Rugby Union: England bucks the global growth trend

THE HIGH and mighty sporting politicians of the International Rugby Board continually talk about "growing the game", hence their decision to award full membership to fledgling unions from Colombia and Peru to Cameroon and Niue.

Ironically, the sport is contracting in England. Dozens of professional players are heading for the scrapheap, half the clubs in the Premiership are on the poverty line and this season's Tetley's Bitter Cup final is in danger of drawing the smallest Twickenham showpiece crowd for a decade.

Sixteen days shy of the event, only 35,000 tickets have been sold for the meeting between Wasps and Newcastle. Interest is nowhere near as low as in the Tyneside heyday of Roger Uttley and Peter Dixon - a mere 7,500 watched Gosforth beat Rosslyn Park in 1976 and they were hardly spilling out of the stands the following year when 10,000 witnessed the Geordies' victory over Waterloo - but the attendance trend is undeniably and worryingly in decline.

Last season's Saracens-Wasps final attracted a decent gathering of 65,000, but it was the first time in nine years that the traditional climax to the English season had failed to pull in a capacity audience. Latest sales figures show that business is slower than at the same stage 12 months ago and while Twickenham officials do not intend to press the panic button just yet, there is a distinct possibility that ticket sales for the match on 15 May will fail to hit 50,000.

The reasons are obvious. Wasps, massively out-supported as well as outplayed by Saracens a year ago, rarely attract a five-figure crowd for a match at Loftus Road, while Newcastle could play their home games in a telephone kiosk and still have room for latecomers. To make matters more awkward still, hopes that entire battalions of the "Toon Army" would march on London to support Rob Andrew and company have been scuppered by Newcastle United's success in reaching the FA Cup final, which takes place at Wembley the following weekend. In a choice between the Falcons and the Magpies, there is only one winner.

Every Twickenham sell-out final has involved at least one of Bath, Gloucester, Leicester or Northampton, who, in support terms, have long constituted the "big four" of the English game. Saracens are now up there with them; they have created a new audience at Watford and the Vicarage Road crowds are holding, despite a recent slump in form. In the absence of those clubs, club rugby is a minority sport in search of a majority.

Perhaps a place in the Olympic spotlight would help the game break new ground. Yesterday, the IRB vice-chairman Rob Fisher confirmed that he and his colleagues were investigating the possibility of staging a 15- a-side competition, rather than a more user-friendly sevens tournament, at the 2004 Games. "We do not wish to be criticised for putting forward a second-best alternative," said the New Zealand lawyer.

However, Fisher acknowledged it would be "foolish" of rugby's governing body to devalue the World Cup, held less than a year before each Olympic get-together. He said: "We have no intention of allowing the World Cup to lose its force. We're happy to put forward a 15-a-side version for consideration, but the sevens format is easier to place in the Olympic context and allows more countries to participate."

n Namibia's participation in this year's World Cup could be in danger because of a race row. The Namibian government's Sports Commission has barred the national side from completing its fixtures in a South African competition it had been using for World Cup preparation. The ban was imposed as the commission lost patience with the Namibian Rugby Union. It had been called in by non-white rugby clubs angry at what they claimed were the racist attitudes of the union. "The World Cup is in jeopardy unless something serious happens," the commission's chairman, Karl Persendt, said.