THESE are challenging times in domestic rugby, both locally and nationally.

Numbers are declining, the desire to travel is dwindling, and the ever changing financial climate has influenced individuals, understandably reluctant to risk injury in light of insecure employment.

The emergence of superb events like Ironman Wales, coupled with the ever growing popularity of triathlons and other endurance based challenges, has perhaps been counter-productive for those overseeing sides – with athletes unable to combine such contrasting physical activities.

Furthermore, for dual sportsmen, football is a more accessible option in our county – with leagues completely localised, and the standard between Divisions One and Five so varied it caters better for players of all abilities.

 As for youngsters, there is now considerably more available for them in society than being rucked for 80 minutes on a Saturday, and lists of favourable hobbies have altered immensely.

Although those more cynical about our youthful generation, are perhaps more inclined to point towards obsessions with I-pads, phones, pub crawls, and the opposite sex.

Of course, there are many justifiable factors behind all of the arguments outlined, but the stark truth is, it is nigh on impossible for local rugby clubs to boast the same carefree and yet committed attitude to their respective campaigns as they could not so long ago.

As a result, the calls for innovation and originality from authorities grow louder – with the need to reinvigorate interest in the game at grassroots level now greater than ever.

But in light of last week’s farcical opening to this season’s WRU National Bowl competition, with 29 ties being decided via a walkover, it’s perhaps time for questions to be asked of individuals and teams themselves, as well as those who govern them.

One in particular – are we now all too keen to make excuses for idleness and poor attitudes within Welsh club rugby?

There are many highly committed individuals and teams at grassroots level, both in Pembrokeshire and across Wales, who will rightfully take offence to the mere question.

But I am talking here, about the overview – whilst at the same time, acknowledging that many are exempt from blame or criticism.

The Bowl fiasco is an ideal place to start.

It is three seasons since the WRU opted to localise their league structure, in light of the participation and travel issues already touched upon.

They have also regionalised earlier rounds of cup competitions in recent years, again an attempt to prevent unfulfilled fixtures.

But sometimes, there is only so much organisers can do, and the brutal reality is too many Welsh clubs would rather opt out than respect a difficult and unwanted fixture.

Which reflects badly. Part and parcel of club rugby, at any level, is toughing out a tricky away trip in the cup. It’s about testing your credentials against a better side, or one you maybe know little about - or if you really are down to the bare bones, simply fulfilling a competitive obligation.

Believe it or not, there was a time sides awaiting a cup draw longed for a road trip to the other side of the country – a chance to bond with teammates or persuade the better halves they had little choice but to ‘support’ the boys in a big cup game.

Regardless, the Bowl, Plate, or Cup for that matter, should not be about waiting to see if you have your best 22 available before deciding if you can be bothered to get on the bus.

Admittedly, the inclusion of University teams needs looking at. The first round is held before the majority of students return to campus, and the chance of them fulfilling ties away or home in early September is almost inconceivable.

But those established club teams who chose to give walkovers last weekend, are sadly synonymous with a modern day attitude of wanting too much on their own doorstep.

There have been similar problems over the years with the Pembrokeshire Knockout Cup.

The format has had its faults, but the main drawback has simply been sides unwilling to play ties they don’t believe they can win. Many show interest when they have a squad strong enough to lift the trophy, but care very little when they don’t.

Similar comparisons can be drawn between the cup fiasco and the National Leagues. The vast majority of lower league clubs will now tell you playing numbers are not what they were, and more often than not, they are telling the truth.

But local rugby can now be a fickle business - for example the amount of times in seasons gone by I have seen a team struggle for numbers before an inevitable relegation.

Months later, in an easier league, suddenly squads are revitalised, players and coaches return, and the outside issues that hindered availability in the previous campaign miraculously ease.

You probably get my drift.

Elsewhere, Second XV rugby is fading fast, and whilst many of our youth and academy sides are prospering – our county league has no representatives from Llangwm, Milford Haven, or St Davids.

Again, there are mitigating circumstances no doubt, but I witnessed the situation with The Saints unfold before me last season. Numbers were fine, coaches were in place, and the side on paper was capable of competing.

And yet, not enough of those eligible could be bothered to commit to training once a week and playing on a Saturday. Inevitably, a fold followed – a story I’m sure many junior and senior sides can currently empathise with.

Of course – I am not denying there are other underlying issues within Welsh rugby that many feel need addressing. But debates surrounding payments of players, disciplinary procedures, over-emphasis on weight training and so on are all digressions from the problems being discussed here.

And nor am I saying there are no positives. With Rob Evans leading the way, an increasing number of Pembrokeshire’s home-grown players are now coming through the semi-professional, regional, and international ranks, as proof that our system must be doing something right.

We mustn’t forget that the women’s game continues to grow immeasurably, with the participation of Jasmine Joyce and Lleucu George in the recent World Cup further evidence that our county’s players can prosper.

But for all the calls for change within the WRU, and the lamenting of structures and organisation, unless attitudes and commitment levels change from those all too ready to seek excuses not to play – then numbers will keep declining, standards will keep dropping, and cup ties will continue to conclude with walkover wins.

We cannot be unrealistic.

Times have changed too much to go back to the ‘good old days’, with the older generation still all too keen to preach about when rugby games were the highlight of everyone's week.

The only time you got home before 10pm on a Saturday was if teammates carried you there, and if you turned up to work on Monday without a black eye, you were probably the odd one out.

But there are some things in rugby union that never change. And as much as we want to blame authorities or paper over cracks – unless individuals have the commitment to lace up boots for their team on any given Saturday, irrespective of the difficulty or magnitude of the match ahead, then grassroots rugby is fighting a losing battle.

Because no matter what the outside factors are - no authority, coach, or away game bus driver, can truly influence desire and heart.