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 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, recognise 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.