
“I’ve worked in the police, the Welsh government, strategic level in all those places, in finance and business, which I still do, running two businesses. I’d bring all that to assist.
“Community rugby is in trouble due to where we are with COVID, floods and all the other issues that rugby clubs at lower levels are trying to cope with.”
The heavy bargaining with clubs comes when John, and the others, speak with districts. Ordinarily, there would be meetings in person, and some have been conducted by the candidates, but Zoom webinars will be undertaken this week to contact up to 500 club reps.
“The biggest thing is support, and giving them that,” John explains of what the clubs want. “Communication around flooding was lacking from the feedback I was getting. Without the member clubs there is no Welsh Rugby Union. So, if we reduce clubs because they fall off the wagon due to the issues they’re facing, then the WRU becomes diminished. It’s key to keep it strong, and I don’t think that can be underplayed.”
Where is the community game? I ask him…
“There are many, many clubs in major difficulty. That’s been understood by the WRU and they’re trying their best to communicate with some good work.
“We’ll probably lose 30 clubs if we don’t start by next year, I honestly believe that.
“Clubs aren’t open, lots of them survive on beer takings, parties, everything which isn’t happening. The financial impact on clubs is diminished and it’s difficult to get that back.”
Player numbers are at fear of dwindling too
“Junior rugby is another big thing for community rugby. If players stop playing aged 8/9, we may lose them for good. There needs to be something in place to help pull this all together,” says John.
“We [Old Illtydians] had a youth team for the first time in 11 years, 20 odd players, got to the semi-final of the cup and then COVID struck. All those players are at the age to enter senior rugby, we haven’t got senior rugby. Our challenge is to keep those players on board, who’ll be doing nothing for a whole year probably. That is a challenge, if we keep five of those it’ll be a miracle, with the pull they have from other sports etc.”
Despite the worry of losing players over the break, John does feel there has been progress made to the structure of the community game. “We’re running in the right direction. A few things need sorting out with the Championship etc, but other than that the structure was working. There’s competitive rugby, leagues seem to be working. It’s just COVID following the floods and communication is key.
“There are many clubs out there that feel there isn’t enough communication. There is a lot of club and it’s a difficult job, but it’s possible.
“We can’t be 10 years down the line with 50 clubs gone,” he explains.
“They’ve got 2,000 clubs in England, we’ve got just under 300. There’s a huge difference and we have to keep rugby in the communities. It’s not in the schools as much as it was.
With a background in business and strategy, John feels he is the most well-rounded candidate up for election, something he feels the Council needs more of.
“I know the other candidates well. The criteria that was sent out and I’m confident that I fit that with my proposal. I was a strategic person for South Wales Police around inclusion and diversity. I’ve got huge experiences to bring to the fore, not just rugby. I’ve tried twice now and this will be my last go. It’s a tough shop to get into and I’d be very proud to do it.”
Despite holding several aces up his sleeve, John isn’t coming up short when it comes to knowing how tough it will be to defeat his fellow standees.
“The West Wales and Carmarthen teams probably won’t know me, whereas everyone will know Nigel and Ieuan, so I’ve got a tough battle. I hope the clubs take time to read the proposals from all three of us and make an honest decision.
“Lots of people in East Wales would know me as I’ve been Team Manager of Old Illt’s for a long time.”
The role may involve plenty of time consuming acts, but it’s an unpaid role, and one that John would take great pride in being elected into.
“This is not about finance. There’s no money in the role, but I’m doing it because I can bring a fresh perspective and my years of knowledge to help deal with the problems in community rugby. 30 years of experience, all in community rugby, from the Championship down.
“It was a bit daunting to see those two other names.”
Voting closes on July 10 and John Manders, Nigel Davies and Ieuan Evans’ hard work will all come down to clubs votes.
“Main photo credit”