Special report - What does the future hold for rugby union in Yorkshire?

Rugby union clubs received the double blow this week of being told no fans for six months and no games below the top two divisions until January. Dave Craven, Ben McKenna and Nick Westby canvassed the reaction from across Yorkshire.

Rugby union in crisis - no fans until the Spring, no games until January. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

This has been a week like no other in rugby union, one that has placed the entire sport in peril, from international bodies all the way down through professional and amateur rugby, right through to junior colts.

Firstly, the Government said fans would not be able to return to sporting fixtures for another six months due to the ongoing fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

That prompted, on Tuesday evening, a stark warning from Bill Sweeney, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, in which he said:

The Sycamores, West Park Bramhope Rugby Union Club on the outskirts of North Leeds. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

With no fans this Autumn the RFU will see a £122m reduction in revenue resulting in a loss of £46m;

No fans for the Six Nations will see a £138m reduction in revenue with a loss of £60m thereby preventing investment in areas such as the women’s elite game and community rugby;

Premiership and Championship Clubs will face significant financial hardship;

Community rugby will lose an estimated £86m in revenue this season.

A lot of clubs rely on their clubhouse for revenue (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Then on Thursday evening, the RFU revealed that no games below the Championship would be played until January at the earliest, effectively mothballing community rugby for the rest of the year.

That would mean only one Yorkshire club in Doncaster Knights of the Championship could potentially play this side of new year.

Here, The Yorkshire Post sports writers canvassed the opinions of six clubs across the county and throughout the pyramid to gauge their reaction.

Doncaster Knights

Rotherham Titans v Doncaster Knights - two teams with contrasting concerns. (Picture: Tony Johnson)

Steve Lloyd, president of the Championship club: “Everybody’s had funds dropped because the RFU’s lost a lot of its funding. If they have no Twickenham they have no incoming funds and no crowds applies whether it’s Championship, Premiership or the RFU. We’re not getting exercised by that.

“They have their problems to deal with and we respect those. At Doncaster, we’ve got a squad recruited and some of those are on furlough but, by the end of October, we need to see a route forward from that. We’re in position to go. “We just need the green light. Whether that will be as soon as we wish, time will tell. If we are to start playing in the new year – which seems the most likely scenario – we need a couple of months pre-season prep’ for that which is the beginning of November.

“We’re trying hard to do that but it’s not in Doncaster’s hands, the RFU’s hands or even the Government’s hands; it’s in the virus’s hands. That will decide what we can and can’t do.

“I hope and think we will come through in tact. I’ve been around long enough to know the old phrase ‘out of adversity comes strength’ is quite true. We’ll regroup and deal with the problems in front of us.

“What shape the game will come out in who knows but hopefully it will be a bit more financially prudent. We still struggle with the relative newness of professional rugby and the costs of it and we have to be realistic about that. Let’s get back to realism.”

Rotherham Titans

Nick Cragg, director of the National Two North club: “We had expected to get going at the back end of November, that looks more like January now.

“None of us want to play when there’s no crowds, or limited as it might be with our ground, and we don’t have big crowds.

“One of the things that supports our club is the clubhouse – for functions like weddings, funerals, parties – and we can’t run that in the way that the model we have developed requires.

“We are trying to be positive, we are trying to find ways of keeping going. It’s not terminal for us, but it’s not good.

“We’ve contracted all these players with caveats like not paying them until we start playing, but it’s a very difficult situation we find ourselves in.

“Myself and Martin Jenkinson are the main benefactors of the club, and whilst ever we are around, the club is okay.

“Without fans it would be more difficult than it already is, and even with fans and with a clubhouse it requires significant funds to keep our club going.

“I’m sure there are many other people like us supporting clubs in these difficult times.”

Harrogate

Iain Salkeld, chairman of the National Two North club: “It’s really difficult. The RFU don’t give community rugby great amounts of support anyway. That’s not a controversial view. It’s just true. But in the professional era clubs have to stand on their own two feet which is perfectly understandable.

“They’re talking about playing January maybe but I can’t see in any way in the current climate that there can be a detailed testing regime in the community game. I can’t see how contact rugby can happen.

“What we’ve focused on is that we care for people who are associated with the club. We have returned junior rugby within the RFU guidelines and it’s proved successful and very welcome from the junior section.

“There’s a huge risk if rugby gets it wrong, there will be a generation of youngsters who just don’t come back.

“It was already very challenging as a lot of rugby had already been cancelled due to bad weather and pitches not being available and then we had the lockdown so there’s juniors out there who didn’t really get any rugby from December, January onwards. It’s already hard to keep juniors engaged and in the game beyond that and into senior rugby.

“The younger kids are just happy to be on a pitch and playing tag rugby again but I am fearful if there is no contact rugby the older age-groups might get a bit bored of it, frankly.

“Business-wise, over the last four or five years while we’ve been in our current ground, our main driver is to be in a financially secure position. Because of that tight control – and because we’ve been supported so well by our members and sponsors who keep putting their money in despite knowing they might not see any rugby for six months – we remain healthy through this.”

West Park Leeds

Graham Chadwick, chairman of the Yorkshire Two club and Northern Championship women’s team: “We’re all disappointed, not so much due to a lack of fans because we only get 100 or so and it’s not a massive revenue stream for us, but the main impact for us financially would be on bar revenue.

“But beyond that, the big worry for us is if we go further into 2021 and the season is wiped out, would we see a big drop out from the sport because people will be saying ‘I’ve not played for a year I’ve found something else to do’?

“On any given weekend, we field 19 teams; two senior men, two senior women and 15 junior boys and girls teams.

“We might have 300 to 400 kids playing rugby on a Sunday morning.

“How many would we be in danger of losing? It’s a challenge all sports are facing.

“There’s a number of issues as to why rugby has been put on hold until January. Rugby is a major contact sport with rucks, mauls, scrums, lineouts; then you’ve got changing room access, you wouldn’t want to play a game of rugby and then not get showered.

“Then there’s the cleaning down and re-sanitising, which is an additional cost to grass roots rugby clubs to carry that work out.”

Hull Ionians

Pat Wilson, president of the National Two North club: “Since rugby ceased in March, we still had a lot of outstanding debts to pay and we budgeted for them to be paid towards the end of the season.

“But we raised £60,000 and that has managed to pay a lot of that debt off and give us a little bit of leeway for the way forward.

“The club still needs to be open and the ground still needs to be maintained, so there are costs going forward that we need to find the funding for as well.

“The club is the centre of the community. It is a big set-up but with Covid – it has been a devastation for the club.

“My main focus is to keep people interested in rugby union, which is going to be challenging going forward. The panic is that a lot of our junior members will move onto other sports that are up and running.”

Cleckheaton RUFC

Thiu Barnard, head coach of the North One East club: “We have got three different sports at Cleckheaton; cricket, bowls and rugby. So at least we have got the other two sports to back us up a bit financially but everybody is frustrated and just wants to play rugby.

“It has been four months now since we started pre-season and we still don’t have a clear date for knowing what is going to happen.

“It is understandable but we just want to play rugby.

“The clubhouse has been busy, not as busy as it used to be but everybody is going down to do their bit to support the club and keep it going. At least people are going down, that is the good news.

“The club has paid us through all this and I am really thankful for that. Everybody just wants to play, players are getting older so this is almost just a season gone. We played so well last year and we just wanted to kick on from there.

“There are smaller clubs who only have rugby who are losing money, who don’t have bowls and cricket as well. The RFU should be looking after those clubs, there could be two or three clubs in our area who fold because of this.”

Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today.

Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you’ll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers.

So, please - if you can - pay for our work. Just £5 per month is the starting point. If you think that which we are trying to achieve is worth more, you can pay us what you think we are worth. By doing so, you will be investing in something that is becoming increasingly rare. Independent journalism that cares less about right and left and more about right and wrong. Journalism you can trust.

Thank you

James Mitchinson