Participation in rugby union worldwide is showing a worrying trend. Nowhere is this more true than in England where rugby union was once one of the most popular sports, but in recent years, has seen numbers falling at alarming levels.

In results published in 2020 by Last Word On Sports, they found that England was the third highest ranked nation in terms of participation in rugby, with an estimated 382,154 registered players across all levels. They sit just behind France with 542,242 registered players and South Africa with 405,438 registered players. Australia and New Zealand make up the top five countries where rugby union is a high-participation sport.

A report published by Statista in June 2022 shows slightly different numbers, however, what it does show is the gradual decline in the number of people participating in rugby in England from 2016 to 2021. Their figures show 259,600 players participating in rugby union in 2016 with a slow decline until 2020 when that figure had dropped to 195,300. Jump forward a year, and this number drops right off to 133,600.

A report by the Guardian shows that by the end of the 2021 season, the number of people participating in rugby union in England was just 95,100.

The drop in the number of participating players in England and around the world is linked to the number of teams that have been forced to fold due to financial pressures. Teams that have been around for over 100 years have had to close their doors as it becomes financially unviable for them to continue to operate.

That’s a lot of history to wash down the drain.

Participation is down but viewing figures continue to grow

Whilst participation at the grassroots level may be significantly down, interest in the game at the top level continues to grow.

ITV secured the rights to show the English Premiership Rugby in 2022 and the opening match of the season set a new record for the biggest TV audience ever for a league match.

A peak of 750,000 viewers tuned in to ITV to watch Sale beat Leicester on Sunday with a further 213,000 watching on BT Sport, taking the total close to one million.

The 2019 World Cup also broke a number of records when it comes to television audiences, with World Rugby reporting that more than 857 million people watched the Rugby World Cup in Japan. Live audiences at the games in Japan also rose from the previous World Cup held in 2015 – a jump of 5% from 479 million to 501 million.

Digital TV Europe report that “England’s defeat to South Africa was the most-watched final in the tournament’s history, with an average audience of 44.9 million fans watching live. This was an 83% increase on the live TV audience from the 2015 final, with total viewing figures increasing by 63% to 51.3 million.

What does the future hold for grassroots rugby?

The Championship – the second tier of English rugby union continues to attract both players and fans to games, however, teams like Wakefield, Orrell, West Hartlepool, Waterloo and London Welsh have all disappeared from the radar over the past few years and this is a worrying trend.

Investment needs to be made in grassroots rugby, both in the UK and across the world, to ensure that the path is there for young people to get into rugby from a young age. The National League in the UK is another competition that needs investment if they want to see teams growing rather than folding.

The Guardian report suggested that rugby union in the UK, and most likely, around the world, will look more like the NFL in the USA over the next decade – international, Premiership and even Championship rugby will continue to thrive, along with college or university rugby, however, amateur rugby and recreational rugby may be limited to social matches and sevens.

If rugby is to continue to thrive around the world, and the level of players playing both at international level, but also at the top level of club competition is to be maintained, it will be important for a clear structure to be put in place with a clear path to progression for players who wish to continue playing post-college/university.

In the USA, so many talented sports people simply stop playing the game once they graduate from college because there simply aren’t the structures and the leagues in place for them to continue to participate. In other countries like the UK, New Zealand and Australia, this has never been the case in the past, with thriving amateur and recreational leagues across a wide range of sports played in these countries.

There needs to be an opportunity for teams competing in the Championship to progress. For players to be able to progress. Currently, there is no relegation from the Premiership and that league is set to expand to 14 sides from 2023. Moving forward, there needs to be a clear path for teams to be able to aspire to make it out of the Championship and into the Premiership – to bring back the competitive edge to that competition and to ensure that teams in the Premiership do not rest on their laurels and continue to invest in grassroots rugby where they will bring in the next crop of un and coming stars.

The same can be said for the National League. Many young players who go on to represent England cut their teeth in the National League whilst they are gaining experience, ready to make the step up to the Championship and Premiership. Dan Lancaster  – a fly-half with the Leicester Tigers represented Leeds Tykes in the National One and made his debut for England U20s whilst with the Tykes.

Rus Tuima is part of the England Development squad having represented Plymouth Albion in National One before making the grade with the Exeter Chiefs. Without these opportunities to gain experience, England would not be able to develop players capable of making the grade at international level and this is the same story for countries around the world.

If England is to compete at the 2023 World Cup, where they are currently third favourites with Betway to lift the trophy for a second time, it is important for the RFU to find a way to drive participation at a grassroots level and to continue to generate interest in a sport that has seen declining participation numbers over the past five years. England is not alone in tackling this problem, however, they do need to find some answers sooner rather than later.