What does the future hold for grassroots Rugby Union clubs?

Eddie Jones coaches young Grasshoppers.

The last 10 years have seen strategic changes amass at rugby union clubs across the country.

It seems we now live in an era where more semi-professional and amateur rugby clubs face the prospect of going bust.

With an increased level of funding coming from the Rugby Football Union (RFU) being distributed to the fully-professional Aviva Premiership teams, many clubs further down the pyramid feel they are being forgotten about by those in the higher echelons of the rugby union fraternity.

Take Preston Grasshoppers, for instance.

Like many clubs across the country, Hoppers are steeped in a rich tradition, something which they pride themselves on.

Their clubhouse bar is decorated with memorabilia collected since their 1869 inception: old team photos from the 19th century, shields aplenty donated by fellow long-standing clubs, and match shirts gifted from notable alumni including former England internationals Wade Dooley and Will Greenwood.

But Hoppers have had to adapt to stay afloat in recent years. Among the plethora of remembrances, there has been an increase in the number of sponsorship deals, advertising boards and posters scattered across the Lightfoot Green bar and playing area.

Hoppers President Hadyn Gigg admits the club have had to change the way they operate in order to stay afloat.

“I remain conscious of the importance of the finance needed to maintain a large rugby club like Hoppers,” Gigg said.

“Over the past 10 years we have significantly increased our off-the-pitch operations, mainly offering corporate hospitality packages to local businesses and hiring out our function rooms as a venue for weddings and other events such as conferences.

“This is something every rugby club has had to do in order to stay alive, and it has allowed us to forge vital partnerships with companies, so it is important to appreciate the ongoing financial support from our sponsors, supporters and members.”

It now seems we are on the verge of a tipping point for grassroots rugby union.

The Championship play-off system will be scrapped in 2018, with the RFU confirming that only one team will now be promoted to the Premiership, with Championship clubs additionally receiving a financial boost as part of a new agreement between the RFU and Premiership Rugby.

The exact figure in the multi-million pound deal has not yet been disclosed, but distribution of the funds will be based on final league positions “to ensure competition among clubs throughout the entirety of the season.”

Money troubles are widespread in the Premiership, with a BBC Sport investigation into the health and future of the league discovering that just one of nine clubs with available accounts at Company House reported a profit in 2015.

Financial problems below the top two tiers are also prevalent. Clubs are finding it tougher to push for promotion to higher levels and are wary of what happened to teams such as Orrell, a side with an illustrious history who were promised false riches by their chairman, only to be liquidated and forced to leave their Edge Hall Road home after the RFU decided to relegate them from National League One to the ninth tier in 2007.

Lightfoot Green hosted England U18s v Scotland U18s.

Clubs at level three and four can only harbour realistic ambitions if they are backed by a wealthy benefactor, according to Sheffield Tigers chairman Ian Wragg.

“I do wonder how clubs are being funded in National Two,” Wragg admitted.

“Being semi-professional now is significantly different, we can’t pay players as much as we used to so players are being prized away from us by bigger clubs and Premiership academies and we cannot compete with that.

“Professional Premiership clubs are taking our young players and putting them into their academy when they should be going back to their hometown club, as this would give them valuable first-team experience rather than the player stagnating, and it obviously also helps the club.”

Success is no longer determined solely by on-the-pitch results as clubs need to be generating significant levels of income away from rugby in order to keep operations ticking over.

Hoppers are fortunate enough to have been chosen by the RFU as one of only six pilot schemes across England to have an artificial grass pitch (AGP) installed, with the cost subsidised entirely by the RFU.

This new addition is a long-term solution which should eradicate issues such as fixture and training cancellations, with poor weather no longer being an excuse.

It also provides further income, as other sides can hire out the AGP at an hourly rate, with the full fee going back into Hoppers.

This is music to Gigg’s ears, as the Preston side’s first XV looks likely to be relegated to level five in May, which will see a drop in spectators going through the turnstiles.

“Although our first team status remains extremely important, we pride ourselves in being a true rugby club,” Gigg explained.

“We cater for all abilities and continue to maintain six senior sides, colts, a ladies XV, and a thriving and outstanding mini-juniors section.

“Obviously the pinnacle of all lower league rugby club is the success of your first XV, but we are in a fortunate position where we would still be making high levels of turnover even if we get relegated.

“Without the AGP installation that probably would not have been possible.”

Hoppers even had the prestige of hosting an England U18 international in March, which saw over 1,500 spectators turn out to watch England’s future stars face-off against Scotland’s youngsters.

Despite the wet weather, volunteers braved the conditions to help keep the day a huge success, much to the delight of Hoppers’ General Manager Richard Ellis.

“The event went really well from a logistics point of view and it was a great day all round,” Ellis reflected.

“The RFU and Scottish Rugby Football Union were full of praise for the club so hopefully this will be the first of many representative games at Hoppers going forward.”

The gap is widening between the top two levels of English rugby and those below it. Some still maintain healthy working partnerships, such as the one between Exeter Chiefs and Cornish Pirates.

The Chiefs are able to have first pick on signing impressive Pirates youngsters, in a bond which has allowed Chiefs to loan or dual-register players to Pirates to aid their development and blooded future Chiefs stars and England internationals such as Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie.

Hartpury Collage have won National One at a canter this season, and the majority of their squad is made up of Gloucester Rugby academy players, which benefits both clubs and also the young players.

Partnerships such as these will help to stabilise grassroots rugby for future generations, and save clubs with long histories from folding.

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