Thursday, 26 March 2020

The Big Issue: Professional Rugby

All this time at home, with no rugby to occupy me, has led me to ponder some of the bigger issues in the game.

So, here is my first attempt (in this series) at trying to set the rugby world to rights as I tackle the not inconsiderable subject of professional rugby in England and its increasingly difficult relationship with the community game.

It is a topic about which I have pontificated on a number of occasions – but in this post I am going to attempt, almost certainly unsuccessfully, to make sense of it all.

To my mind there is little doubt that the current national crisis we are enduring due to the Covid-19 pandemic must inevitably lead to some fundamental changes in the game in England.

At the elite level most if not all Premiership clubs have either agreed or imposed wage reductions on their players, while the RFU has announced an expected reduction in revenue of around £50m in the coming year, leading to salary cuts for senior figures including, it appears, Eddie Jones.

Whilst the RFU have announced measures to support grassroots clubs whose seasons have been cancelled, it is not that difficult to see ultimately who will bear the brunt of the RFU’s loss of revenue. 

Unless things change.

The thorny issue of whether the Premiership should be ringfenced is bound to rear its head once again. As I have stated before, I do not believe that there is enough money in rugby in England to support two professional leagues – so the question for me is not whether the Premiership should be ringfenced but rather when will the inevitable split between the elite professional game and the grassroots community game happen?

I say "inevitable" but there will, of course, be significant resistance as there is a perception that any kind of ringfencing will lead to the withdrawal of wealthy financial backers from lower league clubs. To which I would say, why do you need wealthy financial backers if you are not paying your players?

And there’s the rub – currently there are undoubtedly numerous clubs playing several layers beneath the elite level who, with financial backing from individuals or sponsors, pay their First XV players in one form or another, all with the ambition of progressing through the RFU pyramid league structure, almost for the sake of it. The chances of any of these clubs making to the elite level are 
infinitesimally tiny, and yet it continues.

Which raises the bigger questions of what the point of the game beneath the elite level is and what purpose it actually serves? Because if things continue the way they are, the grassroots game – at least for adult men (mini/junior rugby and the women’s game being seemingly in rude health for the most part) – appears doomed.  
There are, I'm convinced, plenty of blokes who want to play socially or at a half-decent level, who are willing to pay their membership subs and spend their money at the club bar and volunteer to help out around the club whenever needed. But these are the same blokes who see their club shipping in and paying players from outside, who are then dropped to the 2nd or the 3rd XVs, who are told that they must train twice a week to even get a game and who, if things don't change, will continue to leave the game in their droves. 

Far better in my view is for the professional game to go its merry way, properly funded by the corporate world and supported by the paying fans, leaving the RFU to focus what resources it has at community level, allowing grassroots clubs to get back to an amateur membership-based model based on community, friendship, camaraderie and, dare I say it, fun. Of course there can still be a structure of competitive rugby, serious rugby even for those that want to take it seriously, but without the twilight zone of semi-professionalsm that, as far as I can see, serves very little purpose.

Yes there will be casualties – there will be clubs who can’t or won’t adapt and will go to the wall and there will be players who fail to make the grade at the elite level and who will no longer be able to eke out an existence being paid to play rugby in the lower leagues. But surely that is how it should be - they will either play for enjoyment or disappear from the game - and to expect anything else just doesn’t make sense.

And inevitably there will be a risk that professional rugby will increasingly disappear behind a pay-TV wall, but I'd argue that this is an inherent risk anyway and I would hope that professional rugby would take heed of what has happened to cricket, for example, and think twice.

What is clear, however, is that things can’t continue as they are. 

The times they are a changin’.

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