Published on February 7th, 2017 | by Tom Ballard
Change not for the better at rugby union’s grassroots
Having been inspired by England’s 2003 World Cup success, I was started playing tag rugby that winter.
Aged six or seven, I joined my local club, Esher, and played through its age-group teams for the next 11 years.
Grassroots rugby is something that has been important to me ever since. Those roots are precious and need nurturing.
A big part of that is the valuable life lessons the sport teaches its youngsters. These include respect for the referee, and it’s always been a virtuous circle.
Young players grow up respecting match officials and carry this through to adulthood, where they act as role models for the next generation.
Compare that to the dissent and disrespect that’s become part and parcel of football.
Players at the highest levels harass and harangue referees while their managers abuse fourth officials on the touchline.
The risk is that young players will emulate this behaviour, but could this become a rugby problem as well?
There is evidence that the game’s long-cherished culture of respect is changing.
Steve Grainger, rugby development director at the Rugby Football Union, believes that an influx of new players and their parents is having an effect.
These youngsters, encouraged by their families, are inspired – just like I was 14 years ago – by England’s recent success, but also by the increasingly lucrative rewards available in the professional ranks.
“The stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it”
Grainger believes verbal abuse from parents and coaches on the sidelines in the amateur game is a bigger problem than player dissent.
“We are starting to see some challenges in touchline behaviour,” Grainger told BBC Radio 5 live.
“Traditionally, a lot of kids that have come into the sport because their parents have been involved in it, so you have a culture there,” he said.
“As we broaden that, we are bringing in parents who themselves have had no exposure to rugby.”
Unfortunately, and without wishing to negatively stereotype, the behaviour Grainger is referring to has been around in football for many years.
Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Football Association is preparing to to relaunch its Respect campaign as the verbal and physical abuse towards match officials at grassroots level increases.
Maybe it is because the stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it – if you are good enough.
Average annual salaries in the Aviva Premiership are now around £100,000 – more for ‘marquee’ signings and experienced players – and gaining international recognition can massively boost that figure.
The top 10 earners in the Premiership all earn in excess of £290,000 a year. No.1 is Manu Tuilagi at Leicester Tigers on £425,000.
Esher RFC has always prided itself on being a successful semi-professional club. This culminated in 2008, when the club took on Northampton Saints in the National League 1 – now called the Championship.
“A club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially”
When they played the Saints that season, the opposition included players such as future England captain Dylan Hartley.
A club of Esher’s size and resources, however, was never going to be able to survive in the long-term at such a high level, and they currently play in National League One – rugby union’s equivalent of football’s League One third tier.
They’ve still managed to attract quality players in recent years including Fiji’s Nicky Little, plus brothers Steffon and Bevon Armitage. The former now plays at Toulon.
But living strictly within its means, while other teams have continued to embrace professionalism, means many of Esher’s best young prospects – including some I used to play with as a teenager – are lured away to bigger clubs.
In some instances it proved divisive as players have flitted around different teams, trying to work out which one offers them the best chance of making it big.
However, Esher’s achievements have also accrued benefits, and Premiership clubs often send younger players there on loan. Esher helped to hone the talent of George Lowe of Harlequins, and he is now regular starter for Quins.
But a club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially.
In March last year year, Esher told director of rugby Mike Schmidt that that his contract would not be renewed after 11 years.
Esher’s chairman of rugby, TV presenter John Inverdale, said the decision was entirely down to financial reasons.
“It’s getting harder and harder to justify the expenditure at the second and third levels of the English game,” he explained.
Given Schmidt’s key role in Esher’s rise to the heights of playing in the second tier, it was a sad way for that relationship to end – but such are the realities of an increasingly professional game.
As modern rugby evolves, clubs like Esher, who are the lifeblood of the game, are struggling to keep up with its demands.
The England national team’s record-breaking run should be inspiring a feel-good factor in the sport.
But unless the grassroots game at clubs like Esher is taking into account, rugby’s future may not be quite so healthy and secure after all.