News | January 13th, 2022
Rugby Union Dilemma
William Webb Ellis. Heard of him? If not, he is the man who in 1823 decided to pick the ball up and run with it during a football match at Rugby School in England. Unknown to Ellis, this was the catalyst for a whole new sport of Rugby Union, a game now enjoyed by millions across the world. Rugby Union has a rich history, classed as a ‘gentleman’s game’, opposing Rugby Leagues more ‘working-class’ roots.
In 1871 Rugby Football Union became official, although the game was classed as an amateur sport and the sport’s administrators frequently imposed bans and restrictions on players who they viewed as professional. Fast forward to 1995 and rugby union was declared an “open” game, and professionalism was finally sanctioned by the code’s governing body, World Rugby – then known as the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB).
It seems rugby has always been in the shadows of football, whether it be the level of participation, financial stability or commercialism and sponsorship of the game. Interestingly, I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, an ex-London Irish player, regarding the financial structure of Rugby Union and in particular the lower leagues from the Championship down. I was genuinely shocked at the pay-gap between Premiership players and the second tier Championship. In any sport it is important to note that financial stability and paying athletes comes from spectatorship, sponsors and commercialism – therefore if the lower leagues aren’t receiving this then this in part explains the poor financing for lower league clubs.
A study revealed that participation in 2016 was 259,600 for adult active players in England. At the end of last season this reduced to a dwindling 95,100 in the space of 5 years. Following this current trajectory, who knows where participation in Rugby Union will be in a further 5 years. Admittedly, clubs have suffered the onslaught of Covid-19, yet where was the support from the Premiership clubs?
The Premiership is looking to expand to 14 teams, which would help the few that get included to this ‘exclusive’ league, yet would magnify the losses and lack of support for Championship teams. There is quite evidently an ineffective system in place whereby the revenues made at the top, are not being filtered down the leagues into non-league competitions. The current view from professionals is that in time we may see an American style structure, where we have the Premiership, and top-level college and university teams, removing amateur participation and its route to the top.
Ultimately, Rugby Football Union should have a collective goal to enhance all leagues and all participation. I understand this is no easy task, and compared to the world’s most popular game, football, it is not realistic. However, I do feel that Rugby Football Union should hold talks with the Championship Review Team, taking on board their concerns and solutions. I speak on behalf of all sports fans whether they spectate Rugby or not, in that no one wants to see a sport enjoyed by many to collapse, more so when it holds such a rich history. The irony is, a sport once only played by amateurs, is now becoming a sport only played by professionals. Where did the equality, inclusivity and diversity go? I for one hope that Rugby Union can bounce back.
Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images