Currently, perhaps the greatest threat posed to rugby, at grassroots and beyond, is the drop off in participation as players reach the age of 16.
The transition from colts to seniors is the lifeblood of any club, but for a variety of reasons, social, sporting, cultural and societal, an increasing number of clubs are seeing colts sides fold, with young players leaving home for higher education or job opportunities, and quitting the game all together.
According to WRU Participation chief Ryan Jones, rugby’s retention rate is better than a lot of other sports, but Jones admitted, “we do have an issue from youth to adult rugby,” before suggesting, “some of it is out of our control.”
He went on to elaborate on this point, “when you start mapping the drop-off, it points to other milestones and events happening in people’s lives. There’s more people than ever in higher education – half the number of 18-year-olds.”
“On the back of that people are entering the career phase of their lives, getting married and having families. The working week has also changed with more people working weekends. Clubs were often in communities built around industries which no longer exist.”
Clearly then, broader societal trends are negatively impacting rugby. The modern job market is defined by movement, and employees must be willing to deal with flexibility and flux. The old permanent, predictable, static 9-5 Monday Friday work week has for many disappeared. Likewise, the game is ever more physical and dangerous.
This damages sports whose ethos is communal, and as a team sport rugby is completely dependent on participation and commitment from individuals. On the other hand, sports like cycling and running, whose popularity has risen of late, are easier to fit around busy schedules.
But, the changes that have occurred are not solely sporting. They are also part of broader trends towards an increasingly atomized society, in which individuals spend more and more time alone, or connecting online, rather than meeting in public places, such as clubhouses.
Geoff Parkes, in an excerpt from his book A World In (Union) Conflict; The Global Battle For Rugby Supremacy, points to a series of changes that have altered sport and society irretrievably,
“Any ageing rugby fan who yearns for the amateur game they once played — where rugby seemed less complex and more pure, and the social focus on the clubhouse more intense and regular — knows in his or her heart that that genie is never going back in the bottle.”
“Not all of the changes are because of rugby; significant shifts in society around laws and attitudes to drink-driving, the emergence of discount booze shops, technological advances allowing for matches from all around the world to be beamed live into high definition TVs and mobile devices, and the sheer number of alternative leisure options have changed forever the dynamic and the economics of rugby clubs everywhere.”
Keeping rugby attractive from both a sporting and social point of view is absolutely essential for the health of the game, from a financial, social and sporting perspective.
Likewise, keeping young players, who perhaps played because their parents wanted them to, or their pals did, interested in turning out for senior sides has always been difficult. The worry is, however, that it is only getting harder.
Written by Joe Ronan