Is pro rugby damaging the grass roots game?

Written by Elias McGill

I worry about the way sport is going, on both a professional and amateur level. My main concern is the increasing number of the younger demographic who are

I worry about the way sport is going, on both a professional and amateur level. My main concern is the increasing number of the younger demographic who are opting to watch rather than participate. Local rugby is currently heading towards a dark and worrying future. Teams are struggling to field 1 team let alone 2 teams.

Just the other day my game was cancelled when the opposite team only had 4 players available and we only had 11 available so could not even lend them any players to make a game of it. Both these teams twenty years ago would easily put out 4 teams every Saturday.

Yet since rugby has gone professional, it is no coincidence that playing numbers have dropped to an all-time low. (There was a brief rise after the 2003 world cup but the legacy of that hasn’t lived up to its initial breeding of new rugby players)

Youth of today are being brought up in a generation that would rather spend the day watching a match with their friends and having a few beers rather than playing the game with friends and having a few beers after the game.

But why is the question? It is much cheaper and enjoyable to play a game than to watch it. Watching a professional game costs about £20 for a ticket and then probably £3+ a pint plus £2 for a burger so you are looking at a good £50 for a few hours.

Playing though is significantly cheaper. Free to play and clubs sell pints for £2.60-£3 a pint and most clubs offer free food to players after a game. Average cost of about £10, or completely free if you don’t drink!

I was the captain of Old Cryptians 2nds in Gloucester for two seasons, a club that I have played for since I was 12. I know from first-hand experience just how much an impact Gloucester RFC have had on playing numbers on a Saturday. If Gloucester were at home on a Saturday then instantly 6 players would be unavailable and that number would only rise. If Gloucester were away I could always guarantee having enough players for a team, sometime even the luxury of a bench!

Now I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be spending days out with their mates watching a rugby match. However, your playing career is so short, many players retire in their early 30’s, many more even younger due to picking up injuries due to the physicality of the game. So there will be plenty of time in the future to spend watching the game but there is so little time for you to actually play that people should be looking to spend every available chance they have to be playing.

Ask any ex player, amateur or professional and they will tell you that nothing beats the buzz from playing and if they could then they would still be playing today. It seems somewhat of a catch 22 situation where if playing numbers at local level rise, attendances at professional clubs will rise, and vice versa for a higher attendance at a professional game.

I should also point out that it isn’t just the professional game that has starved the local club scene of playing numbers, but also the nature of the current economic climate. More and more people find themselves working weekends and struggling to get time off work, even just for a few hours.

Work will always come before rugby. 30 years ago very few people worked Saturdays so this was never a factor in players being unavailable, another factor being the rise of people moving away to go to University. Somewhat ironically I’m one of those people! More and more people have the opportunity to go University compared to in the past.

This shows that local rugby clubs tend to have an age gap in playing numbers between 19 and 22.

This tends to reverse the effects and benefits of having a youth set up aimed at breeding players for the clubs future in the men’s game. Often you get a player for one season then they move 100 miles away and only end up playing once or twice when they come back at Christmas.

Rugby clubs around the country are filled with armchair spectators—those that have never played a game of rugby in their life before but watch every game religiously. And it’s these die-hard fans that are the ones who could help save local rugby.

What do you think about the future of rugby? Have your say in the comments section below.