My “Take” on the week, this week, is of a controversial nature and a question that is very close to all our hearts and minds, both here at Sedge, and up and down the country.
What constitutes a rugby club?
It seems an easy question to answer at first glance, but these days it’s not as simple as you might think, as the requirements to be a rugby club is a multi-faceted one. There are so many community aspirations to be met, whilst catering for the competitive player from youth to senior. Well that is what we are all here for, aren’t we?
So, a club must be either good or a competitive one (see another loaded qualification).Is there a difference between the two you may ask? Yes there is, as some people see things quite differently.
There is another school of thought which is focused purely on the social aspects, with the game almost an afterthought “en route” to the bar. But what is a rugby club? Can it be all these things and more?
Then there is also the commitment to promote the game at large. This surely should be the sole reason for a rugby club existence and the very essence of what a rugby club should be about. In simple terms, to create the pathways for all ages and sexes with an unenviable challenge to a club on how to get a Mini under 7 to First XV number seven. That is a long-term commitment, but is it important? Of course, it is.
The final consideration is how do we maintain, fund, plan and most of all inspire all those requirements of a modern-day rugby club, so they all come to fruition?
All the above statements are surely the main consideration and aspiration of every rugby club in the land today. Or are they?
So, what is a rugby club? Can it be all the above points and more? Yes, it can. All the points highlighted above are the essential DNA for a modern progressive rugby club.
Later in this article I will try and explain why I ask the question in the first place. In my mind it seems that some club’s membership, supporters and the governing body have seemed to have lost the plot with regards to the whole spirit of competitive rugby, and how it sits in the very heart of a progressive rugby club and more importantly a progressive game.
So, let’s have a quick look back on the development of club rugby and the progression of the game at large within the last sixty years.
For many years, way before the introduction of junior rugby in the early 70s, the criteria for a rugby club was simple. All that was required was a First XV. Next consideration it had to have an exceptional fixture list and with that in place, you also had the knock-on effect of an exceptional social standing.
The more competitive the club the better the fixtures. The better the fixtures, the better playing quality to call from. The better the playing standards, the higher up the senior player pathway you could traverse, first through county selection, divisional selection then if you were good enough international recognition.
There was ‘nowt’ better back then than to have a county, divisional or better still, an international player to keep the social standing and the club coffers heading in the right direction and in the black.
It was simple back then. Unfortunately for most clubs up and down the country, it was also nearly a closed shop. However for a golden few it was a simple, almost a ringfenced existence (sic) and as long as you kept that merry dance in play you were safe. (That has got a modern feel to it, hasn’t it!!)
Long live the fixture secretary, I hear you say. Well back in the day they were worth their weight in gold.
So, what did a rugby club constitute and achieve before the early 70s. Success in fixtures, competitive games, regional or international recognition. Elitism, protectionism a game for the few and not the many.
Let’s move on and post 70s up until the early 80s when the final initiatives of the “merit leagues” led to organised leagues in 1987/88 finally taking place. I must re-iterate the importance of fixtures in conjunction with league fixture rugby, as you only played a team once in the league each season with fixtures (friendlies) making up the rest. It was to be another 9 seasons before a total league system was in place replacing fixtures completely as the game went open.
It was here club rugby started to shift and the dynamics and demands on clubs and the sport changed.
Junior rugby was the key to this, development of youth players in the past decade, with clubs and players willing and wanting to drive these youngsters to first or second XV. This pathway was almost as straight as a die. If you went back in time, you would find that most players made that journey from colt to senior player, staying with the club through their playing careers at senior levels then onto a new-found place, Veterans rugby.
The demands on clubs then were to provide and accommodate not only the facilities to play but also to drink and socialise. The latter being the key requirement to ensure investment and the continuation of the merry dance stayed in sync. You always must pay the piper.
Take a good look at rugby clubs up and down the country. There must have been more new builds or extensions to club houses throughout the early to mid-eighties than any other time.
So, what constituted a rugby club during this period. A strong development of colts into the senior sides, better and bigger facilities to accommodate growth on the playing side and on the social side. The chance to have a first XV unrestricted to play at the very top of a league structure with natural competitive fixtures. You dictate your own level.
So, as we move into the early nineties, we start to see the impact all of this development had. The game, now no longer restricted to a few, led to the very the nature of club rugby changing. Competitive league rugby had dismantled the old restricted access for the few. Now a progressive club could climb their way up through the levels and take on all comers. Youth development streams and potential revenue streams flowed closely behind
The secret to all these beacon clubs as they were called, (Sedge was one of many) was to ensure that all the elements of the ‘merry dance’ were in play. This meant a good and structured mini and junior set up that maintained development. It also gained the club further kudos if you had a competitive age group who either went all the way to a county cup or a junior section that were consistent suppliers of players to the county teams.
This pathway of talent had only one way to go as it pushed into the senior sides, resulting in some clubs at the time fielding up to six senior teams every week, all finding a competitive level of play to suit their needs from, very competitive, to a slightly competitive but good social side, or just rugby and a good social side.
This was an important and defining moment for the game of rugby union. It was a time of joined up long term thinking, a hand in glove approach from both the governing body and the clubs, that not only catered for and promoted the international game, but encouraged the club game and supported a burgeoning mini and junior section’s player development, to keep a self-fulfilling virtuous spiral. Rugby as a sport went from something for the few into the culture of the main stream.
If this head of steam had not happened the world cup win of 2003 would never have been and most certainly we would not have seen the development of the game that now gives us wonderful standards of rugby up and down the country, culminating in the wonderful fare of rugby served up each weekend in the Aivia Premiership, and dare I say one eyed, Park Lane.
Alas, at the very height of the process, somewhere during the mid-noughties, clubs and administrators lost their way.
No more the hand in glove joined up long-term thinking that allowed the game to catch fire a few decades ago. No, the new mantra was, easy fix solutions, maximise investment, easy win opportunities to ensure the best returns, tunnel vison and self-protectionist policy. All these things would eventually see clubs getting rid of the very structures that propelled them to the levels attained. The professional game meets the community game. What a load of baloney. A cop out. More like a greed is good ethos and stuff the lot of you.
So here we are and at the point of why I am asking the question, “What is the point of a rugby club?”
You can clearly see during the wonder years how and what was achieved with an open progressive game, supporting all the facets and requirements from development to senior structures, to the growth and provision of facilities and social functions. Most of all, having a first XV to be competitive and the focus of the very essence of the whole club’s ambition.
Sadly, the key words these days is the stagnation of the growth of the game, where we have clubs who have only invested in the first XV and have no other purpose in the rugby life other to hand on, resulting in these clubs eventually disappearing when the money runs out.
Or worse! There is the other type of club, where they “need to keep league status at all costs approach”, as has been seen and discussed in depth on all rugby social media forums recently.
If you have not heard, the clubs in question are Old Albanian and Loughborough Students, who have in recent weeks brought in up to 9 dual registered players each from Leicester Tigers and Saracens respectively, so each club can attempt to stave of relegation.
They have done nothing wrong, in fact they could have up to ten each, as the RFU have permitted this incredible initiative!!
What is the point of it and what signals does that send to all the levels beneath If each club started saying “if we are not good enough we will just borrow a new team”. Absolute madness!
Finally, and the worse infringement for me, it is clubs membership and supporters alike who have the mindset of defeat and stagnation. They are happy to have a competitive first XV team that is successful for most of the season, but then go out of their way to ensure promotion to the next level is not met. Yes, believe it or not there are two cases of clubs in the regional league level 5 who have undertaken this route.
Why you may ask? Scared of the competition at the next level up, scared of the financing that may be needed to support such a move, or simply that you do not see the level of your rugby club as a dynamic beacon for a strong first XV, or to be a symbol of who you are, what you are, and what you stand for as a club for players of all ages and club development and members alike?
Surely a strong first XV is the best driver for all youth development to aspire too, for all players to find senior pathways to find their level and to test themselves. To be the best you can possibly be in a competitive league structure. That is the nature of the sport. That is why the secondary aspect of club rugby in recent decades, the spectator, come or don’t come.
For the game at large if you restrict your ambition you are digging a hole for the sport at large.
What constitutes a rugby club?
All the best