A need to figure out drop in numbers

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The Independent Online

The adult game in England has lost 20,000 players over five seasons, and the number of teams has fallen by 16 per cent. These alarming statistics were released not by the Mori poll which the Rugby Football Union published last week but by the Blackman report from Twickenham three years ago. The decline has been long-term.

However, what makes the latest figures all the more disturbing for the RFU is that the professional game in England has never been on such a high. The national team, ranked No 1 in the world, leave for Australia this week with an outstanding chance of becoming the first northern-hemisphere country to lift the World Cup.

Yet the new study has found that less than one fifth of the adult population is interested in rugby union, down from a quarter in 1996. Only rugby league and snooker have suffered a greater decline. Just four per cent of the population above the age of 15 have played rugby, and the number of clubs has fallen over the past two seasons from 1,537 to 1,480, and this after the recommendations made in 2000 to stem the exodus.

Perhaps the most worrying revelation is that the game languishes 15th among school sports, behind dance and rounders. Since 1994, participation in primary schools has risen by three per cent to 18 per cent, but in secondary schools it has dropped 11 per cent to 28 per cent.

There are any number of reasons for the diminishing state of the union. Clubs focused on league rugby and the first XV, to the detriment of the other teams; a lack of coaches and referees; the loss of volunteers; the disappearance of playing fields; excessive travel to fulfil a weekend fixture; the Bermuda Triangle effect on youngsters who play mini rugby but then disappear; and law changes that have altered the culture of a game designed for all shapes and sizes. Where is the art of coarse rugby?

There are other reasons. When the RFU went through political turmoil following the move to professionalism, it not only provided negative publicity but the administrators took their eye off the ball and neglected the grass roots. The front-row replacements law, which requires specialists on the bench, has hurt many clubs who struggle to find props in the first place. Lack of exposure on terrestrial TV has also played a part. Judging by the increase in season-ticket sales for the Zurich Premiership more people are watching live rugby, some of whom have hung up their boots to do so.

The RFU are responding with what they call an "impact strategy'', aiming for a five per cent increase in the number of players, 200 new secondary schools being introduced to rugby, a 20 per cent rise in youth and adult teams with a qualified coach, and 150 clubs being targeted to run additional sides.

Terry Burwell, the RFU's community rugby and operations director, is working on four themes: more teams and more matches, better facilities, access for all, and enjoyment of a sport that "enriches the participants in mind, body and soul''.

"While our first XV league structure remains vibrant and strong, lower teams and players continue to struggle to find a competitive game without having to travel too far,'' Burwell said. "Many matches are cancelled, players' expectations are unfulfilled, club finances are put under pressure and the workload of volunteers is increased, all of which needs to be addressed through developing dynamic competitions that all generations want to be involved in. Primary and secondary schools remain the bedrock of development and represent for many their first involvement in rugby.''

Marketing the game in the community is a priority. "Over the past 12 months we have launched a national programme which has already involved over 32,000 participants,'' Howard Thomas, chief executive of Premier Rugby, said. "The programme is delivered by all 12 Premiership clubs and includes activities in schools and clubs in the community. Feedback has been extremely positive and we look forward to encouraging more youngsters.''

A paradox remains. At a time when England are playing the most exciting rugby in their history and Jonny Wilkinson appears on screen alongside David Beckham, fewer people are picking up the ball and running with it.

"Our challenge,'' Burwell said, "is to maximise the profile of the game into a clear impact on involvement at grass-roots level. As we look forward to the World Cup it is an opportunity to reflect on the fun that sport in general and rugby in particular brings."