Gareth Dyer’s rugby column

Gareth Dyer

Gareth Dyer

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Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every Friday for the Evening Post

For those of you who have been regular readers of my column, you will know that I am often bemused by the approach taken by those tasked with administering the sport of rugby union.

Much of my ire has been aimed at those responsible for the positioning of the elite game in the northern hemisphere.

It is pretty well regarded that the season in the northern hemisphere is a mess with domestic league fixtures, European competitions and the international fixture lists sitting uncomfortably together in an inconsistent mess of timetabling.

As a result, the competitions lack momentum, with the clubs too often without their best players, whilst the paying spectators have little clarity as to when their teams are playing and whether the best players will be available for fixtures.

All in all, it is a totally unsatisfactory way to treat both players and spectators.

But given that the full-time game accounts for less than 2% of the total playing base, what about the administration of the game for those clubs that operate below the elite level?

Surely a stable environment exists in the non-professional game where clubs can just get on with the business of playing each Saturday and try their best to make progress through the league pyramid.

Well, after a period of stability, the game at the non-elite level has been thrown into confusion due to a RFU commissioned report called the Adult Competition Review.

The purpose of this review was to look at the structure of the adult game in England and assess whether the current system of leagues was working correctly or whether changes were required to help the clubs and the players they cater for.

It was to be an involved process, allowing clubs, players and supporters to have an input into shaping the future structure of the game.

Thus the review seemed a positive idea and something that the game in England could be proud of.

After all, there are not many sports where the participants are given such an opportunity to have their say on the way their sport is structured.

Personally, I was positive on the review, despite the RFU calling their member clubs “customers”.

This seemed a strange choice of term to me given that a sporting union is essentially organised to run the interests of the clubs for which it was created.

So clubs like Hoppers were not customers, as we and our fellow clubs are the union.

But I digress.

Issues facing the game below the full-time level were to be the focus.

The main areas to be covered were the payment of players, player welfare, sustainability of clubs, player retention and how best to position the community game for the future.

Alas, despite the initial positivity, the ACR has become mired in controversy and a lack of transparency.

After a long period of fact finding, a number of proposals were put forward to restructure the league system.

This involved reducing the numbers of teams per league, regionalising competitions, with the reintroduction of cup competitions for clubs below the current national league level.

This, it was argued, provided solutions to the major issues facing the game.

Players would play less rugby ensuring better player welfare, clubs would have reduced costs from less travelling and player payments, thus ensuring greater sustainability and there would be more time during the season for clubs to look at other initiatives, such as social tag rugby or renewing local friendly fixtures and county cup competitions.

As somebody who was involved in the semi-pro game for over a decade, I was undecided as to whether the proposals were a step in the right direction or not.

There were clearly some benefits particularly in terms of reduced travelling and player welfare but as one club official said to me, a scaling back of the game only serves to reduce its appeal.

He argued that the long-term effect would be to reduce interest and the problems that are endemic now – particularly in terms of player retention – would only increase.

This seemed to be the general view of most clubs in northern England in particular.

They have been particularly vocal against the suggested changes, arguing that they would also play into the hands of rugby league, with players switching codes to get regular rugby.

I can’t say I agree with that view but it was one that gained popularity as a call to arms.

What was clear was that there was never going to be a single structure put forward that would provide an answer the game’s problems.

And after much expense, time, argument and counter-argument, it appears that despite the RFU trying to force through their proposals, they have now been scrapped with the status quo to 
remain.

Cue much rejoicing in the regions.

But to me, an opportunity has been lost to address those issues that remain and it is further evidence of a lack of clarity from the top.