It may be a little late to the restart party but professional rugby returns this week in England for the first time in five months with Premiership action taking place, like all other sports right now, in empty stadia.
It was always going to be the hardest of sports to get back after coronavirus caused a national lockdown simply because of the nature of the game: it is about the most physically demanding of sports the country plays, and one in which close contact (ie tackling, scrums etc) is not only a requirement but for many, the chief reason they either watch or play the sport.
And, while the women’s Premiership was cancelled just a few weeks after the start of lockdown, the men’s league was insistent on finding a way to resume – even if it meant this season finishing in October with a new one beginning in November.
The league – and its clubs – was so determined on finishing because of the financial impact a cancelled season would have had on the game in this country.
Clubs that were already struggling for survival (only one Premiership club has regularly made a profit in recent years) found themselves starting into the abyss with no gate receipts and no TV money and with so many players on salaries the clubs simply cannot afford.
So the news that live rugby was to return was welcomed up and down the country by supporters and players alike. There was also the news that ‘return-to-play protocols’ have been developed so your local team can now return to action – in teams of up to 10-a-side – and play touch rugby.
But this joy was short-lived with the news of swingeing cuts being made by the RFU (Rugby Football Union) who run the English game.
Last week’s headlines spoke of a community game on the verge of collapse – with local rugby clubs bearing the brunt of the drastic cut-backs being made at Twickenham.
After a recent round of job losses, only 145 people remained in community rugby posts with the RFU before last week. Now that number is to be reduced to 81, with the creation of new regional posts which current employees will have to re-apply for.
Two other hugely significant victims of the RFU changes are the women’s set-up and the Sevens teams. Without a sponsor for its league after Tyrrells did not renew, the women’s game could really do with a shot in the arm and – with a terrific product to boast – it is a great opportunity for a savvy brand to sponsor the league and generate some fantastic publicity for the game.
The cuts to the Sevens squads are equally damaging and could shatter many players’ hopes of appearing at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 – as the RFU announced that the men’s and women’s squads would no longer be offered full-time contracts.
GB men (mostly made up of England players) won a silver medal at Rio in 2016 and the women’s team finished fourth – and both would have had high hopes of delivering in Japan next year.
Unlike many other Olympic sports, rugby 7s currently does not receive UK Sport funding and the RFU has said it is unable to support the teams in the current climate.
The RFU approached UK Sport about funding sevens ahead of next summer’s Games and conversations between the two bodies are said to be ‘ongoing’ but UK Sport have never invested in major professional sports which feature in the Olympics (like rugby, tennis, golf and football) and it would be a huge departure for them to do so.
It is a huge blow for a sport that has been growing for years in this country and always delivers an incredible live spectacle.
Sevens is high on Sportside’s roster of sports because of its high-energy, fast-moving nature with the emphasis on pace and power and slightly lower impact than the 15s game.
With only seven people required to make up a team we also see our app as the perfect vehicle to promote Sevens and encourage athletes up and down the country to get involved in sides. Like women’s rugby, the opportunity is there for a serious sports marketer to pick up the mantle and deliver for rugby Sevens.
Meanwhile club rugby will battle on, refusing to shrink while all around them drastic cuts are taking place.
Stephen Jones, the Sunday Times rugby correspondent wrote passionately this week of his belief that not only will club rugby not die, but that the ‘glorious amateur arm of the sport will now have its finest hour.’
His conviction comes from personal experience – he is a member of four different community rugby clubs – where he has seen groups of very hard-working, passionate volunteers ignoring the nay-sayers and cracking on with running their clubs.
The rugby club has a unique place in the national sporting community. In a sense similar to our cricket clubs – and in fact, many will use the rugby clubhouse as a cricket pavilion in summer months – but with its own special flavour.
A ‘band of brothers’ mentality exists at these clubs on and off the pitch and, with the right level of encouragement and assistance from parents, they will continue to thrive despite the pandemic.
The rugby club, Jones argues, is also a safe place to bring your six-year-old and where that six year-old is likely to forge friendships that can last a lifetime. And, with the excellent development of girls and women’s teams across the rugby landscape, it is 100 percent as much a place to bring your daughter as your son.
Rugby is back – and while the grassroots game has a battle on its hands – it has always been a sport which relishes a challenge and it will meet this one head-on.