Every weekend, grassroots rugby clubs across the UK run games and training sessions for their junior sections, encouraging a new generation of players to experience the sport.
Not all of them will become senior rugby players, but the very fact that clubs run junior and mini sections means there will always be a steady influx of youngsters who find lifelong skills, friends and self-respect through the love of rugby. It’s one of the things that make this sport so great.
But something concerns me, and that’s the lack of referees coming through the ranks.
While mini and junior sections often rely on coaches and parents to marshal their Sunday matches, the higher age grades upwards require a proper, trained referee is to ensure both the laws and the basic safety principles of the game are adhered to.
Unfortunately, at the lower, social levels of the senior game, last minute match cancellations are a common occurrence, meaning regional referees’ societies can’t muster enough officials to match the demands of the fixture list. And it’s not their fault.
Those running the regional societies, after all, have a thankless task.
Their job is to deal with amateur clubs, their well-meaning but often flustered fixtures secretaries and club captains, who sometimes can’t confirm a fixture until the day before game day.
They then provide the individual who will inevitably be the least popular person on the pitch.
It’s an unenviable task.
In the lower reaches of senior rugby, refs are getting older. We know one official in the Eastern Counties who is still going strong at 71 (and we doff our caps to him), but it’s a problem that, if allowed to continue, will see the numbers of refs start to dwindle. And without them, there’ll be many of us who don’t get a game on a Saturday afternoon.
It’s something that’s recognised by the RFU too. Last year, it launched the Keep Your Boots On campaign.
An initiative aimed at encouraging those retiring from the sport, be it through age or through injury, to not blow the final whistle on their careers and to move into coaching or refereeing, with an aim of bringing in 20,000 more coaches and 7,500 more referees by 2020.
And the responsibility lies with you.
If you’re in the twilight of your career as a player, or are allied to a grassroots rugby club in any way at all, then you’re as responsible as anyone else for keeping our noble sport alive and kicking.
If there’s anyone in your club who wants to keep their boots on every Saturday, but whose playing days are over, then encourage them to register on one of the many refereeing courses available through their local society and give a little bit back to the sport that has given them so much. That way, we can all keep enjoying it for many more years to come.