In conversation with… the coach, the captain and the chair

Aberdeen Taexali Rugby Club turns two this November. The club, which was launched on the 4th November 2018, has grown not only in size, but in capability, prominence and strength. 

As part of the birthday celebrations, our lock and PR guru, Kyle caught up with three men who have all played a significant role in the team’s development– the coach (Grant Skene), the captain (Rob Clunas) and the chair (Joe Burnett) – to hear how the inclusive club has grown and the secrets to its success.

Joe, as one of the original members, how have you watched the club grow since its launch two years ago?

Joe Burnett (JB): The club has changed massively since I first heard about plans to start up an inclusive team in Aberdeen. When we first started, we had about six people coming down to train at Hazlehead Park every week. And those numbers didn’t really change for about six months. At the time we had a small but determined core of loyal players but were lacking the numbers to really start to make some traction within the IGR, whilst also developing the players we did have.

However, about 18 months ago, in the summer of 2019, things really started to change. We used Grampian Pride as an opportunity to really reach out to the LGBTQ+ community in Aberdeen and engage with guys who maybe hadn’t considered joining a team sport before. Since then, membership has grown steadily month on month, and we’re now sitting with a team of almost 30, training twice a week at a ground of our own.

So, what was the catalyst for change?

Grant Skene (GS): I think it was getting over that initial hurdle of those pre-conceived thoughts of what a ‘gay’ rugby team was. Something that I think a lot of IGR clubs struggle with.  But as we’ve grown, and in particular, reached out to other clubs, we’ve managed to establish more of a standing as ‘real rugby team’. I think now, people are very proud to be part of and support the North east’s only all-inclusive rugby club.

As another original member, and one of the few members who came with prior experience of the game (Grant has played for local rugby teams for 10+ years), Grant quickly found himself as head coach for the fledgling club.

So, what you learnt over this time Grant?

GS: Being a head coach was never particularly on my agenda. We did an initial taster session but didn’t have much planned past that. Really, from the second week in, I was winging it. Putting stuff together that I’ve picked up from coaches and players that I have learnt from and respect.

Previously I’d only coached five-year-olds – so other than maturity levels and being able to hold attention – it was quite a step up…

As it’s gone on, I’ve developed in confidence and skills – learning to better articulate my thoughts and ideas for on the pitch. In addition to the hands-on training, I was also put through my UKCC level 2 rugby coaching which really helped me hone my abilities as head coach.

And how have you seen the team develop?

GS: I think for me, it’s probably been the best thing about being part of this club – watching players starting out – most with absolutely no rugby experience – to where they are now, both on the field or at training. Whether that’s someone being able to successfully catch a ball, or even just see someone grow in confidence and see thing starting to click. It’s the little wins like that, that make it all worth it for me.

And how is Grant as a coach?

Rob Clunas (RC): Excellent! I mean, you can’t fault him, he’s here every time. He turns up! That’s the main thing…

Rob jokes, but in over 130 training sessions, Grant has only missed one session – and throughout lockdown continued to put the team through its paces with pre-season training being sent out to players to work on by themselves or with one other household.

JB: I think it’s just been really nice to see how far he has progressed.  He was always good, but now he’s a fantastic coach, and testament to that is that he trained us well enough to take home the Antinous Plate at the Hadrian’s Cup earlier this year.  

Since launching, Aberdeen Taexali has had two captains who have formed its first XV.

Adam Riggs saw the club through its first ever competitive game vs the Glasgow Alphas in January 2020 and then took them to victory at the Hadrian’s Cup in March of that year. Stepping aside to concentrate on his military career, the club’s ferocious Rob Clunas (usually found tackling someone) was voted in by players as their next captain at an EGM in June.  

Do you think natural leaders have developed from within the team?

RC: I wouldn’t say I’m a natural leader as such, I’m just bossy. It wasn’t something I elected to do myself, but I think players seem to think, “he’s bossy – he’ll get it done”.

But for me, the captain’s role is just as much about being a cheerleader for the team and the players, as it is about leading the team and helping nurture their development.

I live for my Wednesdays and Sundays, and I think that passion comes through and others can be motivated by it.

In addition to leadership on the pitch, a strong and passionate committee have also played a significant role in not only building awareness of the club, but also in helping shaping its growth and future-proofing it.

This has included successful grant applications that allowed the team to move from a dark park on the outskirts of the city, to a rugby training pitch complete with changing rooms and flood lights. A significant milestone that wouldn’t have been made possible without the committee’s determined approach.

How have you managed to empower committee members to keep the club moving forward?

JB: When we first started, the committee was composed of every player at the time, each in a role that we needed filled. By growing, we’ve managed to not only expand on this but also put people in roles that play to their individual strengths and allows them to be passionate about their role and remit.

Since its inception, Aberdeen Taexali has enjoyed a significant growth with player numbers increasing by almost 400%. Why do you think it has proven as popular as it has?

JB: For me, it’s the strong bond that exists amongst the players. When we first started as a small core this became obvious quite quickly, and as we’ve grown to now almost 30, that bond and close-knit feeling remains intact.

RC: The biggest thing that gets remarked on is how much of a ‘family’ we are. When we go to games and tournaments, we also stay, cook and eat together and outside of training – when the world isn’t falling apart – we genuinely want to hang out together. Whether that’s cinema trips to see the latest Disney movie, or meeting to drink some pints as we watch a game at the local ‘Spoons. It’s a team of friends who are there for you, whenever you need them.

GS: I think what a lot of people like about the team, is the ease of it. A lot of our players have at some point probably struggled to make friends without the ‘elephant in the room’ of a label of some sort. At rugby, we offer a safe and supportive space to make friends and socialise without the added ‘baggage’ on top of that.

In addition, it’s a space you can learn more about yourself. Rugby is obviously the main component, but it can teach you so much more about yourself when you’re suddenly mixing with different personalities and characters that you haven’t had much interaction with before.

JB: Yeah, what we have is a support group. Rugby is obviously very good for your physical health, but also for your mental health, especially at a time like this. I think one of the things that has been noticeable by everyone is how numbers have never been stronger than since training resumed after lockdown. Whether that was to do with wanting to get back in shape after months of Netflix and snacking, or wanting to tackle our own mental health, I’m just very proud to know the club was there when people realty needed it.

In its two short years, the club has successfully secured over £8.5k of funding and sponsorship from the likes of Specsavers, Siberia Bar & Hotel and Cheerz Club. It has also been nominated for three awards and not forgetting taking home silverware at the team’s first ever tournament.

What do the men who lead it mark as its key successes?

JB: I think the greatest achievement for me, is just seeing players turning up consistently every week, whatever the weather. Purely because they are enjoying it.

RC: Building on that, it’s seeing the players who have never played rugby before come from being terrified and nervous and throwing the ball away to knowing the game and having fun.

GS: The go-to, and easy one is Hadrian’s. But really, that’s one day out of the 750 we’ve been going. That’s really just a little snippet of all the achievements we’ve hit in building a team over the past two years. A team that we’re all hugely proud to be a part of.

And, other than being in a world back on its feet after the disaster that was 2020, what’s next for Taexali?

JB: So, right now our priority is just to get ready for joining the Caledonia North League next season. With this year being as it has been, we’re just concentrating on building the team up – both in strength and in numbers – so that we’re in a really good place to join the League next year.

GS: I think with the year as it has been, it’s so important right now that we just continue to motivate the players and keep them turning up to regular training when everything else may be falling apart around them.

For more information about joining Aberdeen Taexali email hello@aberdeentaexali.com or come along to its free Scrum & Have A Go Birthday Edition this Sunday from 11am.

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