THE good news is that men’s Scottish club rugby is back, with the competitive season kicking off last weekend when the top-flight Premiership played its first round of matches, while the National Shield and three out of four Regional Bowls also got going.
The bad news is that more grassroots clubs than ever before appear to be struggling to raise a team even at this early stage in the 2022-23 campaign.
Of the 21 Shield games scheduled to be played last Saturday, nine did not go ahead (six were called off because the away team had insufficient numbers, one because the home team couldn’t raise a side, one cancellation seems to be due to Covid, and Inverleith pulled out of the competition a couple of weeks ago).
Meanwhile, in the Midlands Bowl, all three matches were called off (two by the away team and one by the home team), in the North Bowl two out of five games didn’t go ahead (due to teams withdrawing from the competition in advance), and in the West Bowl one out of three scheduled games did not go ahead (due to Lomond & Helensburgh failing to raise a side to travel to Lochaber).
In fairness, these knock-out competitions have increasingly come to be seen as incidental to the meat and drink of the league season in recent years. However, given that this was the last weekend before the start of the season proper, it is deeply concerning that so many games [46 percent of Bowl and Shield matches] were not even used as final warm-up outings.
The real measure of how desperate the situation has become will be this weekend, with the three National Leagues (below the Premiership) and the Regional Leagues all getting under way. The early omens are not particularly encouraging with 10 matches having already fallen by the wayside by the time this article was published at 7pm on Friday.
In Caledonia One, Blairgowrie haven’t been able to raise a team to visit Aberdeen Wanderers. In Midlands Three, Montrose/Arbroath and Stobswell have had to call of their home games against Perthshire 2nd XV and Montrose, respectively.
In East One, Ross High had insufficient numbers to host Linlithgow. In East Two the Hawick Linden versus Penicuik game is off because there is no referee available (a different but equally worrying problem).
In West Two, Irvine have had to call off their trip to Strathendrick, while Shawlands and Lanark have had to cancel their trips to Bishopton and Birkmyre in West Three.
And in the West Reserve Leagues One Ayr/Millbrae have had to forfeit their match at Dumfries while GHA Lions couldn’t raise a team to host Greenock.
There are, of course, good news stories out there, of clubs who have bucked the general trend by growing their players base and raising standards – twin goals which tend to go hand in hand. But the general sense is of a rapidly escalating malaise and the long-term consequences will be critical for Scottish rugby.
Today’s players are tomorrow’s coaches, referees and administrators. There are undoubtedly some excellent mini and youth team coaches out there who had never picked up a rugby ball before their child expressed an interest, but that is a harder path and nobody can seriously argue against some previous hands-on experience being a big help. Furthermore, without a functioning senior team, where is the impetus and wherewithal to develop a thriving junior section at a club?
Every grassroots side which falls by the wayside increases Scottish rugby’s reliance on private schools and the development programmes of other countries. As a small nation with limited spending power, this is not a sustainable business model.
In the Scottish Rugby Union’s recent Annual Report, John Jeffrey, the Chairman of the Board, assured his readers that: “One of the biggest fears associated with the pandemic – namely that we would haemorrhage playing numbers across the board has proved unfounded.”
It was an astonishing statement, and deeply troubling because it suggests that there is a reluctance to recognise let alone tackle this fundamental issue amongst the current Murrayfield hierarchy.
The words of one experienced club administrator earlier this week more accurately reflects reality. “League opening day is usually one of joy and anticipation for the season ahead, but it looks like some fear and trepidation has crept in,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Rugby Development department have pointed out that eight games were called off due to insufficient numbers this time last year with another 11 postponed due to Covid, so they reason that this year has not seen a major escalation of cancellations. They stress that they are monitoring the situation and are committed to providing practical support to clubs should it be required.
One game worth keeping an eye on this weekend is at Bangholm, where Trinity Accies and Hawick Harlequins – two sides back from the dead after dropping out of their respective leagues last season – meet in East League Three. These are clubs with proud histories are approaching the season in determined mood, knowing that it is going to be a big challenge week-on-week to gather enough players to make-up a team, and each reliant on some heroic stalwarts who refuse to throw in the towel, including the magnificent David Stroud of Trinity as he approaches his 50th birthday.
We wish both Trinity and Harlequins well, as we do all clubs as they start off on this great adventure into the unknown.
- Update: the Trinity versus Hawick Harlequins game has now been called off due to Harlequins being unable to field a side.