Speak to those coaches and players, putting in the hard yards week in week out at grassroots level about the problems facing rugby and they all seem to say, more or less, the same series of things.
For a start, the weather this season has been horrendous, disrupting multiple fixtures, and many clubs don’t have pitches of sufficient quality to cope when the country experiences such a wet spell. This is obviously impossible to control, but better funded clubs tend to have higher quality pitches (or perhaps an artificial turf), that are better equipped at withstanding the winter months.
Second of all: injuries. The bulk of amateur players are suffering injuries every season, many resulting from poor breakdown situations. This is an issue those at club and school level are seeing more and more. Talk of ‘the game going soft’ is nonsense. Fly-hacking may be a thing of the past, but the impacts and collisions of the modern game, even at amateur level, are more intense than ever before.
Finally, the game is coming to terms with concussion at last, but a culture driven in desire of size (in some quarters fuelled by steroids) over skill, has taken its toll in the meantime.
Lastly, declining participation figures numbers throughout senior and junior set-ups, but especially around the age 16-23, are perhaps the greatest issue rugby faces. The stats make sorry reading, and I, amongst others, have rattled them off multiple times before.
However, the reasons numbers are falling off are harder to pinpoint. Part time jobs, the demands of college, university and apprenticeships, alcohol, social media, the growth of individual sports, the declining sense of community in society at large – these are all factors, and rugby, like all team sports, is struggling to find answers to a very twenty-first century set of questions.
The fundamental question, though, is whether the RFU and other governing bodies are really that bothered about finding solutions?
None of these issues have an easy fix, and they are, of course, all interconnected. Yet, funding, injuries and player numbers have been the core problems facing the grassroots game for years, but are the governing bodies listening, taking feedback and making plans to change things?
I myself have seen no evidence of it. On the other hand, I have seen new TV deals, investment partnerships and long term plans for the future of the professional game. Without change at grassroots the stream of talent will dry up and the very elite levels of the game will feel the squeeze too. Until then, though, do not expect much help from the RFU.
Written by Joe Ronan.