Cobham RFC's Rugby World Cup journey began back in 2012 when they made an initial request to the RFU to be considered as a Team Base, providing training facilities to a participating international team. That simple enquiry, made slightly more in hope than expectation by Tony Balkwill, Cobham's RWC 2015 Chairman, was eventually to develop into a wholly magical experience for an amateur rugby club playing in English Rugby's seventh tier.
It was not without its challenges at all stages of the process, none more so than when Tony received a 14 page Team Base tender document with 123 questions from England 2015, the Rugby World Cup 2015 competition organisers. The main parts of the document related to the requirement of an approved international standard pitch, specified outdoor and indoor training facilities, a weight training room, two dedicated changing rooms, an indoor gymnasium, a swimming pool and hotel accommodation which all had to be on the same site or within a 5 mile radius.
Cobham RFC is very fortunate to have excellent changing rooms within its clubhouse and six pitches, including their show piece premier pitch, which most importantly has the same dimensions as an International pitch and benefits from excellent drainage. It is also maintained to an exceptionally high standard by Cobham's Chris Humber and his family team.
Tony Balkwill said 'Recognising that we did not have a swimming pool and indoor training and gym facilities, an approach was made to ACS Cobham International School who are based close to our Memorial Grounds, to become our co-hosts. ACS has world class facilities and previous international experience in hosting teams for the 2012 Olympics.
Tony also knew that Cobham RFC did not have an international standard gymnasium for weight training but believed this could be achieved by discussion with England 2015 and this was eventually overcome by the installation of a temporary structure provided and equipped by England Rugby 2015.
The final piece of the puzzle was the hotel accommodation for which we approached The Woodlands Park Hotel, a 4 star hotel with 61 rooms just 3 miles away in Cobham.
On being accepted as a provisional team base in 2014, Cobham were visited by representatives from the management teams of England, Ireland, Italy, Argentina, France, New Zealand and Samoa Rugby Football Unions. These visits were coordinated closely by England Rugby 2015 with whom an excellent working relationship was forged.
Cobham were advised by England 2015 that they had been selected from the original 80 plus venues visited by England 2015 to be one of the 41 Team Bases for Rugby World Cup and only one of six rugby clubs. The news was delivered at a press conference held at Cobham's clubhouse in Fairmile Lane on 26th August 2014, attended by RWC 2015 Ambassador, Lawrence Dallaglio.
It was announced that Cobham RFC and ACS Cobham International School would be hosting two international teams, Italy and Namibia, for their initial Pool matches and after discussion and negotiation, a Team Base contract was signed with England 2015.
As a consequence of this exciting news, Tony Balkwill formed a separate committee of seven volunteers from the club to deliver the logistical requirements of hosting two international teams at Cobham RFC, liaising with Elmbridge Council and the local community whilst ensuring that the challenges for club members losing the facilities during September and October 2015 together with the restrictions placed on our sponsors were all managed diplomatically.
As the premier pitch would be provided exclusively to the visiting teams, it was also necessary to ensure that Cobham's league fixtures were accommodated.
As Namibia and Italy would be training and accommodated in Elmbridge, initial meetings were held with Mary Sheldon, Portfolio holder for Leisure and Culture and Ian Burrows, Head of Leisure and Culture at Elmbridge Council to ensure the community would feel part of the process. In due course these discussions were extended to Cobham Chamber of Commerce and Esher Business Guild. The support received was exceptional and greatly assisted Tony Balkwill and the Committee.
The 'journey' continued when on Friday 6th February Cobham RFC were delighted to host a workshop for groundsmen, representing the training Team Bases for Rugby World Cup 2015, from the South of England. Attended by thirty two grounds men including Cobham's Chris Humber and Nick Humber, they received a presentation on the standards that were expected of the Team Bases they represented.
Visits then followed from the Italian and Namibian team management, together with their England 2015 support representatives, to discuss their respective teams' requirements during their stay.
The Rugby World Cup 2015 experience began on Saturday 29th August 2015 when the Webb Ellis Cup arrived on day 80 of the Trophy Tour and Cobham RFC was delighted that Rugby Football Union President Jason Leonard attended to ensure the members and local community could have their photos taken with the iconic trophy.
In the week preceding the arrival of the Namibian squad and in order to ensure adequate security, branded fencing was installed together with two camera platforms and sail banners referring to Cobham’s Team Base status. Once the security fencing was installed, the temporary gym was erected.
Cobham's clubhouse was decked with the flags of the participating nations as were the High Streets of Cobham and Esher.
Italy and Namibia received their Rugby World Cup 2015 Caps at a formal Welcome Ceremony held at Hampton Court Palace on 14th and 17th September respectively.
Steve Heard, Chairman of Cobham Rugby was one of several Cobham representatives and said 'Having listened to a truly inspiring rendition of World in Union by Chase Bridge School choir, I had the chance to ask the children if they played rugby? Two girls explained that they played netball but they are now going to give rugby a try. An example of the legacy from their experience and involvement in Rugby World Cup 2015’.
With security at the Memorial Grounds in place the serious aspect of being a Team Base host began with the arrival of the Namibian squad on September 16th
Arriving from their hotel in a personalised team bus and accompanied by an England 2015 support team the Namibian players utilised the premier pitch and ‘pop up’ gym for their training at Cobham and utilised ACS for their indoor sports centre and swimming pool. The Clubhouse was the base for their management and media team and a press conference was held in the run up to their first game against New Zealand.
When they were not training the Namibian squad participated in Club and Community events: Virtually the whole Namibian squad came into Cobham RFC’s club event to watch the opening ceremony and England’s first match against Fiji.
They participated in ACS Cobham International School’s BBQ to celebrate their support in raising funds for schools in Namibia and on their rest day, some of the coaches and players came down to see Cobham RFC’s Mini section in action and joined in the training.
Namibian Team Manager Wessel Kotzè said: “We were completely overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality of Cobham RFC. The facilities at this club are world class and we were privileged to be able to use Cobham RFC as our base for our preparations for the match against New Zealand. On behalf of the Namibian Rugby Union I wish to express our sincere gratitude to Cobham RFC for their support.“
“We were very impressed by the club’s commitment to the development of the game and the huge turn-out at their mini-rugby day should be a blue print for many clubs and unions like ourselves as to how to go about getting the youth involved with the game. Members of the team and management who were at the mini rugby day had a great time and were reminded again how important it was looking after rugby at grassroots level.“
Following Namibia’s impressive performance against New Zealand and their departure to Exeter to play their remaining Pool matches there was only a short break for Cobham’s grounds team to repair any damage to the pitch.
The Italian squad arrived at Cobham following their victory against Canada. Injuries had been incurred in the game and ACS was able to accommodate unscheduled swimming pool sessions to assist the recuperation.
Morale was boosted when their captain, Sergio Parisse passed a fitness test to join the squad at Cobham and the pitch and gym facilities were fully utilised each day.
As regular participants in the Six Nations competition Italy’s expectations for training facilities were at a high level but Cobham RFC and ACS were able to provide what was required to enable them to prepare for their match against Ireland.
Luigi Troiani, Italian National Team Manager said "We highly enjoyed our stay at our Rugby World Cup 2015 Team Base Cobham RFC and ACS Cobham International School which put us in the best possible situation from which to prepare for our Rugby World Cup 2015 matches''
In their second week Italy provided Cobham RFC and the local community with an open training session that will always be remembered because the whole squad and management came into the Clubhouse to sign autographs and give away flags and souvenirs.
Steve Heard said 'Who will ever forget the wet Monday afternoon at Cobham’s clubhouse, filled to the brim with children in school uniform desperate to get autographs from the Italian team that they has seen on their TV screens. A once in a lifetime opportunity for members of our club and local school children to be inspired to play the game where the life skills of respect, teamwork, discipline, enjoyment and sportsmanship can be developed'.
Finally, before they headed to their last match of the tournament, an Italian contingent attended a splendid Italian themed Civic Reception given by Elmbridge Borough Council.
Dave Schuchter, Head of Sport ACS Cobham International School said. 'It was an honour to serve as a Team Base for the 2015 Rugby World Cup! We were pleased to have the Namibian and Italian Rugby teams train in our Sports Centre and utilise our indoor aquatics facility. One of the highlights for our ACS Cobham community was the Namibia Rugby Team BBQ evening that we hosted. It was a fantastic event that allowed our community to share with the Namibia RFU and the Namibian High Commission the charity work we do every summer in Namibia. It was truly a memorable evening for our students and staff to meet the team and special guests'.
Following the departure of the Italian and Namibian teams, the club was visited by a 28-strong delegation from Japanese Prefecture of Oita who will be hosting teams during the 2019 Rugby World Cup. They wanted to understand the process that Cobham RFC and ACS Cobham International School had been through.
After providing helpful information, President Lionel Frewin expressed his thanks for the interest that had been shown by their visit and Mr.Masaharu Kotegawa of Oita Prefecture and Rugby Union responded with his very kind thanks for the assistance that had been provided and confirmation that Cobham RFC had wonderful facilities that surpassed many rugby clubs in Japan.
The delegation have asked to return with some more representatives and Cobham RFC have offered full support and co-operation. In the meantime, given the success of their national team in the competition, Cobham RFC has asked that any enquiries from Japanese nationals, studying or working in England and who want to play rugby, be forwarded on.
Tony Balkwill summed up the experience as follows: 'It is difficult to measure the ultimate legacy of being a Team Base so soon after our involvement. However, during the two preceding years, we have built firm and we hope, enduring relationships with ACS Cobham International School, our co-hosts, Elmbridge Council and our local Chambers of Commerce to whom we express our grateful thanks for their support and cooperation. Our facilities have been showcased and acclaimed locally and internationally and our profile in the rugby community raised. We hope that our members and those who visited us from the local community enjoyed the experience as much as we did. Finally, many thanks to the Namibian and Italian squads who supported our community events and we truly hope that we will see them again'.
President Lionel Frewin said ‘’Following a development plan which is now in its ninth year, Cobham have some of the best facilities of any amateur club in the UK. Our modern clubhouse provides social, meeting and training facilities of the highest standard and is regularly in demand for functions and conferences, whilst our floodlit pitches and training grounds allow all year round training for both our members and local schools. The quotes from the visiting teams that our facilities are ‘ world class’ is a huge accolade to all those involved in the vision and development of our club.
‘'We should express our thanks to our members and sponsors for supporting us in this endeavour, together with the directors and staff of Cobham Sports Association and members of Cobham’s Netball, Lacrosse and Tennis sections for their patience and forbearance as the Rugby World Cup came to Cobham. Above all, our sincere thanks must go to Tony Balkwill and his Committee for all their work in making this Rugby World Cup experience possible.'