Does the future look bleak for recreational rugby union in England?

By Robert Kitson
One recent survey suggested a fall from 259,600 active adult players in England in 2016 to just 95,100 at the end of last season.
One recent survey suggested a fall from 259,600 active adult players in England in 2016 to just 95,100 at the end of last season. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Nothing lasts forever, as numerous proud old English rugby clubs can testify. Orrell, West Hartlepool, Wakefield, Waterloo, Rugby Lions, London Welsh … all of them have been in the top two leagues in the country in the past 25 years before disappearing off the radar when financial reality struck. The downward spiral, once it commences, can be desperately hard to arrest.

Which begs a question: how will English domestic club rugby look 10 or 20 years from now? Here’s a fun piece of trivia for you: a time capsule was buried in Twickenham’s South Stand in 2006-07 containing, among other things, predictions of the future made by Rugby Football Union officials of the day. It is tempting to be flippant – will blazers really be back in fashion by 2042? – but futuristic change could yet arrive sooner than many people imagine.

Inside the past week, two of England’s more knowledgeable club officials, independently of each other, have shared the same opinion with me: that rugby union, participation-wise, will have morphed into something akin to American football within a decade. If you are any good you will play professionally, semi-professionally or at a good level at university or college. Otherwise recreational men’s rugby will largely be limited to touch, tag and sevens.

For many clubs from the Championship downwards this is an apocalyptic scenario. Some of them have been going for 150 years or longer. That is a hell of a lot of history to watch float down the local river. But check out the damage that Covid-19 continues to do to finances and participation numbers, and the loss of some long-standing pillars of the club community looks increasingly probable.

It is increasingly hard, certainly, to argue with the view of an administrator involved in the ongoing review into the future of the Championship, the second-tier competition that has been allowed to wither on the vine, in terms of proactive promotion, for the past two decades. “We will probably see an NFL-type franchise professional game, a strong game in the universities and a first team club league but you probably won’t see a social and recreational game in the way we understand it,” suggests my informant, citing concussion fears and the increasing physical commitment required at all levels. “I won’t say recreational players are an endangered species but they’re certainly at risk.”

Time to reach for my battered copy of the classic The Art of Coarse Rugby by Michael Green. Even then the author’s contention, when it was first published back in 1960, was that two types of rugby existed. The first kind was made up of “devoted enthusiasts who train like mad and don’t mind at all if someone tackles them at 30 miles per hour”. The rest play “Coarse Rugby”, instantly distinguished by the fact that “neither side is ever composed of 15 men. Most Extra Bs or Cs wouldn’t know what to do with 15 players. They would have to send three or four off before they could begin.”

And so on and so forth. There is still fun to be had in playing abbreviated or different forms of the game but the post-Covid pips are increasingly squeaking for any club looking to operate at a decent semi-pro level. One recent survey suggested a fall from 259,600 active adult players in England in 2016 to only 95,100 at the end of last season. Covid and funding cuts have also left Championship sides touching the void. This month, after much deliberation, the Championship Review group will make recommendations to the RFU management board on what it believes the future should look like and its findings will be fascinating.

There is an awful lot at stake for all concerned. The so-called “seamless” game, linking both ends of the English rugby pyramid, has never felt more precarious. The Premiership, currently with no relegation and due to expand to 14 sides next season, is a good competition but money is tighter than ever. No one wants to be demoted to the Championship where such losses will be magnified. But the Championship also has to mean something, both in terms of player development and in its own right. Ultimately it needs to be a league for good players to aspire to and for sponsors to embrace. And which sees ambition rewarded. The challenge for the RFU, as ever, is to square that vexed circle and find a collective vision that works for everyone.

For now there is a moratorium on relegation from the Premiership until the 2023-24 season when a play-off with promotion and relegation is envisaged with one-up, one-down promotion and relegation, at least in theory, resuming the following season. As a result Twickenham is rejecting any mention of the phrase “ring-fencing” with negotiations – including more sharing of players between Premiership and Championship clubs and potentially second-tier sides in the Premiership Cup – apparently making headway. But are the priorities of a select few in danger of shaping the best interests of the majority? The health of English rugby cannot hinge primarily on the wallets of a few generous millionaires keen to win the Premiership, particularly with growing dissatisfaction again surfacing beneath the elite level.

The Cornish Pirates in Championship action earlier this season.
The Cornish Pirates in Championship action earlier this season. Photograph: Mat Mingo/PPAUK/Shutterstock

Some feel the RFU is trying to have its cake and eat it. There is unlikely to be any word before the end of February at the earliest, for example, as to how many sides will be promoted from the National Leagues this April. We do know the Championship will have 12 teams next season (this season’s bottom side will not be relegated) but, depending on whether Ealing Trailfinders or Doncaster Knights finish top and also satisfy the minimum standards criteria (another saga in itself) to go up, there is still no clarity over whether one or two sides will be promoted from National One. Or, even more pertinently, any firm guarantees about funding levels after 2024.

Uncertainty, as a result, is rippling across the shires. If the RFU also foresees a gridiron-style future for rugby it should say so without delay and explain why that is good news. Because, for those left behind, the repercussions will be huge and, potentially, ruinous. If grassroots rugby union in England is to be salvageable in 2032, never mind 2042, there needs to be something left to save.

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