Club rugby still makes the heart flutter - but something good has gone

When it comes to the professional game – also, I suppose, the SRU’s semi-pro SuperSix – it has become difficult to know when one season ends and the new one begins.

The Tennent's Premiership returns this weekend.
The Tennent's Premiership returns this weekend.

There are Women’s internationals today, Scotland playing the USA, and two SuperSix matches, but what one may still call the traditional club game takes off this afternoon with the first round of the Scottish Premiership, this being a week or two earlier than used to be the case when a couple of the Border Sevens were still played in September, tournaments which for many of us marked the day rugby returned.

Last season’s amateur game was still too often disrupted by Covid – like almost everything else, you may say. So this season is of more than usual interest and significance. In a sense the amateur game has never depended on spectator-support, for on many grounds spectators other than family members and partners are rare birds. Nevertheless the cost of running a rugby club is considerable. Volunteers may happily do much of the work, but energy bills have to be paid, modern players mostly expecting hot showers or baths, and travel costs for away matches are a major expense, especially in those leagues which are not geographically confined.

Clubs depend first on membership fees which in the amateur game players must also pay – £85 for a player’s membership at my club – then on bar takings and often income from pre-match lunches, on sponsorship, usually from local businesses, and advertising revenue which is usually modest. All amateur clubs depend on the enthusiasm and good-will of active members, men and women who devote many hours of the week to working on behalf of the club.

It's worth reminding ourselves – and telling others – that the amateur game is supported by the enthusiasm and interest of willing, indeed eager, supporters, and would not exist without them.

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It has aye been like this of course, and in much of the country the game has struggled, clubs living from hand to mouth and kept going only by the commitment of their members. Over much of Scotland club rugby has never been a popular spectator sport. Yet, whereas when I was young, there were few clubs north of the Tay except in the cities – that is, Aberdeen and Dundee – there is now no considerable area in the country without its rugby clubs. In that sense the game is more popular than ever.

The acceptance of professionalism now, more than 25 years ago, affected few clubs except in Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Borders. Bill McLaren might remember when what seemed like a quarter of the population of Hawick made their way to Mansfield Park for a Border League match, while the train might bring a few hundred more from Gala, Melrose, or Selkirk. These days are long gone, and the truth is that club rugby was mostly very thinly supported. Indeed this is still the case in the professional game in Scotland. Glasgow and Edinburgh are much bigger cities than, say, Bath, Leicester and Exeter, but their professional rugby clubs are feebly supported in comparison with these English cities. In this context it will be interesting to see if Edinburgh’s little DAM Health stadium is full for Scotland Women’s match this afternoon.

Of course, the amateur club game gets much less public attention than used to be the case. It’s not just that attendances are lower. Newspaper coverage has all but disappeared from the national press. Time was when The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald would offer full match reports, the longest running to a thousand words, of half a dozen club matches in the Monday paper. No longer; for reasons that are sadly understandable. Nor is one likely at a club match to be able to spot future Scotland players, certainly not to follow their development over a couple of years. They are still rightly proud of Stuart Hogg and Darcy Graham in Hawick, but how many times did either wear the famous green jersey before being translated to the professional game?

Perhaps this doesn’t much matter in the grand scheme of things, but the weakening of the identification of international players with their home town or former school clubs has taken something fine from the game in Scotland. It is still a pleasure for many of us to stand on the touchline at our club – stand closer to the play than is ever possible in the professional game – but something good has gone. The bonds of the rugby family have been weakened.