It is easy to blame the national unions, but those making the decisions at club level must take responsibility for the current state of grassroots rugby too. While funds may be necessarily tight, mainly as a result of governmental cuts, grassroots rugby has stagnated, and those in charge of clubs must change or face extinction.
Everybody is well accustomed to blaming those at the very top of the sport for the issues those at the bottom face (myself included, I will admit), but given how difficult many have found turning out sides at the start of the season, surely this must also be a time for introspection too.
For those running clubs tend, almost universally, to be the same old boys on the club committee. These individuals are volunteers, but, without meaning to be disrespectful, many of them are aged and backward, and without younger people stepping up to make decisions, progress inevitably stagnates.
In the 21st century you cannot hope to grow a club if you do not understand social media and have an active and dedicated cadre of individuals attempting to expand the game beyond its classic player base. In what other sport are those who played the game in the 1970s still granted such responsibility?
The failure to adapt with the times can be seen in issues like player insurance, which is often rejected by clubs’ hierarchies, who are resolutely unwilling to bring outside institutions or offers into play. Yet in a playing environment where injuries are ever more common and an economic climate where self-employment is rising, surely protecting players livelihoods should be the priority?
To grow the game rugby needs partnerships with local schools, an active social media presence, the ability to engage with young people, perhaps a change in off the field culture, and new ways to manage the transition from 16 – 21, when players fall away, and the numbers dry up.
To put it bluntly, it is hard to see the answers to these pressing demands coming from the same individuals who have been running clubs for the last decade.
Initiatives like Project Rugby, a grassroots community programme that has the express aim of attracting young people from Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, deprived areas and those with disabilities to join their local clubs, are a good start. Since 2017, 14,000 new players have entered the game through this scheme. Alone, it is not enough, but it is certainly positive.
Earlier this year, Victoria Ward, chief executive of the Wales Sport Association, which helps sports clubs to try and run as businesses, told the BBC there was a “moral imperative to make sport thrive” in Wales, where rugby clubs are often the last bastion of local community culture.
Ward suggested, “there is not a culture of fundraising in sport, but we perhaps need to re-assess what sport is. For some, sport has not been a business, not been a charity, and is not there as a social good. But, actually, sport is often all of the above.”
Without a changing of the guard, one fears rugby, particularly in areas like the old Welsh heartlands, may slowly slip away.
Written by Joe Ronan