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Grind of club rugby is killing player numbers, says Richmond DoR Steve Hill

Richmond

Richmond director of rugby Steve Hill claims player numbers will “fall off a cliff” unless the amount of rugby being played by National League clubs is significantly reduced.

With the results of the RFU’s latest adult competitions review set to be revealed in the New Year, Hill is convinced part-time players are being asked to play too many games.

He insists 16-team leagues are unwieldy and says that although the National Clubs Association are likely to recommend the status quo, the majority of club coaches he has canvassed in National 1 and 2 favour a reduction in fixtures.

Hill, a long-time advocate of 14-team leagues and a shorter, 26-game season, told The Rugby Paper: “I contacted all 48 National League clubs and received 46 replies from head coaches or directors of rugby. Of those, 31 (67.4%) wanted a maximum of 26 matches.

“I fear the NCA are going to argue to keep things as they are but the only reasons people gave me for saying they wanted 30 games were financial ones. I asked the question about player welfare because levels of intensity are far higher than they used to be.

“Administrators think they know what players are about but they should be talking to coaches and those who deal with the players every week. Treasurers and chairman are vital for rugby clubs to run, but if you don’t have players you won’t need committees.”

Hill added: “Last Saturday was Richmond’s 16th consecutive league game – not even Premiership or Championship sides have that – so part-time players in National One are playing more league games than the full-timers which is completely the wrong way around.

“We’ve only been doing half-hour training sessions because guys are on their knees and last Saturday was a classic because Richmond and Rams, two of the biggest clubs in the South, couldn’t get second teams out because of injuries and had to cancel that game.”

Hill insists a National League restructure is necessary to preserve player numbers.

He explained: “Going 16 Saturdays without a break is madness at this level. The NCA insist on having reserve weekends in February, March and April for bad weather, but give us a break in November instead and shorten the season for the sake of the players.

“Leagues don’t finish until the end of April so at most you get six or seven Saturdays off before you come back into pre-season training in late June, so people just fall out of love with it and walk away. It becomes a grind and we’ve only got one week off at Christmas too.

“Player numbers are falling off a cliff and while first XVs will always play, more second, third and fourth team games have been cancelled over the last three or four years than there were in my first six years at Richmond. If that’s not evidence of a huge disconnect between those organising the future of the game and those who play, I don’t know what is.

“Mini and junior rugby is stationary, women’s rugby is growing, but adult men’s 15-a-side rugby – the heart of our game – is struggling badly. Structures only change every eight to ten years and if the NCA and RFU get this wrong now, I’m really fearful that an increasing number of part-time players will leave the game – and that will be really, really sad.”

Hill has a strong message for those who insist 16-team leagues are vital for club finances.

He said: “They say they need the money to pay for players. Well, pay the players less, it’s as simple as that. There’s a clear message from players and coaches I’ve spoken to that 30 games is too many, so this must be about improving the product, nothing else.”

NEALE HARVEY

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