Coronavirus crisis raises so many questions about the future of community game

The community game fears for its future due to the coronavirus pandemic

This week, some questions were answered about the immediate future of the community game.

Since confirming the end of the season at all levels below the Gallagher Premiership two weeks ago, hundreds of clubs have had to sit on their hands and wait for the Rugby Football Union [RFU] to make a decision on the next steps.

On Thursday, the first piece of news finally arrived from English rugby’s governing body after they announced promotion and relegation from the Championship - as well as the National Leagues and further down the pyramid - would still stand and would be calculated by a ‘best playing record’ formula.

To explain: You take an average number of points accumulated for the home games and away games for each club, which also takes into account the bonus-point system. You then take that figure and you allocate those averages to the balance of the fixtures left in the season and that, therefore, confirms the final league position of your club.

Bill Sweeney, RFU CEO told TRU: “We’re 80 per cent through the season. We felt the most fair and reasonable way to approach this was to now apply a pretty simple formula in terms of away records and home records. We did consult with the game and the overwhelming response was that they had a preference to go down that route.”

Talking Rugby Union also spoke to Nottingham Rugby chairman Alistair Bow following the RFU’s announcement (interview to come next week), but despite a clear conclusion to this campaign, the uncertainty about how the structure of the English game will look following the coronavirus pandemic - especially below the Premiership - was a major concern for him.

In truth, not many people know what the future holds for rugby, and for sport in general, due to the ever-changing nature of Covid-19 and Sweeney admitted talks are on-going about how the 2020/21 campaign may look whenever the game returns.

Sweeney added: “The final stage in our reaction to this crisis is the reboot phase and how we resurrect this and emerge stronger.

“In prior to the crisis hitting, there has been an adult male game’s competition review which is being conducted by a committee from council. Those findings are being put together at the moment and we hope to announce those fairly soon and that will deal with the structure and matches going forward into the following season.”

How will community clubs cope financially?

Sweeney uses the term ‘emerge stronger’ but a consensus among some teams across the sport is that, financially, the RFU need to act quickly in order to help the community clubs who are suffering badly due to the unprecedented times we find ourselves in.

Last week, the RFU CEO stated the financial package worth £7million was in place to support these clubs who were struggling, plus, guidance will be provided ‘on accessing financial support through the government’s relief funds.’

Questions marks have been raised about whether the RFU’s proposals are substantial enough to aid clubs throughout this difficult time, but Sweeney was keen to underline his support once again.

  “We are here for them,” he said. “All clubs are not equal in this. Some clubs are coping very well and some are struggling more so. We have put that support package together which is £7million plus and there was an additional Sport England package [a fund worth up to £195million] which was announced on Wednesday.

“The message to the club’s is batten down the hatches, eliminate all costs you can eliminate and if you qualify for some of the support programmes in place, make sure you put your applications in and we will support you.”

The latest update regarding the community game coincided with the RFU announcing the contract extension of Eddie Jones until the end of the Rugby World Cup in 2023.

The England head coach has also recently agreed to a 25 per cent wage cut amid fears that the RFU will suffer a £50million loss of revenue due to the coronavirus outbreak, but despite the spotlight being on Jones on Thursday morning, he was quick to emphasise the importance of everyone sticking together throughout the English game.

Jones said: “The RFU showed the way [with the wage cuts]. I was really pleased with how decisive they were and I think it was an easy decision to follow that. It is a small thing that personally you do to ensure that we can get through that next period of time, but the most important part is the role we have to play once we can get back to playing rugby.

“It is going to be important that we get the game back together. We have mentioned about amateur clubs struggling, community clubs struggling and I am sure there will be professional clubs that will struggle so we have to make sure that whatever form rugby takes, it is in a stronger state than it was previously and that is the ambition of the rugby community now, to get everyone working back together.”

Jones: Community rugby is the base of our game

Before the 2019 Rugby World Cup, England released a social media video focusing on each player’s rise through the ranks, which included their time with their respective community clubs. Jones, himself, is a big advocate of the local game and he realises how crucial grassroots rugby is, not only for player development, but for what it offers to society as a whole.

He told TRU: “It is massively important. I remember in the week of the Wales game [during the Six Nations] on the Sunday before we went into camp, I went down to my local club, Camberley, and they had a rugby festival on for the under-10s.

“There would have been around 500 kids down there, sloshing around in the mud! There were probably 250/300 parents down there having a great time and that is the base of our game. We’re lucky that rugby is such a community game.

“I go out to the clubs, and you see the clubhouses which are also community centres, particularly in a lot of the rural areas, so we are all in this together. It is important the community clubs all find a new level. It is important the professional clubs find a new level and as a national team, we will need to find a new level because things will be different and we need to find that level quickly.”

For now, all rugby is at a standstill and, obviously, we are still unsure about when the game might return to normal.

Whilst the RFU have given some clarity to clubs regarding promotion and relegation, as well as reiterating their support for the community game, Thursday’s video press conference was only the beginning of a growing line of questions which will need to be answered.