In depth: Has rugby lost its roots?

“Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.”

These are the famous words of former Wales’ captain Phil Bennett before the England game in 1977. Since 1995 rugby has been professional, so does this class linked sentiment still apply?

A packed Millennium Stadium for Wales v France earlier this year

A packed Millennium Stadium for Wales v France earlier this year

Many Welsh rugby greats from decades ago have come from families who worked in some of the toughest industries in the country. Before the age of professionalism the players themselves would be working in coalmines and steelworks and then playing rugby on the weekends. The famous Pontypool front row of Bobby Windsor, Charlie Faulkner and Graham Price, immortalised by Max Boyce, consisted of two steelworkers and an engineer.

In these modern times is rugby losing its touch with these working class roots? Is the Welsh rugby fan and player cut from a different cloth?

Disillusioned fans

Guto Davies, media editor for Welsh Premiership team Pontypridd RFC, certainly thinks so. He believes, “In my view the general trend in Welsh rugby is that fewer genuine ‘grass roots’ rugby supporters are now attending international matches.”

He added, “There are far more corporate tickets being given to guests and sponsors, and there are far more ‘day trippers’ attending matches, just for the experience and to look at themselves on the big screens.”

Colin Clarke, representative of Carmarthen Quins RFC, also a Welsh Premiership outfit, also sees the issue of hospitality and corporate tickets as a concern. He states, “One issue that has become clear in terms of pricing and attendance is the corporate and sponsorship opportunities that are promoted by the WRU.”

Guto Davies suggests, “The high ticket prices and a general disillusionment with the game in Wales has caused many to turn away.”

Where has the disillusionment come from? Davies points the finger at the WRU having the wrong focus. The Ponty man says, “The WRU’s policy of putting all their resources into four ‘regions’ is disenfranchising the hundreds of other clubs that exist below them.

Davies indicates that this has a detrimental effect on participation numbers, he says, “We hear on a weekly basis of local clubs who cannot fulfil fixtures at senior or youth level, as they cannot raise teams. This problem may well be reflected in the sale of international tickets and the type of people who now purchase them.”

Clarke has also seen a problem with participation numbers, stating, “This situation may also be aggravated by the fact that for some time across Wales rugby clubs are disbanding their 2nd XV and / or Youth teams at an alarming rate.”

Principality Premiership clash between Carmarthen Quins and Pontypridd, the same league as Cardiff RFC

Principality Premiership clash between Carmarthen Quins and Pontypridd, the same league as Cardiff RFC

Disconnected from supporters

Some suggest that there is no longer a close bond between players and supporters and this could distance many from the sport.

Clarke says, “In my experience players and coaches do not often enough socialise with their supporters post match and, in fact, often leave the club soon after the forward and backs man of the match has been presented with a brown envelope as a reward for their efforts on the field.”

It is not the case everywhere and the Quins ambassador has some positive opinions about their Principality Premiership rivals. “This mentality is still epitomised in the rugby stronghold of Pontypridd who have by far the largest following in the Principality Premiership. I am sure Ponty supporters do not consider themselves to be anything but working class in heart and soul and, where the players themselves still mix with the supporters in the club after the game.”

The positives

The shift in society and culture has meant that the lives of the current players are worlds apart from their predecessors but it has brought with it a number of benefits. There are now a number of world class stadiums, fantastic facilities with players competing at the highest level.

Colin Clarke says, “There is nothing wrong with that and in fact the professional era demands such investment if Wales are to remain one of the leading countries in world rugby.”

Many clubs in the higher echelons of Welsh rugby may not have the close connection with their communities but it is still apparent further down the ladder.

“Of course the lower down the SWALEC leagues you go the more of a community feel there is about the game with guys remaining unpaid and turning out every Saturday for the love of the game.” Adds Clarke.

Increased prices may attract different supporters to the stadiums but the fans who choose to avoid the games at the Millennium Stadium won’t turn their back on the national team altogether.

Clarke suggests, “The supporters will not be alienated from watching Wales play they will just become more selective about how and where they watch each game.”

Players losing touch

The class divide between England and Wales still clearly exists. Comparing the two starting line ups of the respective countries in their recent fixtures against New Zealand there is a stark contrast. Two of the Welsh XV went to a public school, North Walians George North and Alun Wyn Jones. The England XV contained nine players who attended either public school or an all boys schools.

But, many players now apply their trade outside of Wales with current internationals opting to play in France and England. 10 of the recent squad played out of Wales including stars Jamie Roberts, George North and Leigh Halfpenny.

The lack of big name Welsh players in the Welsh teams is having a knock on effect on attendances. Former chief executive, David Moffet, set the target of achieving average crowds of over 8,000 back in 2003. The average season crowds for the remaining four regions sees the Ospreys as the only team breaking the 7,000 mark.

Welsh Rugby Union director, Anthony Buchanan, admits, “There is a danger of us losing touch with our supporters, people that play the game and ex-internationals.”

There is no doubt that top flight rugby is a very different sport to what it was 40 years ago. Without the grass roots you would not have the players to compete at the higher level. There is a very real danger that rugby success will dry up if participation numbers continue to fall and if the WRU forgets its roots.