Lockdown Leaves Grassroots Rugby Clubs Facing Bleak Future

The latest lockdown imposed by the British government has left grassroots sports facing a potentially existential crisis. With almost no games being played, the situation regarding rugby clubs of both codes is becoming acute.

Sports clubs represent far more than merely a place to carry out recreational activities. They are hubs for social activity, players build contacts with each other, and develop lives that take them on journeys far away from sport itself. Lasting friendships are forged on and off the pitch. Clubs provide a focus for people’s lives in fundamental and lasting ways.

Rugby union is a sport that thrives on the wider social life that it offers to all who play it. Yet with no games being played, many in the sport are worrying for the future. Without the focus of matchday Saturdays, income and enthusiasm is being drained away from the sport’s wider community.

Will people just do other things?

“The big concern is that people will just find other things to do with their lives,” said broadcaster John Inverdale, who is also chairman of the National Clubs Association. That is the body that represents the 48 English clubs in tiers three and four immediately below the Premiership and Championship.

“That’s not a concern if you’re Bristol or Leicester but it is a big problem if you’re Blaydon, Dings Crusaders or Worthing.”

Inverdale, speaking to the Guardian, pinpointed the financial costs too, saying: “We can’t afford to allow players and spectators to drift away from the game and for sponsors to find other places to invest their money. They need something to hang their hat on.”

While sport at the elite level has continued, actually playing rugby union at grassroots level is something that has dwindled away to almost nothing over the last seven months or so. The season is supposed to start in earnest in September in the 15-man code, but there have been no games played. The RFU confirmed last week that the grassroots season was being cancelled, leaving clubs facing and empty and pretty bleak looking future.

Tom Helliwell, the director of rugby at South Yorkshire grassroots club Sheffield Hallamshire RUFC, highlighted just how difficult things are at that level for rugby union clubs who are simply not allowed to play rugby union. While activities like work days and an intra-club game played to the RFU’s Return to Rugby rules have proved popular, there is simply nothing there replacing match days at the moment.

"In terms of financial prospects, had we not been active in purusing grants and payments from the government and council, we would probably have gone under this year," he told Betting.co.uk.

"The club relies on income which comes from running events, it relies on players being able to play and paying their membership and subs. With Covid impacting on that, it's very hard for us to ask our players to pay money just to keep the club running, because they're not getting a lot out of it.

"In terms of the Covid situation, the long-term future could be a real issue as people will effectively find other things to do. So what you've got effectively is a group of individuals who are at the moment kept together by their friendship bond as a team, but the longer the situation goes on, the longer we have this situation where we can't play a game or even train together, then those bonds come further apart.

"Now at the moment we're doing a lot around social media and keeping in touch, but obviously that is only so good because eventually you will need the input of people working together in the same sphere.

"I think we will be okay, but in terms of the longevity of it we have to keep working hard to make sure Hallamshire RUFC survives, which I'd love to see but you can never be too careful."

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The problem is not just one for rugby union. Rugby union in England tends to be perceived as a sport played mainly by the middle classes. While that perception is not entirely accurate, there is some truth to it. If rugby union clubs are struggling, then what is the situation like for rugby league?

The 13-man code tends to exist in more marginalised communities in the north of England, the kind of places where community sport is a necessity in many people’s lives. While Sheffield is not in the rugby league heartlands, the problems faced by amateur side Sheffield Forgers are typical of issues facing rugby league at the grassroots level right now.

Bad timing for rugby league

“The timing couldn't have been worse for the Sheffield Forgers,” said club chairman, Sam Parkes.

“As a relatively new club we had started to cement a great atmosphere throughout the men's squad and there's no doubt that a year of no full contact rugby league has set that back. At times like you really see how beneficial rugby league can be to players’ mental health.

“In an effort to maintain the club atmosphere and support our players’ mental health we have offered X League sessions but these were hindered by the ever changing Covid landscape.”

A player tested positive after the Forgers’ first X League session. This caused ructions that went well beyond the lives of those immediately involved in the session, with a dozen players being compelled to self-isolate. The knock on effects of that on the mental health and working lives of those involved should not be underestimated.

Covid has made simply functioning as a sports club at the grassroots almost impossible. After all, when your very reason for existence has been denied to you, it is very hard to find a purpose. Parkes also highlights the effects of the pandemic on plans for future growth, especially when it comes to producing the next generation of players.

“Our plans to expand into juniors rugby have also been knocked back as the schools can't accommodate rugby league at the moment, which is a real shame,” he added.

“This should be the time when we are really building excitement about the game as we approach the 2021 Rugby League World Cup and that opportunity is passing us by. “

The Forgers have been lucky to receive some funding from government grants that mean it can survive the short-term storm of lockdown.

“That being said, financially the government has been really pro active in providing grants to clubs to cover overheads and invest in equipment to make necessary adjustments,” said Parkes.

“Financially we are surviving but there's nothing better for a rugby league club than playing rugby league.”

The round ball code has not been immune either, despite it being less affected by the pandemic than either code of rugby. All grassroots football has been suspected for the entirety of the current lockdown. All youth and indoor teams, as well as women's and children's football, is affected by the move. Sport will only be allowed in schools.

That is not to forget that in the UK we live in a country where just under a quarter of schools do not offer physical education currently. Without grassroots clubs, the outlook for creating new adult players who experience the joys and health benefits of team sport is decidedly bleak.

"To lose some grassroots clubs will leave us with a legacy of a generation who are inactive and unable to find a way into sport," Youth Sports Trust chief executive Ali Oliver told BBC Sport earlier this week.

To battle obesity we need grassroots sport

Obesity has been a focus at times for the government over the summer, especially in the wake of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation with Covid 19. While the focus has shifted as the public health crisis has intensified again, a healthier population should remain a key plank of any future public health strategy.

Grassroots sports clubs are central to any successful outcomes that that policy might generate. While there has been something of a boom in individual activities like running and cycling over the course of the pandemic in the UK, the lonely graft of the endurance athlete is not for everyone.

Many of us crave the emotional bonds that team sport brings, the sense of collective endeavour that in many ways is the essence of human existence. Team sport brings a purpose to fitness training too, it gives an aim and a reason for doing all the hours in the gym and on the training pitch that bring health benefits beyond simply being fitter.

There needs to be some serious thinking done now about how grassroots sport can be saved and preserved after the pandemic. As things stand, many clubs will simply cease to exist, or be in a position where rebuilding has become almost impossible. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

Without grassroots sports clubs our country is a poorer place, a less healthy place and a much less interesting place. Any club that ceases to exist will leave a hole that we will struggle to fill. In many cases, years and years of hard work – carried out simply for the aim of helping people play the games they love – will be wasted.

Grassroots sports clubs are something that we have tended to take for granted in this country. Can we afford to let them disappear?

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