Rugby needs to wake up to the slow strangling of the grassroots game | Sport

It has been a bad month for the RFU. The furore sparked by the recent decision to cut funding for the Championship has revealed a fault line running throughout rugby union in England. It might best be termed as the tension between recreation and ambition, community and elitism, the amateur ethos and the professional.

The question has never quite been resolved since professionalism. What is the purpose of the clubs beneath the elite? What is the purpose of the sprawling, seamless pyramid of leagues in which they play? There are those at the heart of it now proclaiming the future death of grassroots rugby, a slow strangling of the community game.

The RFU is midway through its latest review to try to settle on a system that might better cater for the needs of more than 1,500 rugby clubs among its membership. The adult male future competitions survey on the RFU website will continue to accept submissions until it closes next Friday. Clubs are urged to have their say.

Unanimity of opinion is not expected. “The great thing about our game,” says Steve Grainger, the RFU’s rugby development director, “is there’s so much diversity of thinking. The biggest challenge in our game is there’s so much diversity of thinking.”

This chimes with the results from a survey of more than 350 clubs from across all the regions and levels of rugby in England for my recently published book on rugby in the 21st century, Unholy Union: When Rugby Collided with the Modern World. In the hundreds of supplementary comments, the refrain that a ring-fencing of the elite game would be the death of their club was common, but not as common as the lament that the league system itself was killing the community game.

Steve Grainger, the RFU Rugby Development Director.

Steve Grainger, the RFU Rugby Development Director. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Only 22% of the clubs in the Unholy Union survey felt part of a self-sustaining system that culminates in the elite game. Of the 78% who felt “on their own”, nearly half (37%) contended that the elite game might as well be its own organisation. Might as well be sealed off, in other words.

The insidious effect of the seamless structure is to institutionalise the idea of ambition, the notion that anyone can make it to the top. The effect of the professional era has been to normalise the idea of paying players to pimp up your first team. In the Unholy Union survey there were reports of payments to players as low as level nine. One club in level 12, the lowest rung of the current system, said it pays expenses for its first XV. Four clubs across levels seven, eight and nine said they harbour ambitions to reach the Premiership.

All of which introduces an element of toxicity into the structure. It takes only one or two teams in a region or league to start paying players to make others feel the pressure to respond, just so they can hang on to their own or maintain their position. Across any few years of the professional era, one can chart the rise, and usually fall, of ‘ambitious’ clubs through the league structure. These shooting stars are invariably fuelled not by a golden generation of local talent but by the money of wealthy individuals, which in turn prioritises investment in the first XV, the standard by which so many clubs seem to judge themselves.

“If I walk into a club and ask how things are going,” says Grainger, “the answer is always about the first XV. What you want to hear is how a club fielded four teams for the first time or developed a second women’s team, age group and minis. It’s that holistic view.”

Barnet Elizabethans Rugby Club mini rugby training night at the Barnet Copthall Stadium in January 2016.

Barnet Elizabethans Rugby Club mini rugby training night at the Barnet Copthall Stadium in January 2016. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Taken with developments in the wider world, the prioritising of the first XV has had a withering effect on the community game since the leagues were introduced in 1987, quite alarmingly so if the measure is fixtures played. The last time the RFU conducted a review of the league structures, in 2014, they pulled out the examples of two clubs, Morpeth and Harrow. In the 1982-3 season, each played more than 180 fixtures across six XVs; 40 years later Morpeth played 86 across four and Harrow 56 across two.

Suffering injuries and the fear of injury are two of the three most cited reasons for players dropping out of rugby. The other is travel. In a culture of changing work patterns, more enlightened approaches to parenting and an increased accent on individualism, the traditional model of the rugby club has been transformed, as has each player’s commitment to it.

Level four club “If the Premiership is ringfenced expect an exodus of financial backers from the lower league clubs and the eventual demise of grassroots rugby”

Level four club “Soon we will only have the larger clubs, less rugby being played below first-team level and too much there. It is the young players who are burning out, playing too many games in a hostile environment”

Level six club “We could not have survived financially but for diversification, which brings in far more income than rugby alone”

Level seven club “Clubs within our county who have a short-term ‘let’s buy success to feed our ego’ attitude cause great harm to our game”

Level eight club “The real issue is the lack of recreational rugby being played. By promoting elitism you dampen the joy”

Level eight club “The grassroots game is collapsing in terms of number of teams playing. The RFU seems to be concentrating on the England teams only and their fear of a split from professional rugby. That might not be a bad thing”

Level 10 club “Bigger clubs in our area get bigger, while smaller clubs are struggling”

Rugby, at all levels, is an increasingly punishing game. The only other team sport in the world that might be further along the collision spectrum is American football. It is telling that no one has even tried to establish an adult community game there. The model works. The NFL is the biggest spectator sport in the world by average attendance and needs only a supply line of youth to keep it viable, players dropping out of the system as they grow older, until only the elite continue into adulthood. There is a fear that this is the future towards which rugby is heading.

The current review of the league structure is not the first. From 2012 to 2014, the RFU canvassed the views of players around the country and devised a new structure designed to reduce the number of league games and the amount of travel. The uproar among, tellingly, the administrators of various clubs was loud and decisive, citing the loss of home fixtures and an expected dilution in playing standards. It is not only at elite level that the imperatives of player welfare and revenue generation war with each other.

The Northern Action Group was formed, through which a collection of clubs in the north threatened to break away if the restructure went ahead. With a World Cup to host on the horizon, the RFU agreed to shelve it rather than risk mutiny. Ironically, within two years, another group of clubs from Lancashire broke away from the league system to form two divisions of a mini-league of their own, citing the burden of excessive travel.

Clubs who field more than four teams, down from 27% in the 1990s

Clubs with clubhouses open past 10pm, down from 54% in the 1990s

Clubs who admit time away is a problem, 32% call it ‘significant’ 

Clubs who think injuries are higher than ever, 28% say it’s a big problem

Clubs who feel as if they are on their own within the RFU structure

Reports of their new arrangement are encouraging, but even that has come at a cost. Those left languishing in the farther reaches of Cumbria seethe at the consequent reduction in their fixtures and the dilution of playing standards. These are issues facing any league system, but this time the hope is for a more open mind among the RFU’s membership to the concept of a restructure.

If ring-fencing the elite game, whether at Premiership level or Championship level or both, ever comes to pass, it is likely to be independent of the current review. Which is not to say the RFU would be against it. Many clubs struggling at adult level are now sustained by the vibrancy of their minis sections, which have boomed since the 1990s, but rugby’s current great growth area is the women’s game. The Tyrrell’s Premier 15s is an example of just such a set-up, with membership of the elite established by application, not by results on the field.

An Olney RFC player runs through the Old Leamingtonians RFC defence during a match at The Crofts in Leamington Spa during 2008.

An Olney RFC player runs through the Old Leamingtonians RFC defence during a match at The Crofts in Leamington Spa during 2008. Photograph: Colin Underhill/Alamy

“We’re just at the beginning with the women’s game,” says Grainger, “but that gives us a good opportunity not to go down the same path as the men’s. I won’t say make the same mistakes! We want a community that is flourishing through rugby, where rugby is flourishing through the community. What does that look like? Don’t know yet. We’re at a watershed.”

In an undoubtedly challenging environment, beset by social pressures way beyond its control, community rugby needs to decide what it wants to be. That means individual clubs deciding. The wise ones will focus on the joy of playing and their status as community centres. The wise clubs will leave ambition to the elite.

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