Opinion: club rugby has a chance to go back to the future

John Evans wonders if lockdown can be an opportunity to recall what grassroots rugby really stands for. Image: FOTOSPORT/DAVID GIBSON
John Evans wonders if lockdown can be an opportunity to recall what grassroots rugby really stands for. Image: FOTOSPORT/DAVID GIBSON

Crouch, bind … re-start

Cold turkey … or something very close to it … that’s what many of us are feeling like at the moment. We’ve now gone almost four months without rugby and whilst New Zealand’s Aotearoa competition offers a kind of methadone programme for those who are struggling with withdrawal symptoms, it is not the same as mainlining on our grassroots game and getting a real fix at our home clubs.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, it’s not too early to think about Re-start and Recovery, and many clubs are well on the way.

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Preparing to play

The Rugby Development team at Murrayfield have presented a couple of excellent webinars and clubs have a great platform to help them prepare to play in terms of set-up, coaching, supervision and oversight.

I guess this could be classed as the first ‘preparing for play’ phase and we will soon hopefully move to the next ‘preparing to play’ phase when we can engage in touch or tag rugby with the same diligence to hygiene as in the initial phase of training.

World Rugby has been quick off the mark with guidance; Scottish Rugby a little less so with so many of their staff being furloughed, but no doubt they’ll look to provide advice and guidance as soon as they can.

It’s not ideal and it’s not rugby as we’ve come to know it, but is there the chance here to bring back some of the great elements of rugby as we did know it?

I think there are some fantastic opportunities to rebuild membership and look at new sources of funds.

Player attraction and retention

The phase where touch or tag rugby is the only permissible form of the game gives the chance to bring back players into clubs who left or retired because bodies couldn’t take contact any more, or because risks were too high in terms of having to take time off work for injuries etc. We know most walked away unwillingly so this is a great chance to get them back involved with the club they loved. Might we see a form of “Tartan Touch” thrive as we prepare for a return to contact some point in the distant future?

Player, coach and referee education

Law knowledge and practice has always been something that coaches would like to build if they had time. Well, now there is time. Referees and those who oversee them need to get out to clubs and work together. We can’t have a decent game unless players have a consistent application of laws and this is our chance to have a sustained dialogue on the areas that cause problems.

Competitions that develop players and teams

If it’s going to be impossible to play a full league season then we need to do something different. Remember the Merit Tables of years gone by when position was determined by the number of games won? Teams of all standards were welcome and often the best teams didn’t top the merit table because they stretched themselves, yet no one cared.

As we prepare for play then we have the chance to build local competitions. In the East we could look at an Edinburgh League and an East Lothian League (both with the appropriate number of ability based divisions), allowing individual clubs to have as many teams as they like taking part (meaning that Leith, for example, can offer competitive rugby for all its players across three XVs). Why not have local midweek cups scheduled for April, May and early June next year to push the season out? Pitches are hard, but they are in other months, too. And water is plentiful in Scotland!

The same applies elsewhere across Scotland. The Borders have always had the Border League and an Ayrshire competition would throw up some mouth-watering fixtures, played in front of big crowds. There is nothing to stop national play-offs as a climax to the season – although the most important thing is getting folk playing, regardless of standard.

What this will mean is the resurrection of the omnipotent position of Fixtures Secretary. He or she who can secure away  games with the clubs with great food and drink, and home games against the better clubs when we know they can’t field a strong side, is worth his or her weight in pies.

Social rugby and player development

Many readers will recall with fondness the days and evenings of social rugby. Lismore Lepers (so called because most players were too bad to be selected for any other team), the Boroughmuir Reprobates, Dundee Potbellies, Stoneybridge Occasionals …

As we worry about transition and retention, what better way to introduce a young player to adult rugby than through social rugby where he or she can play alongside experienced players? There were very few injuries in the days of social rugby and it brought some great young players into the adult game, often playing alongside ageing internationals or district players.

Let’s have a think about social tournaments, too. A number of clubs used to run these. Lismore ran 2nd and 3rd XV Easter tournaments that attracted local and touring sides. Great fun, a full range of players, and decent bar and food takings, as well as supporting local hotels and other businesses.

It will require referees who are empathetic and understanding of the game but we have those in droves – I won’t name any but if anyone’s looking for a ref for such a game then give me a call and I’ll offer you a dozen or more great refs who understand grassroots rugby.

Touring again

So, this means tours could be on again? Yee-ha! No league or cup programmes to get in the way. The chance for players to bond.

Stag weekends appear to have replaced the weekend tours. Why not have a single stag weekend/week tour for all the daft sods in a club who are getting married this year?

The French and Italians talk about ‘the third half’ – touring helps build that and many of us have happy memories of how tours helped us form bonds with clubs, build new friendships and, in some cases, start new families!

Preparing for the Future

We’re not expecting to have too many sponsors flashing cash next season so we’re going to have to get back to good, old-fashioned after-match raffles and fundraising nights. A black-tie dinner raising thousands is always a nice thing to boast about of social media but doing something to raise a couple of hundred that involves everyone a few times a season will do more for club bonding (and club funds in the long-term) than laying on some hackneyed ex-international with yet another Austin Healey or Will Carling story.

The Observatory of Scottish Sport and Age Scotland (with former Edinburgh Wanderers full-back Brian Sloan at the helm) are both driving hard to promote walking sports and engaging ‘third-age’ players and spectators. I think we can all do something here, that brings people together to meet, exercise and watch – whatever the level. Over 75s will account for a huge proportion of the population in a few years’ time – let’s use this opportunity to ensure we attract and retain this key segment into rugby and rugby clubs.

Now, call me morbid but … as we look for new sources of funds then clubs need to bite the bullet and start asking for bequests. A well-known charity with its heart in a religious group has an average bequest of between 2.5% and 10% of an estate. I might argue (at the risk of being struck down) that in some communities there are more people who would give to their rugby club in recognition of the good times they’ve had and to develop the youth than would give to a charity where they have no real connection to the use of the funding. It’s a tough conversation to broach but one that can bring significant rewards to a club and a sense of long-term contribution to the giver.

One club has its ‘Old Goats’ Club for Over 75s and another has the B … Athletic Club whereby you have to either be in a wheelchair or terminally ill to be member. After one (rare!) poor refereeing performance at that club I was made an honorary member by those in the Club who were speactating!

Seizing the opportunity

To me, we’re re-loading the game for the 21-22 season. The Scottish economy is going through an adjustment process with the Benny Higgins Report (a former regular tourist with Lismore) and rugby must do the same.

It’s a chance for the positives of the club culture to shine through and combine with the best of the structures and processes from Scottish Rugby’s Rugby Development department.
This is our moment to address the loss of players, club members and occasional followers from club rugby.
We can be at the heart of the community again and have rugby as a game for all – no matter how old or unfit … I’m off to dig my boots out the garage!

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About John Evans 4 Articles
John has spent his life in grassroots rugby. He played for several clubs, was a founder of the Hearts + Balls charity and is now a referee, referee educator and coach as well as team manager for a youth team. John works as a director with an enterprise organisation.


  1. Would it perhaps make more sense to simply make social rugby a ten a side game? Personally used to enjoy 10s tournaments….could be a good way to get three or four teams together the way that minis sides often do for mini festivals. Less pressure on player numbers and those that play would have more opportunities to get ball in hand and space to ‘run’ into. Each club in a given area could take a got at hosting say once a month and with a few teams present would be opportunity for more socialising in bar afterwards.

  2. Good article.
    “… the days and evenings of social rugby.
    Lismore Lepers, Boroughmuir Reprobates, Dundee Potbellies, Stoneybridge Occasionals”

    The lowest levels of rugby unfortunately are now treated by the SRU as “Reserve Leagues”.
    This is NOT what social players are looking for.

    The lowest “Reserve Leagues” should be reconfigured as Social game generating pools, that respond as teams’ requirements change. (not deduct them points for being short of players)
    It should be full of teams with suitable names (as above) that set the tone, and the etiquette should be “appear with 10+ players, we’ll get a run about, then enjoy a beer”.

    The SRU “Reserve Leagues” do not meet the needs of the lowest level of social players.

    • Interesting comment Mike

      I wonder if we will see the resurrection of the fixture secretary as someone who arranges fixtures rather than confirms a game?

      Perhaps also see non league rugby resume? There is more to life than league games.

  3. Good stuff, us Edinburgh refs have already put in our availability for September if any sort of games can take place.

  4. If we are to be suggesting Touch Rugby let’s hope & trust that we are not talking of the pre-training warm up and rather the international game which Scotland are actually rather good at. A fast dynamic game that is played with atttack and invasion to the fore, offloads and ball skills crtitcal and is INCLUSIVE with mums playing with sons and daughters and even dads or grandads making up the teams ! Ideal for returing players and those who have retired with eg concusion. What an opportunity to get the Scottish public re-engaged with rugby across the country at all and any level ! http://www.scottishtouch.org.uk/

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