Taking a cursory glance at English rugby prior to the World Cup final, it all looks rosy. The side have stormed past New Zealand to reach the final. The captain is considered one of the world’s best. Tom Curry has been nominated for World Player of the Year. Eddie Jones is acting in a more amiable, mystic manner publicly (and he’s got them winning again). England’s social media presence is slick. The future looks bright.
After such an annihilation at the weekend, on such a stage, things inevitably look different. Yet they shouldn’t, all of the above are still true, the failure to show up on the biggest day of all doesn’t make this England team poor overnight. This squad of players has its best days ahead of them. England are the richest rugby nation, with the vastest resources across all levels.
That is what makes the real issues in English rugby so shameful – the problems of participation at grassroots level.
Between 2010 and 2018, the numbers of children between 11 and 15 participating in club rugby has been steadily falling from it’s 2011/12 high of 22.8% to its current low of 14.6%. The RFU announced last year that investment in rugby will fall by £13m annually.
This is result of nationwide cuts to public funding, but whilst rugby may not be unique, it is being disproportionately impacted.
In the 2015 autumn statement Sport England’s budget was cut £1.1bn, a 24% decrease from 2011. Therefore, whilst Sport England director Phil Smith can suggest cuts are strategic, “we are purposely spending less on traditional sport so we can spend more elsewhere,” this is the direct result of cuts at the highest level, dressing it up as otherwise does not change that reality.
To those who have seen these stats before, the impact such cuts are having comes as no real surprise. Likewise, those involved in grassroots rugby know the real, concrete impact these rather cold and difficult to quantify statistics are having on rugby throughout the tiers.
Coaches see the damage first-hand. Teams are folding earlier than they did previously. It was perhaps not unreasonable for a colt’s side to be unable to finish a season, given the social and academic pressures at that age, but Under 16’s?
This trickles up to senior level too. Second and Third XV’s are now struggling at clubs where previously they may have once been able to turn out four senior sides every Saturday.
For all the glory and excitement of the Rugby World Cup, these are the real problems plaguing rugby at the minute. At all age groups fewer players are sticking around to play the game, fewer young players are keeping up with the sport through to senior level, and more individuals are being forced out through injury.
Let us, then, keep things at the elite level in perspective.
Written by Joe Ronan