Rugby has always been a sport centred on the community. The clubhouse is a hub that unites generations, old friends, family and teammates. Camaraderie and community are part of the package, and however commercial, professional and ruthless the higher echelons of the sport may become, the local rugby club will always strive to retain these values. Of course, change is inevitable: Pitchero is an example of grassroots rugby moving with the times to good effect, helping clubs to organise and digitise their administration in new ways, but the essential ingredients remain the same.
However, a BBC investigation into the state of grassroots rugby in Wales has revealed some alarming trends. According to one secretary of an amateur Welsh lower league club, the grassroots game is “dying on its feet.” Rugby in Wales, perhaps more so than anywhere else in Britain, has deep communal roots. Historically it has been a working man’s sport, unlike in England, and so local clubs’ suffering has implications that reach beyond the pitch. Last season 30% of teams in amateur second and third divisions were forced to postpone games having been unable to field a full XV. Likewise, the number of clubs able to regularly put out more than one side a week is declining sharply. Hopefully, given the success of the national team this year, these figures will prove to be an aberration rather than the start of a slow decline.
Nevertheless, the grassroots game is essential. Without it any long-term quality at international level is unsustainable, impossible even. International rugby must be built upon the bedrock of a strong national game at all tiers. Clear evidence of the importance of a strong, flourishing grassroots can be found in New Zealand, where Sky Sports and TVNZ compete to broadcast elite school’s first XV games. Furthermore, all 21 weeks of the amateur season are available to watch on the New Zealand Grassroots Rugby Channel. This feeds into a competitive, engaging, inclusive culture that benefits the All Blacks.
In 2017 WRU chairman Gareth Davies, a romantic reminder of Welsh rugby’s glory days, announced plans to form a Community Board to investigate the grassroots game. With score lines reaching almost 100 – 0 in National League fixtures with surprising regularity, and the shocking statistic that Welsh rugby players make up 33% of all UK sportsmen and women serving drugs bans, the game is in real predicament. For countries of similar size, the comparison to New Zealand is harrowing for Wales. Rugby has historically been a national passion in both countries, and should the divide at grassroots widen it is hard to imagine the Welsh being able to keep pace at an elite level.
In England, the legacy of the 2015 Rugby World Cup has helped the grassroots game, regardless of the team’s abject performance in the tournament. According a report into ‘The Economic Impact of Rugby World Cup 2015,’ it added £1.1bn to UK GDP and was the fifth largest single-sport event of all time. This has allowed the RFU to increase the number of level 2 qualified coaches and referees, and so encourage 400 new state schools to take up the game. However, questions have been asked regarding the extent to which these benefits have been dispersed regionally, particularly in the North.
From a wider perspective, academic research has shown a growing trend towards individual sports, with running, swimming, cycling and going to the gym on the rise, whereas participation in team sports has declined over the last few years. The reasons for this are complicated: some are logistical (for instance, in Northern Ireland 35% of the population lives 20 miles or more from a high level, accredited sports facility) and some may be societal, with arguments being made about people growing increasingly individualistic, and so less interested in engaging in communal activities.
Regardless, the rugby club has, historically, been an attractive proposition both in social and sporting terms, and, as preseason training begins, let us hope it remains that way.
By Joe Ronan