This year the RFU celebrates the second anniversary of its award winning inclusivity programme ‘Project Rugby,’ which has, thus far, seen 25,000 new players, from a variety of backgrounds, become involved in the game. However, since ‘Project Rugby’s’ inception, whilst the budget for the men’s international side has been ringfenced, there have been over 60 job losses in a cost cutting exercise that appears to have hit community rugby hardest. The RFU announced last year that investment in rugby will fall by £13m annually. This is a contradiction that appears hard to fathom; traditionally thriving rugby clubs are increasingly struggling to maintain colts and senior level sides, and funding increases, rather than decreases, are surely required.
At the grassroots, across the UK, the game is struggling. Whilst participation figures up to the age of ten are increasing, beyond that the trend is one of steady decline. Many fear there has been a shift away from a culture defined by a series of independent local clubs to one in which the best sides, at school, club, and academy level, seem to enjoy a concentration of available talent and resources. In Wales, the new league structure, announced last week, has been met with a certain level of scepticism, with worries that increased travel times could leave clubs on the brink regarding the ability to field sides.
In the absence of sustained and effective funding plans from the relevant governing body, the onus appears increasingly to be on professional clubs to develop the local rugby culture. Many run admirable community based schemes, attempting to engage children at all ages in the game, and tackle child obesity. In the mission statement of the Gloucester Rugby Community Charity, encouraging a healthy, active lifestyle, education and inclusivity are highlighted as the priorities. Addressing health issues, such as childhood obesity, through getting children playing rugby, is just one element of their work however, and there is now a classroom in Kingsholm. Likewise, Nottingham Rugby’s community work is “integral to the club’s identity.”
Sale Sharks are another club that run a series of beneficial community based schemes, such as their recent “Balls to That” mental health scheme, alongside regular walking, tag, and wheelchair rugby programmes. Furthermore, they enjoy a fruitful relationship with Wythenshawe Community Rugby Club, a club located in one of the more deprived areas of South Manchester dedicated to engaging the community in rugby. Sharks also run a series of schools based programmes, including focusing on employability, at all levels of education.
Whilst all this is of course incredibly positive, there is perhaps a question to be asked regarding the growing centralisation of the grassroots game around professional clubs and their academies. With efficient talent spotting systems in place, hoovering up the best players, there are understandably worries about the declining independence of the local, amateur rugby club.
In rural Wales, clubs can receive as much as £13,000 in ‘development money,’ only for travel costs to come to £20,000. According to former Wales prop Jeremy Pugh, “They say they’re putting all this money in but are they really putting it in where it will make a difference? I don’t think they are.”
The place of the amateur club in an era a professionalism is a problem that has yet to be fully resolved. Traditionally, it is local clubs that have provided the community centres in rugby, with older generations coaching and engaging younger ones in an organic fashion that is determined by where you grow up.
However, in a changing world in which local communities and face to face interaction is growing less important, this role appears to be waning. Whether the traditional notion of a local club is something that can be maintained, or whether there is a desire to provide the funds to allow it to continue, remains to be seen. John Owen, a former RFU president, fears the grassroots game could be set to “dwindle away,” let us hope he is wrong.
Written by Joe Ronan