Is Grassroots rugby going through a crisis?

2003 was supposed to be the dawn of a new age. World cup success for England would create a nation in love with the oval ball. Forget football. That game had had its chance.

And then 2015 came along. A world cup on home soil. A chance for youngsters up and down the country to witness first-hand, the beauty of rugby.

But three years on, rugby is in crisis.

Participation levels have dropped. Teams and leagues are folding. The merit system is in real danger of collapsing altogether.

The background

From an outsider’s point of view, it could seem as if rugby in England is thriving. The national teams, whether senior men, senior women or the age grade system, have all performed well over the last couple of years. Attendance for one-off premiership games at Wembley and Twickenham have smashed record after record.

But that success hasn’t translated into grass roots.

If we are going to look at the effect the professional game has on the bottom level, we could use the excuse that England weren’t very good from 2003 to 2012, or that they failed dismally at their own world cup. But we can’t help but think that may be papering over the cracks.

England were rubbish at football for longer than nine years, but participation numbers remain solid.

There must be something deeper than that.

Rugby is changing

One of the reasons blamed for rugby’s low participation numbers is the changing culture within the game. Twenty years ago, rugby was the game for anyone. No matter what your body size, there was a position for you.

Now, rugby has been taken over by a ‘gym bro culture’ – even at grassroots level, players are spending more time in the gym and downing protein shakes than they do on the field.

Or perhaps more depressingly for some old school rugby faithful, more time than they do in the bar afterwards.

One side effect of the new culture in rugby is that it’s a lot more painful to play than it used to be. Head high tackles and rucking players out of the tackle zone may have been outlawed, but collisions are bigger, harder and happen on a far more regular basis.

Rugby might be losing players because some people just aren’t big enough to play it anymore.

People are changing

Perhaps that says more about the players though than it does about the sport. If players are taking care of their physical wellbeing more than they ever used to, they aren’t going to be as interested in the side of rugby which once made it what it was.

It’s also the side of the rugby which, if disappearing, is going to affect your club the most.

The drinking culture.

For many rugby players, having eight pints after the game on a Saturday afternoon was what made the game great. Tour was the holy grail of the season. Your team was your family.

If that culture leaves the game, bar takings will be down and players won’t feel loyalty to clubs. The clubhouse and the sport will separate.

Clubs are changing

The club and clubhouse aren’t innocent bystanders in rugby’s crisis. Many players have been vocal in accusing their clubs of not adapting with the times. In some quarters, rugby clubs are still seen as the preserve of public school leavers.

A lot of rugby clubs simply don’t do enough to promote their sport to the working classes.

If there is a responsibility on the clubs to attract new audiences and change perceptions, than there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There are ways to turn this slump around. Here are some of our suggestions on getting participation – and pint purchase – numbers up:

  • Go digital: Does your club have a website that people can use to find regular updates and contact you? Do you have a Facebook or Twitter account? People, especially younger generations, use Google and social media to find/research a potential new club. Make sure they can find you.
  • Create a ladies team: if men’s rugby is struggling, the women’s game is booming and their numbers are soaring. Creating a women’s team will increase the amount of people in the bar after games, and help to get rid of the public school boy perception.
  • Reward players for playing– £65 annual subs. £5 match day fees. £50 training kit. The cost of playing can soon add up. So it’s not always financially feasible to then spend £20 on drinks in the clubhouse after a game as well. So why not introduce a discount on drinks for players. Or move your happy hour so it’s after games rather than on a random night through the week.

It’s about creating an environment that people want to be part of.

What do you think? Do you see a decline in numbers at your club? Let us know whether you’re concerned about the future of the sport by commenting below or get involved on our Facebook page!

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sids1/

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Sam Humphrey

Sam Humphrey