Rugby Union: A game which is gradually losing its grip

Jonathan Davies argues that the next generation must be tempted into playing
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The Independent Online
No one even faintly connected with big-time rugby in Britain will have been able to avoid being pestered by people asking when countries like Wales, Scotland and Ireland will catch up with the quality of play produced by New Zealand. The short answer is that we never have and probably never will.

The results used to be much closer but ever since British teams began playing the All Blacks at the start of the century we have regularly come off worst. In Wales, especially, we make a great fuss about beating them in 1903, 1935 and 1953 and a few of our club victories, such as Llanelli in 1973, over their touring teams have passed into folk-lore. But we manage to ignore the far greater number of defeats they have registered against us - even in the golden years of the 1970s.

Despite their dramatic improvement at Twickenham yesterday, historically the same goes for England while Scotland and Ireland have never beaten them. We still talk in awe of the Lions who won the 1971 Test series out there - but they've won every other Lions series. Despite the fact that over the last 10 years the margins of defeat have got much bigger, we still get shocked when they come over and do it again. It says much for the way we're able to kid ourselves.

As for the future, I only have to look at my son Scott, who is nine years of age, to see the answer. To say he's been brought up in a rugby house is to put it mildly but his main interests in life at the moment are football and computers. Rugby? They don't play it at his school and whereas he was very interested in the game when he could see his dad prancing about the pitch he rarely bothers to watch since I retired. I'm not happy at this but I swore I would not try to influence him in his choice of games. He likes sport and is proud of his Welsh and Cardiff RFC shirts but last Christmas he wanted a Cardiff Devils ice-hockey jersey. The shirt he wears most, however, bears the colours of Manchester United who are his priority watching at the moment; along with Ryan Giggs.

I still play with him in the garden and I haven't lost hope but I think his attitude is part of the problem not only in Wales but elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Rugby is losing its hold on the imagination of the young even in its traditional areas.

My father played rugby for Swansea and was a tremendous influence on me but he never put any pressure on me to choose rugby. Indeed, he made sure I played every game. But there was never a moment when I didn't want to become a rugby player and it was the same for every other boy around.

And at school I was fortunate enough to be coached by two teachers, Meirion Davies and Alan Lewis, who had each played first-class rugby. In those days it was common for rugby players to become teachers and much of the input into the production of young talent and the enthusiasm of kids for the game came from them.

That doesn't seem to be happening any more. Schools are not as sports- minded as they were, and those in charge of sport, no matter how well- meaning, are not always qualified to give adequate coaching. A lot of hard work still goes on at school level but I believe the unions have got to sell the game more aggressively in order to get the old enthusiasm for rugby back into the hearts of the youngsters. The clubs and leading players need to go into the schools to coach the kids - and the teachers could learn off them as well.

This is where the strength of the All Blacks begins. Christian Cullen, the great New Zealand full-back, was saying the other day that he started playing rugby at the age of five. From that age he was part of a structure in which he was being coached in the basics by experts and being groomed in a desire that carries all the way through to the national team. I've watched boys train in New Zealand and their attention to learning the fundamentals is very impressive. They'd play in their stockinged feet so that they could master the art of rucking without hurting each other. We do have youngsters capable of rising to the highest but we leave their education to chance and lack a concerted policy of harnessing their talents from an early age and subjecting them to keen competition.

In the short term, as I wrote last Sunday, our self-belief would be better served if we faced future All Blacks with the Lions. We have nothing else to fall back on while we attempt to overhaul our game. Meanwhile, we have little time to learn before the World Cup brings our superior foes back again. The standard of our domestic competitions has to be raised very quickly.

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