While Fylde’s Rugby Community Foundation is technically independent of the National Two North side, the impact their charitable initiative is having on the local area is shining an extremely positive light on the Lancashire club. (Photo Credit: Fylde Rugby Community Foundation)

Phill Mills’ enthusiasm for growing the game instantly comes across when we begin discussing the Fylde Rugby Community Foundation.

“The reason that I am so passionate is that when I was at school, I never had any opportunity to play because there was no school team,” he says.

“There were two of us who knew how to play rugby who actually played at a club and the rest of them didn’t. The teachers didn’t know how to coach it. There were no external coaches to come in and deliver, so we just didn’t do it. That’s why it is important to me to drive an aspect of the foundation across the schools in the area because I know all the benefits and the impact it can have.”

Last year, Mills was forced to retire at the age of 28 due to persistent injury, but he remains an integral part of Fylde in his role as Foundation Manager.

Mills has been involved with the Foundation since it was launched in 2020 and his day-to-day job is to ‘improve access to rugby union in Fylde, Blackpool and Wyre by offering community pathways for participation and appreciation for the sport regardless of age, sex, religion or background.’

The Foundation was borne out of a conversation between local businessman and rugby enthusiast David Craven (who is now Chairman of the Foundation) and Sir Bill Beaumont (World Rugby Chairman and now Honorary President of the Foundation).

“They were discussing the need for the community game to generate more interest. That is not just children, it is adults as well which you can see with the decline in the senior participation numbers,” Mills adds.

“From that conversation, the Fylde Rugby Community Foundation was created. We are a registered charity and legally and financially separate to the rugby club and I think that’s how and why the model works. All funds generated by the foundation are pumped straight back into the community. That is how it organically grows.”

In September 2020, it was just Mills heading up the charity with the support of a strong trustee board. The Foundation now has six full time staff members and covers 84 primary and secondary schools in the area.

Throughout our 30-minute conversation, Mills discusses how the Foundation operates and how the different programmes they offer engage with the local community.

But what underpins everything the charitable initiative strives to achieve immediately catches your eye when you visit the Foundation’s website. The first thing you see is the strapline ‘Rugby For All.’

That is the motivation for Mills and his team. They want to make a difference in people’s lives.

“We are open and want to provide programmes and opportunities for everyone to take part in rugby,” Mills says.

“We have eight different programmes all designed for that ‘Rugby For All’ so accessible for all ages and abilities and we currently just started working with three partner clubs. I know it is Fylde Rugby Community Foundation but we work with Garstang Rugby Club, Fleetwood Rugby Club and Thornton-Cleveleys as well. We are a Fylde coast initiative.

“One key point that I want to get across as well is we are willing to share our business model and business plan with other clubs across the country because it works, we want to grow the game of rugby and we think it is a massive need.”

One of the strands of the Foundation is its Rugby Pathway Programme which is kindly supported by Porsche Centre Preston. This initiative provides an opportunity for children and families facing adversity to become part of a rugby club, ensuring they can engage in the sport despite their challenging circumstances. The aim is to help young people who might be apprehensive about joining a rugby club take that first initial step. As they may not be able to get to a rugby club or be able to afford the costs of the required kit or travel, the Rugby Pathway Programme provides this assistance.

The Foundation helps with all of these elements – through the funding and sponsorship they receive – with the end goal to introduce young people to the sport. In turn, this should lead to an increase in participation in relevant age group teams across the local community and not just at Fylde.

“Out of all of our different projects and sessions, so if we are delivering in schools or camps etc and there are kids who are loving rugby but can’t afford to join a club, this pays for a membership at a club including kit, travel etc,” Mills explains.

“If they are in Blackpool and can’t get to Fylde for example, then we can pick them up and take them back each Sunday just so they can play. That kind of underpins all the programmes but it creates sustainability so we can ensure long-term participation which then grows in the community game and rugby clubs in general.

“We’ve recently had the full 15 places taken on our rugby pathway programme at Fylde and we have seen a big increase in memberships. We are looking at around 40 to 50 new mini and junior members since we started too which is really positive.”

But it is not just on the pitch where the Foundation is having an impact. They are also introducing rugby to the classroom via their Rugby Reading Champions programme.

This is designed to work with youngsters who would benefit from one-to-one and small-group work. The programme aims to associate reading with sport while also developing children’s life skills such as teamwork and communication – which are both relatable to rugby.

“Sometimes we go in and deliver this to kids who have no interest in rugby but we are getting across the core values of rugby,” Mills says.

“There was one child in a school in Blackpool where we delivered. He had a stutter. He wasn’t comfortable reading in front of the class.

“Each week, we have a core value that we focus on and we delivered a session on ‘respect’. We talked about respect and how it is appropriate to respect your teammates and also your classmates and the week after when we asked him whether he wanted to read, he came up and said he’d like to give it a go. Everyone respected him. There was no giggling, no laughing and just that alone is impactful.”

Mills is keen to stress the Foundation also ensures adults remain engaged with rugby through programmes such as walking rugby and wheelchair rugby which – like the other initiatives the Foundation provides – are growing in popularity and these are delivered across the foundation’s partner clubs.

“It all circles back to ‘Rugby For All'” he says. “We are just bringing that engagement of rugby into schools and we are seeing with parents and teachers feedback that they are noticing what we are doing. 

“Memberships are increasing, children and adults involved in our programmes are now watching Fylde on a Saturday so we are trying to get the word out there and we are seeing it [a growth in popularity].”

With the Foundation’s programmes running all year round – with their rugby and multi-sports camps headlining the summer – you would forgive Mills if the next steps for the charity were still being composed.

However, the proactive approach of Mills and his team means their upcoming initiatives will only help continue to grow the game.

As an example, in 2023-24, the Foundation will be delivering sponsored programmes in eight secondary schools across Fylde, Wyre and Blackpool all year round meaning rugby will actually be on the curriculum in these schools.

There is also plenty more in the pipeline and looking ahead, Mills is excited about expanding the fine work of the Fylde Rugby Community Foundation.

“We are very conscious that we don’t do absolutely everything and then the quality of the programmes we have now drop,” he says. “The key thing for me and my team is to drive the quality because that is what is going to get kids, your adults playing and being involved with rugby. If the quality drops, then we are going to see an impact on the numbers and we are not creating ‘Rugby For All’.

“Fylde are a massive club with a great legacy. What we are doing is connecting the club and that legacy with the community, mainly through the local schools but also within the wider community and as a result, the club has already seen a significant increase in new members, both playing and non-playing.

“Most importantly, many of these people hadn’t had any previous experience of rugby prior to becoming involved with one of the Foundation’s programmes.

“Once we launch our new Curriculum Rugby Programme in September, we anticipate that numbers will substantially increase, not just at Fylde, but at Fleetwood and Garstang Rugby Clubs too.”

The email address to contact Phill and the Community Foundation is: community@fylderugbyfoundation.com

Phone:07534 321418