Among the big changes happening at Melbourne Uni Rugby at the start of the 2019 season is the move to have a Women’s Club Captain as well as a Men’s.
The change to the constitution for the 110-year-old club heralds a marked swing towards recognising the importance of championing its women players, who have played for Melbourne University since 1995.
According to club president Sean O’Donnell, a former Queensland Country player, the most important thing Melbourne University Rugby Football Club did last year was to have a team in the national women’s 7s competition. “And there will be a team again this year.”
“What we wanted to do was create a compelling value proposition for women to want to play rugby at our club because if we don’t get women playing at the club, we will cease to be relevant.
“It’s quite clear if we don’t make that happen we will not get support from government, the University and sponsors.”
Sean rates a premiership with a University women’s rugby team just as important as a 1st-grade men’s premiership.
“We’ve done things to codify the approach to make the place more inclusive and make it a good place for women to excel in the sport,” he says.
After partnering with Northern in having a joint women’s team for the last two seasons, University this year will have its own stand-alone women’s side.
Along with promoting the women’s game within the club, Sean and his newly expanded committee of 11 have recently announced four ambitious goals in a 2021 strategy document to re-focus its direction.
The first goal is to win a 1st Grade, Women’s and Colt’s premierships by the end of the 2021 season. Goal number two is to win the Victorian Club senior championship. Although Sean doesn’t put a time frame on this he says the last one that was secured in 1967 was too long ago.
The next goal is to grow the club to at least 400 members, up from just 26 social members in 2018.
The drive to kick start that will be a “Team of the Century” dinner and a series of “Team of the Decade” lunches from the 1960s onwards through the season to re-engage past players.
“We did start to get a lot of traction last year with the lunch program, which helped us finish the year financially well off,” Sean says.
A large part of that was achieved off the back of a successful raffle and auction of heritage jerseys, during one of the lunches, which netted $12,000 for the club after players competed in them in one of the rounds.
“What that told me was there a big capacity for men and women who have played here to come back and spend a bit of time at the club if we bothered to ask them.”
In another change for the club the white is being removed from the jerseys this year in line with the university’s colours of black and blue. “I think they’ll sell well,” Sean says.
And finally the club is aiming to attract at least $100,000 a year in sponsorship by 2021 up from about $35,000 currently.
By far the club’s main sponsor remains construction company Buildcorp, which puts up $25,000 a year.
In its quest to attract more sponsors, the club is aiming to re-define the culture it wishes to build, which Sean says is not dissimilar to one that already exists.
Essentially that culture embraces an ethos of “looking after each other and making everyone welcome”.
“We want to be respectful of the game, our history and opponents (on the field).
“It is important that our players, when they are older, can look back and say that ‘the time with the club was important for me as a player and more important than that is I developed as a person’.
“The players that come back to the club for lunches and watch games—they’ve got that.”
Sean says the club can’t thrive on the basis of being exclusive and neither can rugby in Victoria either. “And we have a role to play in that.”
He is keen not to repeat the folly of a few years ago when a 1st-Grade men’s team was imported into the club for the sole reason of winning a premiership.
“They [the club] lost sight of everything other than winning 1st Grade.” To assure sponsors that won’t happen again, Sean has taken them through the club’s new strategy. Importantly all our coaches and support start as well as the playing group are also well aware of the strategy.
“If I know I need $100,000 of recurring sponsorship, I’ve got to have a compelling reason why a sponsor would invest in our Club.”
Many sponsors, including Buildcorp, would not be inclined to support a club, for example, if they didn’t support the advancement of women in sport.
Sean admits the results recorded last season were not great but some important objectives around building a platform for the future and finishing with excess funds were achieved.
As part of its three-year plan, the club is forging improved links with the University and better relationships with stakeholders.
When it’s financially viable to do so, Sean says he would like to develop players by taking them on tours.
He would also like to engage other clubhouse users to press council and local politicians to make the dressing sheds fit for female players to use.
The season launch is on 17 April at University’s clubhouse from 6.30 – 8 p.m.
With the main oval still undergoing renovations until next month, the first few rounds will be played on the top field and/or Fawkner Park in South Yarra.
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