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Will the full-time whistle be blown on Rugby Union?

Oliver Elliot-Williams explores the downfalls and potential future of rugby in the UK.

The Rugby Union has much to be commended. It offers tense and exciting exhibitions of strength, speedm and skill; for the most part, players and coaches adhere to ideals of fair-play, sportsmanship, and respect; the women’s game continues to grow. For the first time, all twenty-six of the Women’s Rugby World Cup matches are being covered by ITV in the UK this autumn. Yet English Rugby Union must front up to a multifaceted challenge.

First, the Premiership’s financial crisis must be abated. In a culture that has commodified sport, it might seem bizarre that English Premiership rugby clubs had, as of September this year, a combined debt of £500 million. This season, the Premiership has lost both Worcester Warriors and Wasps to financial administration. Additionally, Saracens were relegated in the 2019/2020 season after a point deduction penalty for breaching salary cap regulations. It has not helped that the pandemic forced the rugby world to an abrupt halt. The government’s £147 million loans to Premiership clubs could not mitigate halted ticket sale, sponsorship, and advertising revenues especially in light of the already looming financial issues resulting from club owners’ poor decision-making. In a sporting culture where a ‘pay to win’ approach is increasingly necessary for attracting superstar players who will draw spectators to matches and produce game winning plays, a club in financial crisis is faced with a choice: struggle to compete or risk the fate that has befallen Worcester Warriors and Wasps.

If this were the sole dilemma, though, Rugby Union would be redeemable. Smart financial management, investors who are keen to preserve the sport and a renewed emphasis on providing professional players, coaches, and club staff with financial stability and provisions for injuries could solve or mitigate the financial crisis and restore trust in the owners of Premiership clubs. Yet, a recent survey published by the Statista Research Department shows that from 2016 – 2021 participation in senior rugby in the United Kingdom has nearly halved. Though a threat to the top division’s future and the disintegration of what united two communities of fans might create some loss of interest in Rugby Union, this decline suggests Rugby Union faces challenges at grassroots level too.

The first challenge is cultural. Rugby clubs’ laddish reputations are becoming increasingly problematized and outdated. Tragic instances such as a university fresher dying of alcohol poisoning during a hazing ceremony in 2019 at Gloucestershire University show in a heart-wrenching manner how rugby’s sub-culture often involves peer-pressure into at best questionable and at worst life-threatening activities. Fears of having to eat unknown substances and the like provide a stumbling block for many new players considering taking up the sport.

Additionally, rugby remains somewhat exclusive. Public schools still provide the most clear pathways into the sport. Consequently, state-educated students are less likely to be drawn to Rugby Union instead of football. The women’s game, though becoming increasingly popular, still requires more coverage and awareness to equal that of the men’s game. Additionally, after the RFU ruled in July 2022 that trans-females cannot participate in women’s competitions, a method for safely including anyone regardless of gender identity needs to be devised where all feel comfortable and accepted. Thankfully, exclusivism and lad-culture are not essential to Rugby Union as a sport. Through outreach programs to state schools and by emphasising values such as teamwork and inclusivity, rugby’s amenability with modern cultural concerns can be demonstrated and its problematic associations shed.

An increased awareness of the health risks involved in Rugby Union, however, provides perhaps the strongest challenge to the sport. The long-term risks of multiple sustained concussions have finally been acknowledged. Former England hooker Stephen Thompson’s diagnosis of early onset dementia exemplifies how the health risks involved in Rugby Union might outweigh the rewards, especially for amateur players. In light of this, attracting new players becomes increasingly difficult. Projects such as headcase and return to rugby have improved management of concussed players at amateur levels. Nonetheless, Rugby Union has to do more. Red-carding any contact to the head with no mitigating circumstances works only in so far as players, intentionally or not, never tackle high. In the best-case scenario, human error will mean that Rugby Union remains a risk-laden sport. Despite touch rugby providing a popular alternative to the contact game, the latter remains the more popular and attractive to many.

Rugby Union remains in danger unless it can adequately address the intrinsic dangers to player well-being implicit in its contact nature. Well-publicised provisions at both grassroots and professional levels such as support networks and, where possible, medical care for players or ex-players experiencing short or long term effects of post-concussion syndrome, are essential. Education about risk factors is vital; it would be deceitful and dangerous to downplay the injury risks prevalent in rugby. So much about Rugby Union is worth preserving that reforms which acknowledge the concussion issue without drastically changing the nature of the sport are paramount. 

Image Credit: TonyAjas/ CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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