English rugby is in crisis

Make no mistake: the game of rugby, which many of us love so much, is in serious trouble: it will have to change or die. The game’s scarily existential issue on the field – especially the brain health of those who play it – is one thing. But what is going on inside the heads of those who run the sport?

The financial clouds hovering over English rugby are as menacing as Billy Vunipola coming on to the ball at full speed from the back of the scrum. Worcester Warriors are just the start: Wasps are in trouble, and Bristol could be next. There will be more. Only Leicester, Northampton and Harlequins seem out of the woods. Too much money is going out from the clubs and not enough is coming back in. It’s as simple as that. The generous furlough payments allowed many lame-duck clubs to look like happily fattened Christmas turkeys.

Fewer young sportspeople now want to take up the game. Parents are stopping their kids playing full contact rugby – understandably as we learn more about the links between concussion and dementia. As players get fitter, bigger, stronger, space on the rugby field declines and the ferocity of confrontations just gets more intense.

And the top schools, the forcing ground for most rugby players, recognize that fewer kids are willing to get their heads kicked in. Epsom College, one of the country’s top rugby schools, is offering players the choice of full contact, low contact or touch rugby. Lewes RFC, which used to field four XVs, was recently reported to be unable to field even one First XV.

Without people wanting to play, the numbers wishing to watch will go down too – and no one will want to start playing rugby if they can never see it. It is a vicious circle. BT do a fantastic job screening three big club games over a weekend. But the audiences are unlikely to be that high – 250,000ish at an educated guess – and quite how long BT stay in sports broadcasting anyway is questionable.

I think a free-to-air deal is preferable, with Channel 4 or 5. Currently the Gallagher Premiership highlights are free to air on ITV, but at around midnight, not great for kids who have to go to school. Meanwhile, the income from gates and broadcasting deals is unsustainable and clubs survive only with the kindness of strangers. But how long will benefactors be willing to chuck sackfuls of cash at the sport?

Ironically the actual game is getting better and more entertaining just as the off-field crisis grows. Look at thrilling spectacles like Saracens’ demolition of champions Leicester, or the exhilarating encounter between Exeter and Harlequins, only settled at the last minute with an end-to-end break from the Chiefs, ending in a brilliant try by flanker Christ Tshiunza (remember the name: he is the size of a house, with a beaming smile and the acceleration of an Arc winner, and he is eligible for England).

I know it is a team game, but more must be done to build up marquee players like Marcus Smith and Maro Itoje, or Ellis Genge with his remarkable origin story, as national figures and advocates for the sport. The autumn internationals and the World Cup next year will be magnificent festivals of rugby. But behind the glittering exterior things are beginning to crumble. It has to be put right, and soon.

To anyone despondent about the state of Britain, I suggest they spend Sunday 23 April 2023 (the date of next year’s London Marathon) in the vicinity of Trafalgar Square. Whether they’re running as a banana or a bear, or just as themselves, the runners and their entourages represent a large slice of British life that has been swept to the margins of our consciousness during Covid, political upheavals and ludicrous cultural feuds. The marathon is a great festival of so much that is good in our society.

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