by DAVID FERGUSON
Sport in Scotland may never return to the old normal post-Covid, as we learn to live with a new disease, but that may be a good thing. I was introduced to rugby in 1981, as a 10-year-old, whose family landed in Galashiels from Drumnadrochit (the shinty stick went to the loft brought out only to amaze friends with stories of Highland violence). Holding my dad’s jacket with a fierce grip, I was subsumed in crowds walking to Netherdale for my first Gala-Hawick derby, and first real rugby match.
Sport has changed since crowds of 10,000 watched rugby matches, but its core community value remains the same. The levels of engagement that come with community sport in Scotland, particularly in the team sports of rugby, football, hockey and cricket, and shinty in the north, are too easily underestimated and undervalued. These are community-encompassing clubs and events, much more than what many see simply as ‘sport’. In my 50 years of watching sport with family and friends, playing, coaching and organising, and after a childhood spent in parts of Scotland where round balls, oval balls, bags of clubs and camans appeared to be tools of an exciting religion, the sense of community that envelopes sport enveloped me.
So, I am concerned at the decision by Scotland’s rugby clubs to instantly return to the national focus on leagues. Instead of adapt to Covid concerns that will hang around for a while yet, and ask clubs to form local leagues, within five obvious rugby ‘districts’ (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Midlands, North and South), where travel is limited and local rivalries can breathe new life into the game, enough clubs chose to travel the length and breadth of the country from the off. I wonder how many asked their players, and not just current players, but also those who have left or would like to play? I had hoped there might be consideration given to a regional set-up at least for one year, save perhaps for the elite Premiership league, but, in truth, my real hope was that the year’s break might provide a pathway to regenerating community rugby.
Two things are important to consider here – lifestyle changes in the past 20 years, and the fact that we have more children playing rugby now up to the age of 10/11 than we have ever had.
On the first issue, countless players over the past 20 years have told me of their loss of interest in playing rugby beyond mid-20s (some earlier), and reasons given include that the amateur game has become too intense – mentally as well as physically – and a desire to spend time with partners and families. Yes, some do want to go shopping on a Saturday, because the world they have grown up in lacks the differing male/female lifestyles of the past; it is more homogenised.
There is also vastly more choice of entertainment now, and so teens and young men and women will not suffer 10 seasons or more of repetitive training, mid-winter slogs and a lack of fun and excitement in their sport. We (oldies) did because it was the only route to escape home or work and be with friends, and the joy of the game – and lack of entertainment options meant we accepted negativity many coaches threw at us. The world has changed, but how many coaches and clubs have? Over 90% of children and young adults ‘socialised’ with each other through gaming during lockdown, for example, so how many clubs involve esports?
There are genuine reasons for optimism. Children still love sport. We have more children playing sport – including rugby – up to the age of 10/11 years than we have ever had in Scotland. Yes, more. That is down to fantastic work by national sports bodies, clubs, schools and community volunteers to inspire, motivate and enable youngsters to play. The raw material remains there and excited about the future.
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Don’t tell them this bit, but from 11 years on, most will quit sport. It is common across the world, but Scotland has ben losing them quicker than most, and our 10% gender gap of male to female players starts there too.
Many appear unaware of this, and expected Scotland to beat the Czech Republic and Croatia in football’s European Championships, despite those countries doing far better in retaining players from teens to adulthood. Indeed, a glance at the Scotland squad reveals many, including captain Andy Robertson, were dumped as teenagers by leading clubs. It’s similar in rugby where Japan and Italy long ago outstripped us in player numbers, and young Scots talent has struggled for pro opportunities as more and more southern hemisphere players arrive to don the navy blue. Finn Russell is rightly lauded as one of our greatest players in recent history, but who was thinking ‘there’s a Lion in the making’ when he played for Falkirk and worked as a stonemason?
And it all starts with player numbers. The more players, at every level, the better the talent at the top; the fewer players, the smaller the pool of talent that emerges.
But we haven’t lost the opportunity and we don’t need to wind the clock back decades either. Human nature being what it is, children and adults still yearn for contact with each other, more so as they emerge from their teens and into adult life, and from a pandemic. The idea of a community club they and their friends, partner and family can be part of still shows up in research as a key draw for people of all ages, and therein lies real opportunity for sport in the next year.
Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and New Zealand are among the nations to have worked hard on this in the last 20 years, investing in local, community sport as a way to address health and societal declines, and draw people into healthier, more socially connected lifestyles across the generations. As a result, they have developed more active and healthier populations.
We have the same opportunity to use local sport to rebuild our communities and our health. We have been given an opportunity to stop and think about what matters, and for 99% of sports participants – only 1% play professionally – that is playing with friends, close to home, weekly derbies and sharing the joy with family and friends.
Yes, let the best travel nationwide in a Premiership, but Iain Milne made an appeal for ‘poor’ rugby players a few years ago, and his point was bang on. We need to support everyone to play and move with the times to make rugby fun for all – as it is for the many thousands of primary age children loving it.
Many clubs and individuals are doing that and we all owe them a debt of gratitude. We need to support them and encourage more to put the fun of rugby ahead of performance right now. The rewards will be great.