Club rugby is the backbone of the game in Wales. It nurtures the next generation of players, its clubs are the bedrock of many communities and it is the clubs which are the Welsh Rugby Union.
And yet it is club rugby which is dying, not that the cowboy hatted, fancy dressed hoards at the Millennium Stadium, who wave to the TV cameras, would know. They, no doubt, would dismiss the club rugby types who stand out in the wind and rain, both up and down valley, as saddos – rugby’s equivalent of train spotters. Our season goes from September to April at least, theirs from Feb 1st to March 15th.
Take the typical weekend of TV rugby coverage. 99% will be about the superstar level, the internationals and the so called regions, with barely a passing mention for the great established names of Welsh rugby, the Neaths, the Pontypools, and yes the Maestegs (below) and the Abertillerys, the latter for whose results you really have to search hard. This makes it even more disgraceful then that the WRU have put a block on the excellent Inside Welsh Rugby TV (@IWRTV) from filming club matches and showing them on you tube.
Maesteg RFC, in brighter times
Quite frankly I’m beyond caring about them. I don’t care how many times Ospreys beat Dragons in the LV Anglo-English Pro 12 Celtic money spinner or whatever tournament has been organised for Friday nights during the Six Nations (at a time when clubs are not given scheduled fixtures). It has no soul. You need a history and a tradition for that.
History, tradition and loyalty are what the clubs have, and that is what we supporters cling to. But sadly we are a falling and ageing number. The club game has its moments. A Saturday Pontypool v Ebbw Vale game this season had around 1,000 in attendance, a number remarkable only perhaps because at one time that would have been a poor crowd. A midweek Gwent Derby in the 1970s or 1980s could have easily pulled in 6,000 plus.
By contrast, in the so called Premiership, where a WRU approved A licence is de rigueur, a match between Bedwas and Llandovery may attract less than 100 paying punters. There are better numbers about than that of course. Pontypridd continue to attract a fervent following, as do Neath, but relegation threatened Swansea play in front of just dozens at a rundown St Helens, whilst the face painters ply their trade at the swanky Liberty Stadium.
Not only are numbers down, but the faces lack youth. The sexy day out at an all seated stadium is unsurprisingly preferred by a 21st century generation cosseted with push of a button entertainment on the I Pad. Furthermore, having two Premiership football teams in South Wales makes an away trip to Aberavon even less attractive.
Eugene Cross Park, Ebbw Vale
So what can we do?
Well, keeping the faith is one thing. Not easy when you hear of clubs folding. I heard recently that Deri RFC and Newbridge United RFC had gone under; Tredegar Ironsides have regrouped in the bottom WRU division (as did Oakdale) whilst their town counterparts at the RFC have struggled to field a XV of anybody quite regularly in Division 2 East, and this is a club who once recorded quite frequent wins over better resourced sides like Bridgend and Ebbw Vale. Money is a big issue of course. The side which plays in my local park, Abergavenny, are losing players to nearby Crickhowell despite being three divisions higher in the league structure.
But does it matter? There are those who say all that counts is the top level. I don’t agree. To build a house you need solid foundations, and that’s what the clubs provide.
It’s probably too much to ask to turn the clocks back to the halcyon days of Welsh club rugby (my personal preference would be to abolish the regions and go back to a 12-14 team top division with promotion and relegation – it works in England). But the club game in Wales cannot go on like it is and the WRU seem to care far too little.
But that’s where we all come in.
Doing just a bit for your local club can go a long way, and, you know what, watching a game at the touchline in a crowd of 500 can be quite exhilarating if only for the crunching bones and colourful language, and all for the price of two pints in Wetherspoons. Nearly all players actually like a crowd being there, and, you never know, you may be seeing the next Welsh Internationals on display. They all started somewhere, Leigh Halfpenny, Adam Jones and Dan Lydiate all firstly played in the leagues. I know. I saw them.
So get the message out there. Your local club is part of what shapes your town. Without support it will die, without clubs there is no local outlet for the talent in existence and without that there isn’t a ‘top level’ product for the TV channels to want to cover. The clubs are the platform upon which the whole game is built.
It’s simple. Club rugby – use it or lose it.