“When I was young, the rugby club was the centre of village life. We played for it, and felt part of the village – any team sport is a good thing, for discipline and friendship”
“But rugby clubs are struggling. Some of the clubs in the county have already closed, and it’s altering the social fabric of communities.”
So, Phil Jones, the vice Chairman of Bryncethin RFC, Bridgend, told Wales Online. The situation in Wales is mirrored across the rest of the British Isles: fading facilities, increased difficulty in turning out sides every week, and less players who will play at a club for decades.
Rugby is in no way excluded from broader economic and societal trends. A more dynamic job market means people move more, and greater instability in the lives of individuals makes them less likely to invest the time and effort required to become truly ingrained in a club.
Sadly, the years when colts would graduate into first teamers, age into a half decent player at second or third team level before finally evolving into a dedicated supporter (or drinker) are over.
Too many people leave the place where they grew up for that to be the case, particularly in rural areas. Likewise, the decline of core industries, such as mining, shipbuilding or steel works, means the notion of stable employment in a geographically restricted area is rare. Modern life is defined by flux, and flux is not suited to long term relationships with institutions like a rugby club.
If you ally these structural problems to increased teenage dropout rates, concussion and injury fears, massive cuts to sports funding and a rise in the popularity of individual sports (again related to a more general trend away from emphasis on the community towards the individual) and the picture looks relatively bleak.
There are of course exceptions to this sweeping generalisation. Many clubs in the South of England, or densely populated areas of the North, can boast hugely positive playing figures. However, step away from cities and the issues emerge. The population is ageing, young people are moving away, and clubs struggling.
The clubhouse world, of multi-generational ties between friends, families, staff and players, is almost unique to rugby as a sport. Grassroots football cannot boast the same social importance. Recently, the loss of Bury FC has caused a re-evaluation from some in football about what it is a club actually means: what it should stand for? what are its aims? what constitutes success?
Scrambling blindly towards financial and sporting success is a dangerous game. Sport has a unique ability to unite people, to provide people’s lives with meaning and purpose; rugby must not lose sight of that. It’s not about winning, it’s about making sure people keep taking part.
Written by Joe Ronan