Friday 9 June 2023

Changing Times - Review


Changing Times

Grassroots rugby union in Yorkshire



In partnership with Duncan Gawthorpe, Stuart Sheard has made an important contribution to an ongoing debate regarding the changing face of the game in the county with their book – ‘Changing Times: Grassroots rugby union in Yorkshire 1987-2022’. Following on from Stuart’s previous volume, which reviewed the game’s solid growth between 1930 and 1980, the latest one focuses on the challenging period since the introduction of adult male leagues at all levels into the county in 1987. It takes for itself a wide remit covering schools, universities and colleges, women, the impact of COVID as well as the adult male game. The new opportunities for growth are explored, as are the prospects for the winners and losers in a fast changing world.

As the title makes clear this is a history of the impact of those leagues primarily at grassroots level, which the authors take to mean the lowest four divisions of the Yorkshire league structure. From a historically high-point in 1987, playing numbers in the male adult game have fallen significantly and while this is offset to some extent by the rise in other areas it is still a major concern and the authors examine the possible causes in some detail. All this is well documented and incorporates contributions from many who were involved in the grassroots game at key points over the last 40 years.

While noting there is still a good degree of loyalty at all levels of the game in the county, it is clear that the authors think it has changed and weakened particularly in the longer established male world. As the numbers playing the game change so does its character and it is interesting to read that private school products are once again playing an increasing role at all levels but not as members of traditional old boy clubs.

There is no doubt that a league structure was both wanted and needed at the top-level of the club game in the north of England. Some way had to be provided for an ambitious junior club to rise to the top tier and provide some older senior clubs with the jolt they needed to up their game. Lower down the proposed structure the need was less clear cut. Some clubs that had operated for many years with quite localised opposition wanted new horizons to open up. Others didn’t and the end result is patchy. Whether leagues needed to be brought in at all levels where in many cases the realities of week in week out competitive rugby were little understood having been shunned for 80 years is perhaps doubtful in retrospect.

The authors present the evidence well. League rugby inevitably played an ever greater emphasis on results and with them came a greater reliance on coaching and discipline. Players had to make more time available and that was not without issue. The ways that some grassroots clubs are now attempting to work outside the league structure are examined but the idea that there might be a way back to a viable more flexible, perhaps more haphazard existence which allowed for greater freedom for the players and their social life is not pursued. Who knows, that’s maybe something the authors are already considering.

Graham Williams