Has rugby had its day?

England may be the world champions, but many state schools have already given up on the sport. Can a new initiative spark more interest, asks Bernard Adams
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The Independent Online

England may rule the world at rugby - but in schools, and at the local level, where future Jonny Wilkinsons learn their drop kicks, the picture is far from rosy. Over the past 10 years, clubs have disappeared, adult players have leaked away and rugby has lost ground in secondary schools.

According to a MORI poll carried out before the World Cup in 2003, rugby was the 15th most popular sport in school. The proportion of secondary schools playing the game had declined from 39 per cent to 28 per cent over nine years, although its popularity had risen markedly in primary schools. Old rugby hands are worried about the health of the game in state schools. "It's sad that some schools have never really looked at rugby," says Ross Luke, a vice-president of the London Scottish rugby football club.

Top players, like the England scrum half Matt Dawson, are concerned. "It's important that we build on England's success at the highest level by giving more and more young players from all backgrounds the chance to participate throughout the country," he says.

Grey Court School in Richmond, close to the English game's Mecca at Twickenham, exemplifies the sorry state of secondary school rugby. Twenty years ago it was a powerhouse, with four teams regularly playing local private schools on equal terms. "We have very little rugby nowadays," says the school's director of sport, Gary Palmer, who is also chairman of the Richmond Schools Sports Association. This is because Grey Court, which is still a sporty school, is concentrating its efforts nowadays on a wide range of sports rather than just a few.

Another factor is that rugby has lost out to the demands of the national curriculum. In addition, staff are rarely prepared to work Saturday mornings any more, says Palmer. "It was once possible for a single member of staff to be given extra time or money to look after rugby specifically," he explains. "We have found it harder to find new staff with the experience and willingness to take on rugby." Just as important is the increasing concern among parents about the possibility of serious spinal injury.

But things are not all gloomy. The rugby lobby is fighting back, supported by those who are anxious to get obese schoolchildren active at almost any cost and others worried about the lack of competitive team sport in state schools. The government has also entered the picture with its £450m school sports co-ordinator programme, which provides supply cover so that staff can spend time on after-school sport.

In Walsall - a deprived area, and hardly traditional rugby territory - the co-ordinator programme has had a massive impact on school rugby, says Nick Scott, the Rugby Football Union's (RFU) rugby development officer for Staffordshire. "Many of the co-ordinators have come to me asking for help with coaching, organising tournaments - even with kit." Scott is delighted with the way the World Cup win has boosted the game in the county's schools. A Year Eight tournament attracted 32 teams instead of the usual 16 to 20. And a coaching session at Newcastle-under-Lyme lured in 132 pupils, as opposed to the expected 50.

As it surfs along in the wake of the World Cup wave, the English Rugby Union is aiming for a 20 per cent increase in the number of adult and junior teams with a qualified coach; 200 new secondary schools introduced to rugby; and 2,600 new club/school links.

A key feature in its strategy is what are called "Emerging Schools Tournaments" for schools that play fewer than seven fixtures a year. These tournaments are impressive occasions. On a freezing March day at the Harrow rugby club in north-west London, 15 teams of Middlesex schoolboys compete in skilful, expertly refereed, eight-minute contests - each opened and closed by an ear-splitting factory hooter.

One of the participants is Bow School, the only school in the whole of the London borough of Tower Hamlets to play rugby. The game didn't exist at Bow 10 years ago, and there's no pitch at the school, but PE teacher Paul Cooper takes the boys to play at Victoria Park on Saturday mornings. Their multi-ethnic team did well but not quite well enough to compete further. At the end of the Emerging Schools contest there's an RFU tournament for 20,000 players, and then eight teams play a knockout competition at Twickenham in May.

Another feature of the English Rugby Union's strategy is "Come and try it" days held in schools or, more often, clubs. They usually feature "tag" rugby, a lively, non-contact version of the real thing that addresses parental worries about serious injury. Players wear belts with velcro-type strips attached and a tackle is achieved by pulling off one of the tags.

"We have to keep the contact within bounds until pupils are ready for it," explains Scott. "Our job is to ensure that teachers are qualified to teach and referee the game. We find that once beginners get over their initial uncertainty they usually love the rough and tumble."

The Rugby Football Union now has 43 development officers to implement its strategy, so the future looks promising. But rugby has had growth spurts before.

"Retention is the difficult part," says Terry Burwell, the RFU's community rugby director. "After the 1991 World Cup [when England got to the final but lost to Australia] there was a huge uptake of the sport, especially at junior level. But in many ways that legacy had burnt itself out by 1999. We have to make sure that the legacy of 2003 endures until 2023."

Precise figure are hard to come by, but early RFU estimates suggest that 10,000 new rugby players - adult and junior - have been recruited in the World Cup afterglow. How well the recruits stick depends partly on the uncertain fortunes of a national team that has been wobbling in recent weeks. For this reason, if none other, England desperately needs to win against France in the Six Nations championship this weekend. On the other hand, rugby's grass roots now seem to be better, more professionally tended, than ever before.

WHERE IT'S COOL TO PLAY THE GAME

A West Midlands school that played little rugby has suddenly discovered the game. Shelfield Sports and Community College in Walsall has taken the sport seriously since winning specialist status in September 2002. It has been able to do this because it has extra money to spend and Andy Brant, the PE teacher with responsibility for rugby, is passionate about the game and plays himself. "We have Year Seven pupils who are not co-ordinated enough to play soccer well but who excel at rugby," he says. "We start them off with the tag game - then we teach them to tackle and make sure that they wear gumshields and the correct studs."

The Year Eight team won the Walsall Emerging Schools tournament in the autumn. The school has built strong links with a local club called Bloxwich, where pupils go for weekly coaching. Shelfield has made rugby seem cool - even the girls are showing an interest.

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