STATE OF THE NA­TION: OUR IN-DEPTH IN­VES­TI­GA­TION INTO THE CRI­SIS GRIP­PING WELSH RUGBY

Wales On Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - MATTHEW SOUTHCOMBE Sports writer matthew.southcombe@waleson­line.co.uk

IT’S dog eat dog... every­one is do­ing their best to make sure they’re not next in line to fold.”

Those are the words of David Evans, chair­man of Lam­peter RFC in Di­vi­sion 3 West B. They sum up the feel­ings of many in­volved in a grass­roots game that is in cri­sis.

Over the past two weeks, a WalesOn­line in­ves­ti­ga­tion has at­tempted to get to the bot­tom of the is­sues fac­ing those who are at the heart of the com­mu­nity game in Wales. Dur­ing hours of in­ter­views with key fig­ures at var­i­ous dif­fer­ent lev­els, a bleak pic­ture has been painted.

At its heart is a crip­pling player drain that shows no sign of let­ting up. Ev­ery chair­man we spoke to be­low Di­vi­sion One ad­mit­ted they were con­cerned.

Clubs are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an alarm­ing amount of play­ers walk­ing away from the game af­ter youth rugby, leav­ing them short on num­bers to ful­fil their fix­tures. For many, their very ex­is­tence could well be­come an is­sue sooner rather than later.

One such ex­am­ple is Llan­haran RFC, a Di­vi­sion 2 East Cen­tral side who were thriv­ing years ago, run­ning three se­nior teams. These days the strug­gle to field a first team is their main con­cern.

“Off the field we’re not do­ing too bad, but on the field we are strug­gling just to get 20 play­ers out for the firsts,” said chair­man Wayne Merry.

Barry RFC in Di­vi­sion 2 East Cen­tral saw 28 play­ers grow out of their un­der-16s team last sea­son – this year they can’t field a youth team.

It’s a sim­i­lar story at Pon­ty­clun RFC, a league be­low: “These play­ers are not go­ing to other clubs, they’re fall­ing out of the game,” said chair­man John Gilbert.

This wasn’t the case 20 years ago, so what’s changed? A DIF­FER­ENT WORLD... Clubs are find­ing there is so much more for peo­ple to do these days, with the emer­gence of other sports and a mod­ern so­ci­ety that of­fers so many op­tions for peo­ple to fill their time.

There is also a school of thought that it’s nat­u­ral for play­ers who have been in­volved in the game at youth level to lose in­ter­est at the point when their se­nior rugby in­volve­ment should be be­gin­ning. If a child starts at the age of seven, they’ll have been play­ing rugby for around 13 years by the time they reach se­nior rugby.

Life is dif­fer­ent for young peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ties where the lo­cal rugby team used to be their heart­beat. When play­ers head off to univer­sity or trav­el­ling around the world, for ex­am­ple, few re­turn home to bol­ster the stocks of the se­nior team. Week­end work com­mit­ments also have to come be­fore rugby for many.

The Welsh Rugby Union ac­cept it needs ad­dress­ing and have in­tro­duced un­der-17s teams to tackle the drop-off at youth level – and in­sist they are see­ing pos­i­tive re­sults.

But it’s clear that clubs’ pro­duc­tion lines are now break­ing and play­ers are walk­ing away from the game. TOO MANY CLUBS? This is­sue was barely touched upon in the WRU’s an­nual re­port which per­haps adds to a feel­ing that the ex­tent of the is­sue is be­ing over­looked.

“The WRU don’t seem to re­alise it or are ig­nor­ing it,” said Bill Pritchard, who re­tired as chair­man of Aber­dare RFC last month. “Some­body needs to look at it prop­erly.

“The hard ques­tion – and I’ve spo­ken to Gareth Davies (WRU chair­man) about this – is do we have enough play­ers play­ing reg­u­lar rugby (not sim­ply reg­is­tered) to meet the needs of the num­ber of rugby clubs we have? I don’t think we do.”

What Mr Pritchard al­ludes to is the dif­fer­ence be­tween a player who is sim­ply reg­is­tered with a club and a player that is ac­tive.

Aber­dare had 51 reg­is­tered play­ers last sea­son, but were un­able to reg­u­larly field a sec­ond team. It means that par­tic­i­pa­tion fig­ures can be mis­lead­ing.

The num­ber of play­ers is di­min­ish­ing, but the num­ber of clubs is not, which has cre­ated the ‘do­geat-dog’ en­vi­ron­ment that Lam­peter boss Evans re­ferred to.

Clubs fur­ther down the leagues are hav­ing their bet­ter play­ers poached and there is talk of money some­times be­ing in­volved, which is where things get even more com­pli­cated. CASH­ING IN In or­der to be el­i­gi­ble to re­ceive fund­ing from the WRU, each club has to sign a state­ment of truth that says they do not pay play­ers. But there are claims that teams sim­ply sign it and pro­ceed to pay play­ers any­way, or sim­ply de­cline to sign it.

Pay­ment of play­ers has long been an open se­cret in am­a­teur Welsh rugby. Now, in a world where the num­ber of po­ten­tial play­ers is less, it’s a ma­jor is­sue for some.

“We’ve got a very suc­cess­ful ju­nior sec­tion and, af­ter the ef­fort and cost of run­ning 14 or 15 teams, it’s dis­ap­point­ing when they leave youth and are tempted by cash of­fers to join other clubs,” said Lam­peter’s Evans.

“If they want to go to a club that plays a higher stan­dard, then we will fa­cil­i­tate that move for them.

“But we lose play­ers to clubs in the third di­vi­sion and play­ers tell us it’s be­cause they’ve been of­fered money. I don’t know how they af­ford it.”

Bynea RFC in Di­vi­sion 3 West B were un­able to ful­fil a fix­ture this sea­son af­ter see­ing their coach and up­wards of 12 play­ers moved to an­other club.

The prob­lem is in­ten­si­fied in ar­eas of the coun­try that are heav­ily sat­u­rated with rugby clubs.

Chair­men not in a po­si­tion or will­ing to pay are look­ing at ways to en­sure they keep hold of their play­ers and even at­tract new ones.

But when you have a num­ber of clubs in close prox­im­ity, things are tough.

“I’m not in a po­si­tion to pay play­ers and I’ll never do that,” said Pon­ty­clun’s Gilbert.

“For me, it’s about im­prov­ing the fa­cil­i­ties that we have. If I can find play­ers the best re­sources to play rugby, then I feel it’ll stop (num­bers drop­ping).

“But the trou­ble is, that’ll be to the detri­ment of other clubs be­cause we have seven clubs within five miles.” Pe­narth RFC can re­late. “We’re all fight­ing for the same play­ers. It’s quite dif­fi­cult keep­ing hold of play­ers,” said chair­man Mike Good­ing. UN­FUL­FILLED FIX­TURES The dog­fight for play­ers amid a dwin­dling player base is re­sult­ing in one thing down the league – un­ful­filled fix­tures.

The WRU re­vealed in their an­nual re­port that an im­pres­sive 98% of fix­tures in the Welsh na­tional leagues were ful­filled last sea­son, mean­ing just 64 games fell by the way­side.

How­ever, just over a month into the 2018/19 sea­son and there are al­ready 45 league matches that have not taken place – though the WRU in­sist they will have to at some point – and it’s worse in the knock­out com­pe­ti­tions.

In the first two rounds of the WRU Na­tional Bowl com­pe­ti­tion, 33 out of 124 games have been for­feited.

There is bet­ter news off the field, though. BET­TER NEWS ON THE FI­NANCES FOR SOME Whilst clubs across the board might be strug­gling to get teams out on the pitch ev­ery week, their fi­nan­cial per­for­mances are, per­haps sur­pris­ingly, a lit­tle more re­as­sur­ing.

Many have re­alised that to put them­selves on a more solid foot­ing, they need to di­ver­sify and look at how they can gen­er­ate rev­enue out­side of rugby.

Those with halls are mak­ing use of them for wed­dings, birth­days and other func­tions so that they can max­imise the money taken over the bar, one of the clubs’ big­gest money- spin­ners. The other is WRU fund­ing.

All WRU mem­ber clubs re­ceive a base grant of £4,000 per sea­son and then on top of that are fi­nan­cially re­warded based on things like the num­ber of se­nior teams, mini and ju­nior teams, women’s teams they field, how many qual­i­fied first-aiders and qual­i­fied coaches they have and so on.

Each team has to fill out an au­dit de­tail­ing such in­for­ma­tion and then a points-based sys­tem de­ter­mines how much ex­tra money they re­ceive.

Many are con­tent with the fund­ing sys­tem but, in some cases, it’s still not enough. REAL WOR­RIES IN RU­RAL AR­EAS Builth Wells chair­man and for­mer Wales prop Jeremy Pugh painted a bleak pic­ture for clubs in ru­ral ar­eas, call­ing for a change to the fund­ing model.

“If we put in for a grant to do stuff at the club it’s great,” he said. “But our travel costs are around £20,000 and, though I don’t know the ex­act amount, we get around £13,000 back and they call it de­vel­op­ment money.

“We’ve never had de­vel­op­ment money, it all goes into keep­ing the boys on the road.

“I do think the Union are try­ing off the field, but they’re not sup­port­ing the ru­ral ar­eas at all.

“Cov­er­ing travel costs is a mas­sive con­cern and, hav­ing spo­ken to West Wales clubs, I know they have the same. It’s huge.

“Even I could sit down at a com­puter, work out the mileage and then work out a sen­si­ble rate.

“They say they’re putting all this money in but are they re­ally putting it in where it will make a dif­fer­ence? I don’t think they are.”

He added: “In a busi­ness, you have to make de­ci­sions. Un­for­tu­nately, with the Welsh Rugby Union, they don’t like mak­ing de­ci­sions in my opin­ion be­cause with that comes ac­count­abil­ity.

“If they’re not pre­pared to make de­ci­sions, they shouldn’t be in post.

“I do fear for rugby in Mid Wales if things don’t al­ter.”

Il­lus­trat­ing the pre­car­i­ous re­al­ity for many clubs in Wales, Pugh went on to ex­plain that without spon­sors ‘we wouldn’t ex­ist and we’re so grate­ful’.

Machyn­l­leth RFC are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing sim­i­lar travel ex­pense.

Chair­man Rhys Mor­ris has worked out they’ll have to travel around 1,700 miles to play their away games this sea­son and ad­mits it’s the club’s big­gest ex­pense on the play­ing side.

But there are also unique is­sues fac­ing clubs in ru­ral ar­eas when it comes to par­tic­i­pa­tion.

“In our area, we have small schools and there aren’t enough kids for us to run a full ju­nior sec­tion and we en­cour­age them to go to other clubs and play but then we just can’t get them back,” ex­plained Mor­ris.

“We’ve strug­gled in the last few years and had to post­pone games. It’s im­prov­ing this sea­son, but it’s a strug­gle ev­ery week.

He added: “The hub of­fi­cer stuff is good – they work with the pri­mary and sec­ondary school to en­cour­age kids to play – but it seems to be that they’re very much tied into in­di­vid­ual clubs in­stead of en­cour­ag­ing it across all the clubs in the area.

“But work­ing with the kids in school, that’s the only way to do it.”

Mor­ris went on to sug­gest a sys­tem that iden­ti­fies play­ers who are un­able to get a game at a par­tic­u­lar club be­cause there are too many num­bers would be ben­e­fi­cial.

It would mean those clubs strug­gling could be bol­stered and that would stop play­ers walk­ing away from the game. The per­mit sys­tem is straight­for­ward but cur­rently re­lies heav­ily on per­sonal re­la­tion­ships.

NOT EV­ERY­THING IS SO BAD Fur­ther up the leagues in Di­vi­sion One, where there is an ‘abun­dance of play­ers’ as one chair­man said, the out­look is a lit­tle more uplifting.

Rhi­w­bina RFC boast a thriv­ing mini and ju­nior sec­tion, with their sec­onds play­ing the WRU sec­ond team con­fer­ence, but even they have seen a drop-off at first-team level this sea­son.

“At the end of the day, we’re in North Cardiff where there are lots of fam­i­lies that want their kids to par­tic­i­pate in sport,” said a spokesper­son for the club.

“We’ve got a good rep­u­ta­tion, we’re very well or­gan­ised in terms of safe­guard­ing, qual­i­fi­ca­tions for coaches and it’s a se­cure en­vi­ron­ment.

“We’ve had a lot of dropouts in the first team this year and we’ve brought in guys from the sec­onds and it works.

“We are still con­cerned with the game at grass­roots level. At the mo­ment we might be buck­ing the trend but we ap­pre­ci­ate that things could change.

“We’re con­cerned about our friends and our neigh­bour­ing clubs. It’s up­set­ting to see clubs fold­ing or un­able to field a team.”

For­ge­side RFC, re-in­stated into the league struc­ture this year, came close to be­com­ing one of those clubs.

Last sea­son, they dropped out of Di­vi­sion 3 East D be­cause they could no longer field a team con­sis­tently amid de­feats of more than 100 points but, with the sup­port of the WRU, are now back in the game.

“We didn’t want to drop out of the league and then dis­ap­pear so we spoke to the WRU and asked what hap­pens if we do drop out of the league,” said chair­man Geraint Reynolds.

“They said they’d sup­port us and let us play friendlies as much as we could but ob­vi­ously there is a short­age of ref­er­ees.

“But they said as long as we played up­wards of 14 games in the sea­son, we could go in front of the com­mit­tee and put in to come back into the leagues this sea­son.

“In the end, we played around 17 or 18 games in the year, but there was no pres­sure on the boys or the club. We went back to just hav­ing fun on a Satur­day af­ter­noon.”

For­ge­side took ad­van­tage of the WRU’s ‘Game On’ ini­tia­tive that is usu­ally utilised at sec­ond-team level and it means ref­er­ees are in­sured to take charge of games that might be less than 15-a-side or un­con­tested scrums – among other things – with the sole fo­cus of mak­ing sure the game goes ahead.

It’s an ini­tia­tive that has shown pos­i­tive signs at sec­ond team level since it’s in­cep­tion how­ever, For­ge­side are now back in the league struc­ture, where the ‘Game On’ ini­tia­tive isn’t an op­tion, and things are look­ing up.

“On the field, I’m qui­etly con­fi­dent that we’ll be OK,” said Reynolds.

“Two week­ends ago we played a game and the av­er­age age of the pack was 22. So it’s a young set of boys but they’re all hav­ing fun to­gether.

“They’re all lo­cal and as long as we can keep every­one happy, to­gether and no­body else comes look­ing then we’ll be okay.

Holy­head RFC in North Wales have turned them­selves around too. Last year they were docked points for be un­able to field a side on oc­ca­sions but are now field­ing a se­nior, women’s and youth team.

“Three years ago, some of the lads didn’t think we were go­ing to carry on,” said Holy­head chair­man Emyr Wil­liams, “but the en­thu­si­asm has come on leaps and bounds.

“The en­thu­si­asm of the women is in­fec­tious. There are 20 to 30 of them train­ing and it catches on.

“I’ve found in re­cent years that the in­ter­est of some play­ers doesn’t last very long, but we are con­fi­dent at this mo­ment in time, with the in­ter­est there, that we will carry on.” SO HOW CON­CERN­ING IS IT

RE­ALLY? The WRU will ad­dress some of the mat­ters raised when they meet the clubs at their AGM in Hen­sol to­day.

But, for the most part, there isn’t a great deal of anger di­rected at the Union.

Most agreed that sup­port was avail­able should they need it, some have re­ceived grants to fix bro­ken roofs and make im­prove­ments to their clubs.

“We al­ways get sup­port from the WRU, they’re there to help but there’s a limit to what they can do,” ex­plained Barry RFC chair­man Colin Ham.

Ham’s assess­ment is fair, but the re­al­ity for some clubs is des­per­a­tion.

In their 125th year, Tre­de­gar RFC are fac­ing the very real prospect of ex­tinc­tion. They are be­ing pre­vented from play­ing af­ter re­fus­ing to pay a his­tor­i­cal debt of £40,000 to the WRU.

As such, their play­ers are leav­ing to go else­where and they are yet to take the field five games into the sea­son.

When asked if he was com­fort­able his club’s fu­ture was se­cure, An­drew Mur­phy of Brid­gend Sports RFC replied: “Sim­ple an­swer – no. We don’t own our own club­house.

“For the past three sea­sons we have been based in Brid­gend Rugby Club, where we have use of a room, but this is just a fill­ing agree­ment that could be ter­mi­nated at any time.

“Try­ing to find a lo­ca­tion that will take a club with two se­nior teams, one youth side and 10 mini and ju­nior sides is dif­fi­cult.”

Mur­phy’s con­cerns about the fu­ture of the game are shared else­where.

“I’m very wor­ried to be hon­est,” said Pon­ty­clun RFC’s John Gilbert.

“At the AGM two years ago, I said the player drain was too heavy. A lot of clubs in the lo­cal area are strug­gling and some are in freefall.”

With ex-Aber­dare chair­man Pritchard adding: “In my opin­ion, the com­mu­nity game is slowly dy­ing.”

The strug­gles that the grass­roots game faces were not men­tioned in any great de­tail in the WRU’s an­nual re­port last year, but a line from chief ex­ec­u­tive Mar­tyn Phillips in­sisted: “We are con­fi­dent we will see par­tic­i­pa­tion num­bers grow.”

Though the ev­i­dence begs the ques­tion: Is the grass­roots game thriv­ing or sim­ply sur­viv­ing?

You fear it’s the lat­ter... but for how long?

Spec­ta­tors get ready to watch yes­ter­day’s Di­vi­sion Three East Cen­tral A match be­tween Pe­narth and Pon­ty­clun, won 32-21 by the vis­i­tors

Pe­narth play­ers ap­plaud off the Pon­ty­clun team who won yes­ter­day’s game at the Pe­narth Ath­letic Ground PIC­TURES: Peter Bolter

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