The global pandemic has hit hard. Very hard with perhaps the biggest impact being that on the so called national game of Wales – Rugby. On the back of multiple lockdowns and periods of restriction and new rules, the future of grass roots rugby in Wales is at a real cross roads. Do we risk losing a generation or is it a new opportunity?
As the player pathway in Wales testifies, it’s all about Team Wales and the success of the national side which I totally agree with. It’s a totally different approach to how Welsh football is. Let’s put Wales at the top of the pyramid but we’ll start by working our way up from the bottom. As with any pyramid, you’re only as strong as the base, and having been involved in grass roots rugby as a proud father (and apprentice coach!) with Bridgend Athletic, as a supporter and Bridgend Ravens volunteer as well as my period of 10 years working for the Ospreys, I feel it’s time I aired some concerns about the sport that I and millions around Wales call ‘ours’.
Grass roots community sport. There’s nothing quite like it. I immediately think of Mums and Dads wrapped up in their DryRobes clinging on to a hot drink, while the pitches are full of smiling, but probably freezing cold, kids in oversized base layers, their brother’s hand me down leggings and bright coloured scrum caps emulating the steps once taken by their heroes Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Justin Tipuric and Alun Wyn Jones and the like.
These players are the future of the game in Wales. Fact. My nearest rugby grass roots clubs are Bridgend Sports and Bridgend Athletic, both enjoying reputations for having thriving junior sections, The Athletic more so than The Sports given the list of players they can call their own. The likes of British & Irish Lions Lee Byrne and Rhys Webb, Welsh internationals Josh Navidi, Scott Baldwin, Matthew Morgan, Luke Morgan and Tom Prydie are proud to be ‘Ath Boys’. The list doesn’t end there though. Other hugely respected regional players including Lloyd Ashley, fresh from his 150th appearance last weekend and Tom Habberfield have graced the pitches of Newbridge Fields in the green and gold of The Ath not forgetting the current Ospreys academy squad that includes the likes of Wales U20 players Joe Grabham and Tom Florence who have been regulars for Bridgend Ravens this season, while also featuring for Ospreys in A team fixtures.
Bridgend Sports can list current Ospreys hooker and former Wales U20 captain Dewi Lake as theirs. A player who Wales Coach Wayne Pivac said ‘was on our radar big time’ only last Autumn, I believe Lake is the first player to come through the junior section of Bridgend Sports to go on to graduate to a region, and some say it’s only a matter of time before he becomes the latest in the long line of players who have learnt their trade on the pitches at Newbridge Fields to gain a full Welsh cap.
It doesn’t end there tough, with Bridgend Athletic, more so, and Bridgend Sports providing players for numerous Indigo Premiership teams, most notably Evan Yardley, who, as a Cardiff RFC player recently made his Champions Cup debut for Cardiff Rugby against Toulouse, while players such as Lloyd Evans, Mike Powell, Iestyn Merriman, Lee Murphy to name a few are among a number of former and current Premiership players from the previously mentioned clubs. It’s the same for many other junior clubs, regions and Premiership teams. Grass roots rugby provides a huge percentage of players to the higher levels.
Do we want to risk losing a generation of players? Can we afford to risk losing a generation of players of this quality? 100% no. Here’s why I think though, that could well be the outcome unless something changes.
As a father to Henry, 4, a future British Lion (his words not mine I might add!), what concerns me is two fold. Firstly, I want Henry to play as much rugby as possible. He’s at an age where he doesn’t play it in school, but loves playing it in the garden and down the fields, and when his Under 6 sessions take place. Having begun his sessions in the Autumn, we are currently on a winter break, which has run from November 26th and doesn’t end until February 4th. He’s dying to get back playing, but will he be the same when he picks up a rugby ball on the first session back? At a time when there’s restriction after restriction due to Covid19, it was hugely disappointing to see there being a winter break. Yes, I realise that the winter break was decided before anyone knew about Covid19 or whatever it is, but isn’t rugby a winter sport? Doesn’t this risk children finding other activities to do? Doesn’t this put the kids back in their stages of development? I really hope not, and all we can do is hope that it doesn’t for the long term future of the game in Wales.
Secondly and maybe more important here, is I want Henry to be able to, along with his friends and future Lee Byrnes, Rhys Webbs and the like to enjoy and benefit from the best possible facilities to allow them to flourish and enjoy the game that we all come together to love and this is perhaps my biggest concern. In fact, the situation is an absolute disgrace given what I have already written about in terms of the success of the above mentioned clubs.
Bridgend Council have, since October 2021 closed the changing rooms in Newbridge Fields, that would normally be used by Bridgend Athletic RFC mainly, but also used by junior football teams. The reason? They want to community asset transfer the ownership of these changing facilities to the club, yet won’t spend the money to upgrade these facilities before the transfer. This isn’t limited to Newbridge Fields though. This is common place throughout the borough and has and will affect a number of clubs in the locality. There’s also another changing facility at the same venue that’s open, but in serious need of repair with both scenarios resulting in children of all ages changing out in the cold, without access to separate sex toilets and in some cases no toilets at all. This facility is regularly used by both Bridgend Sports, seniors, youth and juniors as well as Ogwr Hawks, the WRU girls hub based in Bridgend for girls aged 6 – 18 years old. One of thirty two hubs around Wales, it was formed to grow participation in the game and ‘provide a comprehensive female pathway to a high standard of playing and/or coaching.’ Ospreys in the Community also use the Bandstand Field for events and community evenings, attended by dozens of future internationals. History only has to tell you that a percentage will make the grade professionally, be it in the mens or women’s games.
BCBC posted on their website on 19 February 2019, ‘For some time, the authority has warned that it can no longer afford to run outdoor sports facilities, and has been promoting CAT transfers as a way of ensuring facilities remain open in the community’. So basically they ran these facilities into the ground. They now can’t afford to keep them so they want to transfer them away so that club, who do so much good for the Bridgend community, have to pay for the repairs for them to remain open. Yes, you read that correctly.
What kind of impression are shockingly bad, sub standard facilities having on our future Internationals? What kind of impression is a facility that doesn’t have toilet facilities having on their parents and guardians? At a time when club activities have been severely restricted due to government Covid19 guidance, it’s a real kick in the balls, excuse the pun, for a council to expect junior clubs to foot the bill for repairs to a facility that the council have owned for years.
This is a council who have increased council tax year after year, have neglected roads but have installed cycle paths in the middle of roundabouts, yes, roundabouts. The council are surely proud of the history of the clubs who represent the town so passionately at Newbridge Fields, with Bridgend Athletic one of the most successful clubs in Wales for supplying professional players and have an enviable reputation around the UK for their junior set up.
Upon announcing the Community Asset Transfer policy for all 39 playing fields and 40 park pavilions, incorporating approximately 60 clubs across 530 teams, Councillor Richard Young added, ‘The selling point for them is they will be able to improve on the facilities that are deteriorating year on year at present while from our perspective, it allows us to ensure sport in the community can not only continue, but thrive.’
Let’s just let that sink in. The council want to transfer ownership of a facility that they can’t afford to run, but one that is in such terrible condition that it can’t actually be used by Bridgend Athletic and Bridgend Sports rugby clubs at all, unless it has vast, overdue expensive refurbishments.
As for sport in the community not just continuing but thriving? On the pitch, both clubs might be, and let’s hope that continues, but off the pitch, the council leave a lot to be desired when looking after such gems as ‘The Ath’ and ‘The Sports’, and in fact any other junior sports club in our Borough, who do so much in turn for Bridgend as a whole. I for one as a proud father (and ‘coach’), a huge rugby supporter and volunteer in Bridgend feel that this situation is one that any future Lee Byrne, Rhys Webb or Megan Webb doesn’t deserve.
All we can hope for is that an overdue, amicable resolution is found. After all, we don’t want to lose a generation. Let’s use it as an opportunity to inspire the next.