GIVEN the horrific weather conditions across Scotland last Saturday, the fact that any club matches at all went ahead should be regarded as a minor triumph. However, it was inevitable that a sizeable number would fall by the wayside, and the 13 postponements due to unplayable pitches, the nine Covid-related call-offs, and the Stornoway versus Lossiemouth match falling foul of transport issues are all entirely understandable. On the other hand, the fact that 14 matches did not go ahead because of insufficient player numbers is a concern.
It is yet another stark reminder that the grassroots game is really struggling, and that a number of clubs with proud traditions are teetering on the brink of going the same way as Hawick Harlequins did at the start of the season, when they took the tough decision to withdraw from East League One because they had no reasonable expectation of being able to field a team on a regular basis.
The reasons behind this sorry state of affairs are multiple and varied. Fundamentally, it comes down to declining player numbers across the board, allied with changes in lifestyle and work patterns which mean that clubs need more personnel at their disposal now than, say, 10 years ago to last the course of a season. It is estimated that that it currently requires 80 registered players to be able to field two teams on a regular basis. Away matches are particularly problematic because less and less players are willing or able to give up chunks of their morning and evening as well their afternoon.
The physicality of modern rugby – even at grassroots level – is surely also a factor. After the long Covid lay-off, it was inevitable that a substantial number of players, especially those in the older age brackets, would decide that they quite like waking up on a Sunday morning and not feeling like the have been run over by a bus. In many cases, people just got out of the habit of playing on a Saturday, and of leaving the house to train on a Tuesday and Thursday, so they ended up retiring almost by accident.
Scottish Rugby – the game’s governing body in this country – is not responsible for this worrying trajectory, but it has a responsibility to do more to address the issue.
The first step should be recognising what everyone at ground level knows: that there are not 11,000 active male players in the country. Massaging this stat makes sense from a PR perspective, especially when it comes to the challenge of persuading the Scottish Government, sportscotland and various commercial partners that rugby is a sport worth getting behind. However, until the problem is properly acknowledged, we can’t possibly hope to tackle it.
In fairness, Scottish Rugby’s ‘Game On Principles’ initiative, which facilitates lower regional league matches and friendlies going ahead when a team has as few as 10 players, is a specific attempt to ensure that available players don’t miss out because they don’t have enough team-mates. But it is a sticking-plaster solution which doesn’t address the fundamental problem, and anecdotal evidence indicates that clubs are more likely to call-off than send out 10 players to fulfil a fixture.
We need practical solutions – and that means money. It has been just under 11 months since the Scottish Government provided Scottish Rugby with a £15million grant and £5m low-interest loan “to support rugby clubs across Scotland that have been affected by the pandemic”, and despite assurances of openness from Murrayfield, we have still not had sight of how that money has been spent. There is also unease about the lack of clarity on what specifically this money was meant to be spent on.
A £6.5m funding package for clubs was announced by Murrayfield in April – consisting of £500k for ‘recovery’, £1m for ‘return to rugby’ and £5m spread over five years for ‘growth and participation’ – with clubs to apply for specific grants.
We have no idea at this stage how the distribution of this money is progressing.
Contrast this with how the Scottish Government funding allocated to football at the same time was handled, with the full £10m grant for clubs outside the top-flight being immediately disbursed by the SFA directly to clubs – no need for an application process – at values based on the league each club plays in.
Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson and chairman of the board John Jeffrey have told us how well the business has coped with Covid, so let’s see that translated into meaningful, direct investment in the grassroots. There are some great facilities out there, but far too many clubs are working out of crumbling relics from the 1980s or earlier. Mini rugby clubs are competing for players against
youth football teams who are operating in a different financial stratosphere, with paid coaches, state-of-the-art facilities and
brand-new kit. We need more development officers working inside clubs and schools, rather than pen pushers sitting behind desks at Murrayfield.
Wouldn’t it be great to be able to give every kid in Scotland who joins a rugby club a new ball that they can practice at home with? That is something which could have an immediate impact on growing the game.
Until we get a breakdown of how the government bail-out has been distributed, the suspicion will persist that the money has been used to prop up Murrayfield’s finances, with layers of bureaucracy being created to justify a bloated payroll at head office, while the grassroots game is neglected.