I’ve just returned from a Mini rugby tournament in Bournemouth where 1,000 players from U7 to U12 level crashed, bashed and, occasionally, ran around each other. Taken as a snapshot, it showed the grassroots game in rude health.
This is heartening when you hear the RFU are insisting on the mandatory ‘Half Game’ rule from next season in the wake of news 10,000 players a year are leaving the game, many because they’re fed up of warming the bench until they’re given their three minutes of fame by over-zealous, win-at-all-costs coaches.
Of course, there were some unseemly vignettes on show; coaches, who should know better, screaming foul-mouthed instructions at their young charges but, on the whole, games were played with full-blooded bonhomie.
Several gifted players caught the eye and most will yearn to join the upper echelons of the sport. This will undoubtedly be the destination for the gilded few. For the madding crowd, who lack the size, talent or robust body parts to continue, civvy street beckons, where they are, at least, equipped with the social values we hold so dearly firmly intact.
For those who do ‘make it’ and get more than a couple of beer tokens crammed into back pockets, the financial landscape is fluid. Premiership Rugby, the promised land for young players, posted a near £50m loss across the 13 clubs (including promotion-bound London Irish). That’s not small change to medium-sized businesses and shows why the £200m of in-bound lucre from private equity firm CVC was a necessity, not an option. The fact the Pro14 is routinely seeking fresh investment just to hang onto the coat-tails of their English counterparts tells you that rugby’s foundations are fragile at best.
It gets far worse if you drop down a tier. Yorkshire Carnegie are in danger of losing their professional status, and the landscape in Wales is more perilous still. Historic clubs founded in the 19th century have been through a tumultuous time. Neath, one of the founders of the Welsh Rugby Union, have been hanging from a financial cliff edge for much of the season before being handed a lifeline, while Pontypridd have been forced to deny they’re going into administration. This week Cross Keys put out an impassioned public plea for £20,000 just to finish the season. In rugby, it’s certainly not a case of the ‘Haves and Have Yachts’ – unless you have private investment or a bumper TV deal, as a club owner, you’re sprinting like Usain Bolt just to stand still.
It doesn’t look any rosier further afield, either. In Australia, billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Western Force have been put on alert after their attendances in the newly formed Global Rapid Rugby plummeted, this just weeks after the Sunwolves were chopped from the bloated Super Rugby competition with the World Cup in Japan just months away.
For the next generation, as alluring as professional rugby may seem, as a career choice it is a precarious bedfellow with a less-than-assured future.