Bookings required to enter clubhouses. Apps necessary to buy drinks. Training in tightly restricted groups. Rugby, that most contact orientated of contact-sports, remaining non-contact for the foreseeable future. It has been a strange few weeks for those involved in club rugby. These regulations are necessary, they are important and they should be adhered to, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel weird.
More generally, rugby has been the most impacted of all the major sports by the coronavirus crisis. Premier League football clubs will have finished their season before Premiership rugby players have recommenced theirs. Likewise, England Cricket will have completed a test series against the West Indies in the same time.
It seems inevitable, however, in spite of the delay, that sporting life at the professional level will return to some level of normality in good time. Crowds may remain locked out, but rugby will be back on television soon. Matches will be played, rearranged international series will be touted.
There is too much money in the game for this not to be the case. Where there is money, there is will, and – as they say – where there is a will, there is a way. I for one do not bemoan this. The prospect of professional rugby returning is welcome.
But what about where the money is tight, and only growing tighter? Rugby has traditionally placed great emphasis on the side of sport that is not necessarily sporting. Rugby, it seems fair to say, isn’t all about the rugby.
Rugby is about packed clubhouses; about sharing meals with opposition players; about person to person contact; about friendships and community and generations mingled and laughing and joking post-match. It is about those rare coach trips to distant and important away days. All this is cliched, I know. It is a romanticised vision of what rugby is, but that doesn’t mean there is not some residual truth in it.
Club rugby, really, is built on the foundations of friendship and community. About different people sharing the same place. People play, volunteer and stick around post-match because they care. They care about their club and they care about the people that constitute their club. Club rugby is built upon real, tangible person to person interaction. On inter-generational bonds. It is built upon people investing time and effort into a physical entity: a club, a clubhouse, a team. It is built on exactly the parts of life threatened most explicitly by the coronavirus crisis.
And so, as the country is pulled (in some quarters eagerly, in others reluctantly) out of lock-down, club rugby finds itself at an interesting cross-roads. Prior to coronavirus, club rugby had found participation numbers falling. It had witnessed a decline in off the pitch engagement. It had struggled to engender the same loyalty and dedication to the idea of the ‘club’ in a younger generation with sights set elsewhere. There is a risk that coronavirus will accelerate these pre-existing trends.
Perhaps. But there seems also, after months of loneliness and boredom, a renewed appreciation of what it was exactly that we all lost locked down at home. Face to face conversations matter. Being involved in a community matters. Seeing friends really, really matters. Fresh air and exercise matter.
These are the things that club rugby means for so many people. They have never felt more under threat. They have never felt more necessary.
Written by Joe Ronan.