Rotting from the core?

A look at whether the RFU should be held responsible for the decreasing participation numbers in rugby.

When speaking with people who volunteer in the rugby community there is one issue that always crops up in conversation – player recruitment and retention. There is a growing (and justified) fear that fewer and fewer players will turn up at rugby clubs up and down the country. Is there anyone to blame for this concern or is the wider popularity with the sport the problem?

According to an ongoing study, participation in rugby in the UK has decreased consistently between 2016 and 2020. The survey reported that in 2016 there were 259,600 people who were playing rugby at least twice a week. In 2020 this number was at 195,000 which means there was a near 25% reduction in participation over that 4 year period.

This reduction is not only felt with players on the pitch but all throughout rugby clubs. Fewer players playing rugby means fewer membership fees paid to clubs, decreased revenue from bar sales and merchandise as well as reduced participation in club revenue generating events, and thus less growth.

Why is this? And what can be done to halt this decline? In my opinion there are a few reasons for this trend and they affect both the top and bottom sections of the community game. One is the growing opinion that rugby is becoming more and more dangerous as a sport and there has been a balance shift in the risk/reward decision making by players. Even at the grassroots level players are bigger, the impacts are larger and major injuries are frequent. The increased risk of injury might potentially threaten someone’s income which affects many people’s decisions of whether to keep playing rugby or not.

This, however for me, is not the principal reason why the game is not growing at the grassroots level. In my opinion Rugby Union has a serious issue with making new ground in areas of the country where rugby is not commonly played. Rugby Union has its popular regions which are the South East, London suburbs, West Country and the Midlands. Rugby Union is also popular the northern part of England but is outweighed by Rugby League in popularity.

Where the game struggles to make in roads are urban areas such as the inner boroughs on major cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. This is where the RFU has to take some responsibility for declining numbers of participation. Playing rugby in heavily urban areas does present natural challenges such as the lack of playing fields/facilities but there certainly are alternatives and ways around this issue that can help develop rugby in these areas. For example, utilising facilities that already exist in these areas such as schools and leisure centres would be a good start. Investment would be needed to help grow the game in urban areas but using available infrastructure/facilities would overcome a major stumbling block to growth.

The way Rugby Union in England is constituted is also a contributing factor. For historical reasons rugby in England has been organised by counties. This may have been the best way to go about things when the RFU was founded in 1871 but it has not adapted and kept up with urbanisation in England. It has resulted with areas in major cities such as London and Birmingham being governed by multiple county unions rather than one dedicated union. Clubs rely on the expertise and advice given to them by their unions and with no dedicated union for inner-city rugby clubs I feel their needs for growth may not be met. This is because challenges faced by an inner-city club will be completely different to the challenges faced by a club based in rural areas. The RFU’s failure to adapt to urbanisation in England will have hindered club growth and player participation.

In my opinion though, this is not the only way in which the RFU is hindering growth and participation. My other bone of contention is with the RFU Regulation 7 which applies to the payment of players at varying levels of rugby. Although introduced to curb the effects of professionalism below the Championship these rules make it difficult for clubs to attract and more importantly retain players.

RFU Regulation 7 states: ‘For clubs whose men’s first XV team plays at Level 3: the threshold is £250,000 of Gross Payments paid or payable to players and including the payment of Player Coaches save that only £12,500 of the costs of each of the first and second Player Coaches will be excluded in calculating whether or not the threshold has been exceeded. (b) For clubs whose men’s first XV team plays at Level 4: the threshold is £125,000 of Gross Payments to paid or payable to players and including the payment of player coaches save that only £10,000 of the costs of each of the first and second Player Coaches will be excluded in calculating whether or not the threshold has been exceeded. (c) For clubs whose men’s first XV team plays at Level 5: the threshold is £50,000 of Gross Payments paid or payable to players and including the payment of Player Coaches save that only £7,500 of the costs of each of the first and second Player Coaches.’

Let’s look at Level 3 as an example, this includes clubs playing in National 1. They are competing in a nationwide league which has its demands on players. You’re essentially asking players to commit to a league which is structured the same as the Premiership, but without anything like the remuneration. Players are asked to travel up and down the country weekend after weekend for two thirds of the year. Clubs at this level have average playing squad sizes at around 40 players which means for this commitment the average remuneration per player is £6,250 per season. A nice top up to your regular income for a young and upcoming player with no parental/family responsibilities, but for the more senior players at this level they have to ask themselves if it’s worth it. This league structure put in place by the RFU creates the problem where some players will question playing or not.

If Regulation 7 is in place to prevent mass growth of professionalism in rugby then the RFU need to look at restructuring things to make the leagues below the Championship more community focused and regionalised, or increase the allowed remuneration in a national/semi-national league. At the moment there is no balance between the two and clubs/players at this level are stuck in limbo and its causing issues in the game.

The bottom line is rugby in England is facing challenges with growth and participation and its core governing body needs to learn, adapt, change to stop the rot.


This article appeared in the Autumn 2021 issue of Rugby Blindside magazine – Read the full issue here