The pubs may be open, and sport may be back, but our grassroots clubs are still closed for business.
Whether you were promoted, relegated, or neither during the final standing’s announcement, we’re all craving the return of our local clubs. Grassroots rugby may be on hold, but we wanted to know what you thought about the state of grassroots rugby and the post-COVID way forward.
In a survey commissioned by Fill Your Boots, we asked the COVID-hit grassroots rugby community various return-to-play questions. Here’s what we found:
-Close to one in every 20 players say they will not return to playing rugby at all.
-Around one in ten players were unsure as to whether they would return to a rugby pitch post-COVID.
Nevertheless, the majority of responders mentioned how they are just eager to get playing again. “I want to play rugby and I accept the risks,” one said. “I don’t think there is an issue playing, I miss the social side of grassroots,” stated another. One respondent stated: “I Love the game! My team and my club are an important part of my life and I don’t see any reason to lose that.”
In recent months and seasons, we have seen an increased emphasis on mental health, inclusion, and player welfare, notably the Gallagher Premiership games between Gloucester Rugby and Sale Sharks, which focused on the #BeKind campaign, and the inaugural top-flight Pride fixture between Harlequins and London Irish. Many of those who responded to our survey suggested that grassroots rugby, and the sport as a whole, has been key to their mental health.
“Life without rugby isn’t life!” one began. “It is a tool to de-stress from work or if someone has mental health issues. It brings a social element to those who may otherwise be lonely.”
“It is also good for staying in shape for those who do not like going to the gym.”
Another respondent said: “Rugby is really important for my mental health and well-being. It gives me a chance to push myself both physically and mentally – this season my team really have something to prove as we won our league.
“It forms a large percentage of my social life and gives me a second family. Nothing really compares to the camaraderie of a rugby team that really shares that special bond.”
With the recent PRO14 fixture announcement, combined with those released for the Gallagher Premiership too, we’re all itching to get back to training and playing. Government advice is stricter for the grassroots game, especially with the inability to access funding to aid with the return to play.
In our survey, we asked those involved in the game as to when they expect the rugby pyramid to be back up and running again. While some said it could be as early as September, others don’t think they’ll be playing until 2022. The most common answer, however, was January 2021.
With the return of a tweaked version of rugby in New Zealand and Australia, we posed the idea of a modified game with law changes to enable an earlier return, almost half of people wanted no change.
“Well I understand the lack of close contact temporarily while social distancing regulations are restrained, however removing the scrum entirely at grassroots has even more of an impact than in the professional game,” one began. “It disenfranchises front rows and essentially makes rugby less a game for all and more a game for only the quickest and fastest people.
“It could ruin the game’s inclusivity at grassroots level, where you can have players that aren’t particularly the best at the game but can scrummage and stabilise a set-piece well.”
“That’s a big change to the game,” said another. “Rugby has always been an all-inclusive sport – a place for you no matter your size. Dropping scrums will make for a faster-paced game but will exclude some body types. Maybe you could play both types of game so there is some choice?”
Some however believe that some changes could improve the game, and lead to a safer version of grassroots rugby. “Limiting mauls to players initially in it gives strengths for sides with strong mauls to take advantage but could be used too much especially off the lineout,” one began. “Orange card is a good idea and doesn’t 100% punish teams for accidental high tackles. The ‘use it’ rule helps speed up the game, but you may see players tire a lot quicker due to less rest.”
Another said: “No scrums would support social distancing rules, also encourage a fast-paced game.”
Some just want a speedy return: “Get the game on – if you stop playing for too long it becomes very hard to return”
Seemingly more than ever before, grassroots rugby clubs are facing a real fight for survival. A combination of no games, COVID-19, and closed clubhouses could lead to the decimation of what rugby really is and stands for. We asked what the biggest challenges were to grassroots clubs during these unprecedented times.
“Reassuring people will be a massive challenge. Can’t see a positive outcome without some sort of instant testing or vaccine,” one said. Another stated: “I think finances will be tight and the possibility of decreased memberships will put a burden on the clubs. Making sure they can provide compliant changing rooms/showers and coaching set ups will also be difficult”
“Retaining players to come back, then reminding them of the length of travel in your league,” began this respondent. “The majority of people have re-prioritised and enjoy having time again. Taking a full day out to travel is tough, and now with the COVID situation, I can see this being a challenge due to anxieties.”
There are, of course, more important things going on than rugby, and the rugby community understands that. However, during this period of uncertainty, players and clubs want clarity. We commissioned this survey to see what you, the rugby family, think at the moment, and the response has been phenomenal.
Fill Your Boots would like to thank all of those who participated in this research, and we are open to discussing our findings with any interested parties.
Thank you to Matt Hardy for assisting with this article.