Rugby – an evasion sport with the potential to encounter God

Published: Friday August 18, 2023
Rich with son, Wilf, at The Rec, Bath
Rich with son, Wilf, at The Rec, Bath

Ahead of the Men’s Rugby Union World Cup, starting 8 September, Richard Witham, Head of Sport and Faith for Sportily, shares how his passion for the sport links with his passion for his Christian faith.

“As a child and a young person, I found a love for sport, especially Rugby Union, long before a love for Jesus. (As a quick footnote having lived on both ends of the M62 for over 15 years, I have a lot of time for Rugby League but, as a Bristolian, Rugby Union is my egg-shaped sport of choice.)

“It will come as no surprise that I am pretty excited for the Men’s Rugby Union World Cup, which runs from 8 September to 28 October – work colleagues and family might find me harder than usual to get hold of and I am so very tempted to take our campervan to the South of France and enjoy the sunshine, the rugby and the refreshments.

“As I look forward to the Rugby World Cup, I pause and look back at those moments of epiphany where rugby and faith have collided for me:

  • In sixth form
    When I had just started out on the adventure of following God as a sixth former in Bristol and looking at the touch line to see a youth leader from church giving up their Saturday afternoon to come and watch me. That someone would value me and the sport I was passionate about enough to come and watch me.
  • In scripture
    Enjoying and accepting Romans 12, verse 1 – ‘Therefore I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.’ Our worship is always in response to what God has done for us and for who God is. For me, this sense of giving my whole self to God is true and proper worship was transformative especially this direct link to my physical body. The action of my body becomes a means of worship as I live in the world for God’s glory. Wow! Of course, this is not just around physical activity and sport but worship for me is hugely rooted in this. While I have now retired from playing rugby for 20+ years, true and proper worship happened on the training paddock and on a Saturday afternoon. This has now moved into other areas of physical activity, including rugby coaching.
  • Through coaching
    Many years ago, I embarked on the beginnings of my coaching journey and did my Level 1 coaching qualification. I was re-learning how to coach others and it was very different to how I was taught. I can picture where I was standing as the coach educator talked us through creating a positive learning environment, letting the players play conditioned games and then as a coach asking the right question to help the players truly learn and encourage them to question what they are doing and why. This sounded very much like the way Jesus taught his disciples – through them doing, joining in and through two-way questions. I can trace this moment to the birth of ‘Play sport talk life’, a phrase at the heart of the what and the how of Sportily.

“As I look forward to the Rugby World Cup, I will be aware of the natural conversations that can come from it with friends, family, those at the rugby club and young people through Sportily around success and disappointment (Jack Van Poortvliet and Ntamack for example), enjoyment, beauty and creativity and see where these conversations can lead.

“I will enjoy the post-match hymns and prayers from some of the countries and players and join in when they openly give glory to God. I will enjoy watching some top-class rugby and be thankful to God for what we are watching. I am also committed to pray, so each match I watch I will pause and pray for those countries – for the challenging situations they face, maybe for people and organisations that are linked to those I know.”


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